The acquisition of a unique copy of Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things is a momentous event for scholars and readers of Percy Bysshe Shelley, equally so for the Bodleian Libraries and wider communities interested in poetry and early 19th-century history.
Imagine discovering a new set of string quartets by Beethoven or a large canvas by Turner that was thought to be lost. In either case, the mainstream media would have been agog, just as they were for the discovery of an original Shakespeare folio in April 2016. So it’s remarkable that the release to public view of a major work by a near contemporary of both these artists on November 10 2015—the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—was met with an air of such uninterest ( The Guardian newspaper excepted).
There were brief mentions and some excerpts were read out on BBC Radio 4, but no welcoming comments appeared from government ministers including the UK’s Minister for Culture, Media and Sport. So much for a significant early piece by one of Britain’s most revered poets.
The work in question was a pamphlet by Shelley entitled the “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things,” written anonymously in 1811 in support of Irish journalist Peter Finnerty who was imprisoned for libel after criticising the British military command during the Napoleonic Wars. Although a thousand copies of the pamphlet were printed, it is not known how successful the poem turned out to be in terms of raising money; what’s clear is that the work disappeared from view.
The Bodleian’s 12 millionth book – is, thanks to the generosity of a donor, now freely available in digitized form. The themes it addresses (the abuse of press freedom, dysfunctional political institutions and the global consequences of imperial war) are as sharply present today as they were 200 years ago.
During the 1870s, some expert detective work positively identified a surviving example of the poem as the work of Shelley. Much more recently in 2006, a single copy was re-discovered by the scholar H.R.Woudhuysen, but it was lodged in a private collection so the work remained hidden from public view.
That was the position until 2015, when this private copy was acquired by the Bodleian Library in Oxford. You can now read (and even download) a copy from the Bodleian Library website. Poet and ex-children’s Laureate Michael Rosen had been campaigning for the release of the work for some time previously. In a blog post he gave his thoughts about why, in his words, the poem had been ‘suppressed,’ and why he had campaigned to get it released to the public. Rosen argues that confusing the artistic substance of the pamphlet with the ownership of the physical artifact had meant that only a few privileged people could access the full content—a scandalous situation in his view.
Not even scholars of his work thought that Poetical Essay could be Shelley’s, at least publicly, until 50 years after his death. Drawing on newspaper evidence, Denis Florence MacCarthy was the first biographer to deduce a connection between Poetical Essay and his subject (in Shelley’s Early Life, London, 1872). He reasoned that the ‘very beautiful poem’ by Shelley mentioned in the Dublin Weekly Messenger of 7 March 1812, ‘the profits of the sale of which we understand, from undoubted, authority, Mr. Shelly remitted to Mr. Finerty’ (The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. I, ed. E B Murray [Oxford, 1993], p. 298), must have been Poetical Essay. This was on account of a front-page advertisement in the Oxford University and City Herald for 9 March 1811 where Poetical Essay was announced as ‘Just Published, Price Two Shillings’. It described the proceeds of publication as ‘For assisting to maintain in Prison, Mr. Peter Finnerty’. Finnerty was a journalist whose exposure of a disastrous British military expedition to Walcheren in 1809 had landed him in jail. The Finnerty connection led MacCarthy to assert that the poem’s author, styled ‘A GENTLEMAN of the University of Oxford’ in the advertisement, could be none other than Shelley.
MacCarthy’s research prompted William Michael Rossetti, editor of The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley [London, 1870], to identify two years later what may be the first public authentication of this poem as Shelley’s, in Lady Charlotte Bury’s anonymously published Diary Illustrative of the Times of George the Fourth, two volumes (London, 1838) (see The Academy, vol. VI [19 December 1874], p. 658). Bury’s work reproduced a letter of 15 March 1811 from Christ Church – whose author was later revealed to be Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (1781–1851) – asserting that ‘Shelley’s last exhibition is a Poem on the State of Public Affairs’ (vol. I, p. 60).
