A poem by the radical romantic poet Percy Shelley is now on display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, after being lost for 200 years. It passionately confirms the extent of Shelley’s political convictions. Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of the new biography Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary discusses the importance of this fiery, combative poem Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things.
In 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley, then a student at Oxford, wrote a poem, A Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, as part of a campaign to support an Irish journalist, Peter Finnerty, in an English prison. Finnerty’s offence was to write an expose of the incompetence of the commanders of a British military expedition, intended to block the French fleet, in which 20,000 lives were lost from typhoid in the fever marshes of Walcheren. Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War, had ordered the expedition and Finnerty’s article also referred to Castlereagh’s role in the savagely brutal putting down of the 1798 Irish Rising. Finnerty was jailed for two years and was badly treated. Sir Francis Burdett, a radical MP who had exposed conditions in Cold Bath Fields Prison, London, launched a campaign in Finnerty’s support with the help of the radical newspaper, The Examiner. The Oxford University and City Herald, described as a ‘very liberal’ newspaper with a large circulation in the south of England, followed suit. Its publishers advertised Shelley’s poem to help with the fund-raising. It is said to have raised nearly £100, a large sum of money since the pamphlet cost 2 shillings, but of course many supporters may have added a donation.