November 13, 2015
Long lost—and angry! —Shelley poem found after 200 years
by Kait Howard
Not long after news broke that the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford had acquired a lost poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the library’s website crashed.
It has been long acknowledged that as an 18-year-old university student, Shelley published a lengthy political poem, but no copies were known to exist. In 2006, in a remarkable twist, the pamphlet emerged from a private collection, but was kept from the eyes of all but a few scholars. Now, the Bodleian Libraries have purchased the poem for an undisclosed sum, and have released a scan of the original for public viewing.
The new poem— “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” —was written during Shelley’s first year at Oxford in the fall and winter of 1810. According to Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden, it was intended “as a response to Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic war” and as a statement in support of Irish journalist and member of the United Irishmen, Peter Finnerty, who was imprisoned after criticizing British military operations. Shelley dedicated the work to Finnerty, and the poem’s title sheet announces that proceeds from the sale of the pamphlet would go to Finnerty’s aid.
Coming in at 172 lines and composed in pentameter rhyming couplets, the poem shows Shelley’s early literary promise, and seems a fitting prequel to The Necessity of Atheism, the tract for which he was expelled from Oxford in March of 1811.
Shelley, who rails against “cold advisers of yet colder kings,/ To whose fell breast no passion virtue brings,” seems to have come to the conclusion that poetry should not only take a stance on moral questions, but should react to the political issues of the day, albeit in more general terms. While lines like “Are we then sunk so deep in darkest gloom,/ That selfish price can virtue’s garb assume,” could just as easily be applied to current conflicts, the poem is also telling about Shelley’s specific political views. As John Mullen noted in The Guardian:
“Shelley aficionados have proclaimed its relevance to our own ‘existing state of things,’ but in truth it is a document of its times. Its title echoes the title of William Godwin’s novel Things As They Are and its creed is taken from the political philosophy of the man who was to become his father-in-law. (Godwin’s daughter was the future Mary Shelley.)”
Actress Vanessa Redgrave, an admirer of Shelley, read part of the poem for BBC News, noting that Shelley “considered himself to be—and rightly so—a patriot.”
It is extremely rare for a centuries-old work by a major poet such as Shelley to be to unearthed and presented to the public for the first time, but the American media have been surprisingly quiet about the news. Perhaps it will take some time to digest the ten new pages of Shelley that are finally available to all.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.