In his journal entry for 5 December 1872, Rossetti noted that MacCarthy had given him ‘valuable information as to the library wherein a copy of Shelley’s Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things is affirmed to exist’ (The Diary of W. M. Rossetti 1870-1873, ed. Odette Bornand [Oxford, 1977], p. 217). That but one copy was then rumoured to be extant, and that the Bodleian’s acquisition is unique, make doubtful the claim of the Dublin Weekly Messenger that the pamphlet raised for Finnerty’s benefit ‘nearly an hundred pounds’ (Prose Works, p. 298). Such a sum, as H Buxton Forman states (The Shelley Library [London, 1886], p. 21), would have required the sale of almost a thousand copies. Were this so, more than one may be expected to have survived.
The pamphlet comprises 20 pages in two consecutive gatherings of four leaves each (fols. 2–5 and 6–9), within an outer wrapper (fols. 1 and 10). It is stitched neatly with what seems to be the original, natural-coloured thread, and shows evidence of having been folded both vertically and horizontally on separate occasions. A mark of indentation in the left margin indicates that the pamphlet may at some stage have been pressed alongside other materials.
The signature on the title page is that of Pilfold Medwin (1794–1880), the youngest brother of Thomas Medwin (1788–1869) and one of the earliest of Shelley’s biographers. Pilfold and Thomas, second cousins of Shelley, were sons of Thomas Charles Medwin, a solicitor of Horsham, Sussex. It has been suggested that Pilfold, then 16 and about to begin articles in his father’s office, may have been given this copy of the pamphlet by Shelley himself in the summer of 1811. Shelley had eventually returned to the family home at Field Place, near Horsham, in May to see his father, Sir Timothy Shelley, for the first time since he and Thomas Jefferson Hogg had been sent down from University College, Oxford, on 25 March. They were expelled ‘for contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to them, and for also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication titled The Necessity of Atheism (Minutes of College Meeting, 25 March 1811, University College, Oxford, UC: GB3/A1/2 fol. 148r). Two days later, Philip Bliss, a Fellow of St John’s and then an assistant at the Bodleian, recorded the expulsion and, in what has been described as ‘[t]he earliest bibliography of Shelley’s works’, noted that Poetical Essay was ‘4º’, i.e. in quarto (B C Barker-Benfield, Shelley’s Guitar [Oxford, 1992], p. 31; Bodleian MS. Top. Oxon. e. 51, p. 161).
The second page and the colophon identify the printers as Munday and Slatter, the booksellers and printers on Oxford’s High Street whose windows and counters, Henry Slatter later recalled, Shelley ‘strewed’ with copies of The Necessity of Atheism during Hilary Term 1811 (Robert Montgomery, Oxford. A Poem [4th edition, Oxford, 1835], p. 167). It was to this firm that Sir Timothy had, according to Slatter, introduced Shelley in 1810 with the words, ‘My son here, […] has a literary turn, he is already an author, and do pray indulge him in his printing freaks’ (Montgomery, p. 165). Shelley’s father continued to encourage his son’s literary ambitions the following year, engaging James (not Edward, as Hogg states) Dallaway (1763–1834) to advise him in the composition of a poem on the subject of the Parthenon for a University competition (Letters, vol. I, p. 53; Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 volumes [London, 1858], vol. I, p. 317). One such ‘freak’, possibly referred to by Shelley in his letter to Hogg from Field Place of 11 January 1811 – with a facetious, Frenchified rendering of Slatter’s business partner’s surname – was Poetical Essay: ‘I have a Poem, with Mr Lundi which I shall certainly publish.’ This letter goes on to claim that his sister Elizabeth had a hand in the poem, which was not ready to be printed, and that he wished it to appear anonymously: ‘There is some of Eliza’s in it […] I have something to add to it & if Lundi has any idea (when he speaks to you of publishing it with my name will you tell him to leave it alone till I come . .’ (Shelley and His Circle, 1773–1822, vol II, ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron [Cambridge, Mass, 1961], p. 701).
