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.
Although Shelley refers to this poem, no copy had been found and some scholars believed that it may never have existed, or that it was confused with another poem. Denis Florence McCarthy, the author of Shelley’s Early Life (1872), believed in its existence and asked the book dealer, Bernard Quaritch, to track it down. By a strange coincidence, the firm of Bernard Quaritch announced in 2006 that a copy had been found.
But that was as far as it went. The pamphlet was displayed in the 2010 Shelley’s Ghost exhibition (Bodleian Library, Oxford) but no one could see it, much less study it. Until today, when it was revealed that it has at last been bought and donated to the Bodleian. At last, after nearly ten years, it is available to scholars, indeed to everyone as it can be downloaded.
The poem shows a greater technical competence that Shelley had shown in his earlier poems, but it also reveals his political commitment at this time, clearly articulating anti-war and anti-colonial attitudes.
‘Millions to fight compell’d, to fight and die
In mangl’d heaps on War’s red altar lie
and a ‘Chief’ is
Hot with gore with from India’s wasted plains.’
It is clear that war is worse for the poor and that the warmongers ‘who coolly sharpen misery’s sharp fang/Yourselves secure’ are the rich.
For someone who was shortly to be expelled from Oxford over a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, it shows an ambivalence on the question. Shelley is not a definite atheist when he says ‘Still let us hope in Heaven, for Heaven there is’.
To be able to have access to this poem is very enriching. I wish that it had been available when I was writing Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary as it would have supported what I was writing about Shelley’s early views. It is great that it is now in the Bodleian Library and so freely available.
Jacqueline Mulhallen wrote and performed in the plays Sylvia and Rebels and Friends. Her ground-breaking book The Theatre of Shelley (Open Book Publishers, 2010) has been internationally acclaimed. She contributed a chapter on Shelley to The Oxford Handbook to Georgian Theatre (OUP, 2014) which was shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize 2015.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary is available to buy from Pluto Press here.