‘…is not the deprivation of liberty the deepest, the severest of injuries?’
In November 2015 the Bodleian Libraries acquired its 12 millionth printed book: a unique copy of a pamphlet entitled Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, written by ‘a Gentleman of the University of Oxford’ and printed in 1811. The pamphlet was the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), then a student at Oxford University, and now recognised as one of the great English poets of the 19th century. The acquisition is a momentous event for the public, for scholars, the University and the Bodleian Libraries. Known to have been published by Shelley in 1811 but lost until recently, Shelley’s Poetical Essay is, thanks to the generosity of a benefactor, now freely available to all in digitized form.
The Bodleian Libraries are extremely grateful to Mr Brian Fenwick-Smith and Mr Antonio Bonchristiano for their generous support of this project.
The poem, written for the support of an Irish journalist imprisoned for libel, shows a young Shelley engaging with the political and social issues that coloured much of his work. The themes Shelley addresses in Poetical Essay (the abuse of press freedom, dysfunctional political institutions and the global impact of war) preoccupied him throughout his career, and are as sharply present today as they were 200 years ago.
Shelley’s poem has escaped. For the past nine years, his “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” has been held in private hands, not freely available. Some context: in 1811 Shelley was 18, at Oxford, when an Irish journalist, Peter Finnerty, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for libelling the secretary of state for war, Lord Castlereagh. Finnerty’s articles revealed the horrors of a war against the French in the Netherlands and accused Castlereagh of trying to silence him. The case caused a stir, a campaign was kicked off by Sir Francis Burdett and Shelley wrote the 172-line “Poetical Essay” in praise of Burdett as a fundraiser for Finnerty. It appeared on 2 March 1811, then disappeared from view until July 2006, when Professor HR Woudhuysen announced in the TLS that the poem had “come to light”.
The problem was that it only came to light for Woudhuysen, the owner of the poem and a handful of people permitted to read it. I campaigned for the poem’s release, unsuccessfully trying to raise the ire of the Eng Lit community, or the interest of the BBC. The Guardian, to its credit, reported the situation in full.
On 10 November it was announced that the Bodleian Library had acquired the poem and made it available to all. It’s an agitprop poem, doing precisely what agitprop aims to do: agitate and propagandise. This is, the kind of poetry that fits more within political discourse than with concerns of personal relationships, observations on nature or slippages in language. Streams of abstract nouns are personified: on the first full page of the poem alone, we meet “Despotism”, “Discord”, “Fame”, “Praise”, “pride”, “virtue”, “self-interest”, “oppression”, “splendour”, “grandeur” and “luxury”. This is the branch of romanticism that heaped praise through poetry not only on the freedoms to be found in nature, but also on political freedom. Aged 18, Shelley put himself in the tradition of the poetry of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1791) and Coleridge (1798) condemning the slave trade, and Wordsworth acclaiming the Haitian revolution (1802). It’s a poem full of hatred of war, imperialist cruelty and despotic power. It yearns for a better world: “Freedom requires / A torch more bright to light its fading fires; / Man must assert his native rights, must say / We take from Monarchs’ hand the granted sway”. Dangerously seditious stuff.