Poetical Essay, 172 lines long and in rhyming couplets, is not the first of Shelley’s poems to condemn war. The phrase ‘legal murders’ (p 10) echoes the description of military heroes as ‘legal murderers’ in line 4 of Henry and Louisa, a Poem in two parts (dated 1809 in manuscript but not published until 1964). Like Poetical Essay though less concentratedly, Henry and Louisa depicts the repercussions of European power struggles for other continents.
Shelley was eighteen when he wrote Poetical Essay and already had experience of publishing and promoting his own writings. He had recently wooed the London publisher John Joseph Stockdale, though fell out with him by the time the poem was advertised. His novel Zastrozzi and a volume co-written with Elizabeth, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, had appeared in March and September 1810 respectively, the latter suppressed on account of a plagiarism from M G Lewis. A second novel, St Irvyne, or The Rosicrucian, which included several original poems, was published in December 1810. It had been preceded the previous month by another volume of verse, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, whose reception led Shelley to claim boldly that ‘Nothing is talked of at Oxford but Peg Nicholson, I have only printed 250 copies & expect a second edition soon’ (Letters, vol. I, p. 22). The above four publications, like The Necessity of Atheism and Poetical Essay, appeared without the author’s name, though St Irvyne, like Poetical Essay, carried the sobriquet ‘A Gentleman of the University of Oxford’.
The poem is not immediately recognizable as the ‘Satirical Poem on L’infame’ that Shelley told Hogg he was ‘composing’ in a letter from Field Place of 20 December 1810 (Bodleian MS. Abinger c. 66, fol. 3r; Letters, vol. I, p. 28). Shelley’s correspondence with his future father-in-law, William Godwin, nevertheless points to Poetical Essay having been written during the Christmas vacation of 1810–11. In a letter to him of 16 January 1812, Shelley indicates with some precision when the influence of Godwin’s most celebrated work, An Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793), became evident in his literary publications: ‘You will perceive that Zastrozzi and St Irvyne were written prior to my acquaintance with your writings. The Essay on War a little Poem, since’ (Bodleian MS. Shelley c. 1, fol. 57r; Letters, vol. I, p. 231). Frederick L Jones, editor of Shelley’s letters, assumed that ‘The Essay on War’ referred to the first, untitled poem in Margaret Nicholson, now known from its opening line as ‘Ambition, power, and avarice’ but titled ‘War’ in some collected editions (Times Literary Supplement, 4 July 1952, p. 437). It seems more likely, however, that Shelley meant the Poetical Essay, which is largely concerned with war. The chronology he supplied to Godwin fits with the date on which he ordered a copy of Political Justice from Stockdale: 19 November 1810 (Letters, vol. I, p. 21). Godwin’s treatise resonates with Poetical Essay in several ways. It describes war as ‘evil’ (1793 edition, vol. II, p. 516), critiques monarchy, discourses on virtue and could well be the source of the assertion in the preface that ‘gradual, yet decided intellectual exertions must diffuse light’ (p. 6). A notable feature of Poetical Essay may thus be that it is the first poem published by Shelley to reflect a sustained reading of Political Justice.
On 2 March 1811, a week before the first advertisement for Poetical Essay appeared, Shelley wrote to Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, congratulating him on his acquittal after being tried for having published on 2 September 1810 an article entitled ‘One Thousand Lashes!!’ which condemned military flogging. Addressing Hunt as ‘a common friend of Liberty‘, he concluded thus: ‘On account of the responsibility to which my residence at this University subjects me, I of course, dare not publicly to avow all that I think, but the time will come when I hope that my every endeavour, insufficient as this may be, will be directed to the advancement of liberty’ (Letters, vol. I, p. 54). Although Shelley’s undergraduate career at Oxford was terminated by the end of the month, the publication of Poetical Essay had confirmed his newly assured poetic voice. This major discovery not only expands and enhances the Shelley canon, it also offers evidence of an earlier provenance than was hitherto known for ideas developed more extensively in Queen Mab (1813) and in such celebrated later poems as The Mask of Anarchy (1819).
The range and scope of his criticism is impressive, including a keen censure of the role of the media. Going way beyond simple anti-monarchism, the introduction to the poem reveals a subtle understanding of the kind of secular republican society that Shelley desires. For example, he states that:
“This reform must not be the work of immature assertions of that liberty, which, as affairs now stand, no one can claim without attaining over others an undue, invidious superiority, benefiting in consequence self instead of society.”
In this passage he correctly identifies the problem of equating liberty with an unrestrained personal freedom—what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin labeled as “positive liberty” in the 1950s. This remains a central concern of republicanism today. Likewise he warns clearly about the dangers of violent revolution in advancing the cause of egalitarianism:
“…it must not be the partial warfare of physical strength, which would induce the very evils which the tendency of the following Essay is calculated to eradicate; but gradual, yet decided intellectual exertions must diffuse light, as human eyes are rendered capable of bearing it.”
Interestingly, Shelley uses the words “patriot” and “patriotism” three times in the body of the poem. On each occasion he makes it clear that the duty of a patriot is to attempt to shine a light on the corruption and secrecy that surrounds autocratic government. For example:
“And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?”
But this range of criticism is, ironically, also a source of weakness in the work. As John Mullen pointed out in The Guardian, Shelley’s targets are hidden behind abstractions. The poem doesn’t deliver the punch of some of his later works such as the sonnet “England in 1819”, and the poem “Masque of Anarchy,” where the focus is on a single event—the outrage of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. Interestingly, both of these works were also suppressed until the 1830s.
Was the public’s 200 year long wait for the poem worthwhile? For me the answer is ‘yes’, once I had become accustomed to the language and phrasing that Shelley uses. As Rosen says in this article by Alison Flood:
“…the poem was full of ‘portable triggers, lines of political outrage for people to catch and hold’. He added: ‘Political writing is often like that, but in times of oppression and struggle, this is no bad thing: a portable phrase to carry with us may help.’”
Ultimately, the concealment of Shelley’s Poetical Essay highlights a number of important contemporary issues about the values of our own society, including the rights of possession and access to important cultural artefacts.
Undoubtedly, the pamphlet contains explosive ideas which the British establishment might continue to regard as dangerous. It would be crass and superficial not to acknowledge that the situation in which Shelley found himself in 1811 is very different from the one we inhabit in the second decade of the 21st Century. Yet in some respects the poet would be depressed to see how certain aspects of social and political life have barely changed.
First, the poem was written to help raise money for a journalist—Finnerty—who was critical of Britain’s military commanders and who was imprisoned for libel as a result. With the increasing focus on military issues in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere can we be sure that important criticisms of the military are not being similarly gagged today? Note how the failures of the British Army in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, for example, have been suppressed, including those highlighted by servicemen who were directly involved. News continues to be managed and the opinions of pacifist ex-servicemen are still marginalised.
Second, a central concern of Shelley and other critics in 1811 was the way in which the poor were made to bear the costs of military activity, while the glory and spoils of war were garnered by the establishment. What would his poem say if it were to be written today about the commitment of the UK government to spend two per cent of GDP on the military, or to give tax cuts to the wealthy, or to protect trusts and tax havens while cutting disability benefits, some of which affect ex-servicemen?
Finally, Shelley’s concern with the methods by which society can be moved from a position where privilege holds power to one where power is distributed throughout society and held accountable is just as real today. But here he runs into the same problems as everyone else who is seeking radical change.
Shelley claimed that the actions he was proposing in his pamphlet did not infringe on the interests of Government, but this was surely naive. Taking power from those who possess it is itself a revolutionary act. He needed to have looked no further than recent history (for him) in the form of the American Revolution for confirmation of this fact.
As Shelley put it in his poem:
How to achieve peaceful and lasting change in modern societies remains an unanswered question, and one that’s ripe for fresh action and inspiration. Dangerous ideas from poets are just what a genuinely open society should be able to encompass and discuss, not conceal, ignore or suppress.