A long-lost political poem by the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is going on show in full for the very first time, at the Bodleian. Published in 1811, during his first year at Oxford, it has only ever read by a handful of people since it was printed.
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley painted by Amelia Curran in Rome in 1819
By Olivia Williams
The Bodleian Library has announced the acquisition of the 12 millionth book: a revolutionary poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. His Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things was first published in 1811 but only rediscovered in 2006. Until now this long-lost literary gem has only been seen by a handful of scholars.
The poem, Poetical Essay, is a revolutionary, anti-war poem that the young Shelley wrote whilst at Oxford
The printed pamphlet now at the Bodleian is the only known copy in existence. It was purchased with the support of a generous benefactor. Its acquisition allows this important poem to stay in Britain. Here it will takes its place among the world’s greatest collections of Shelley works and manuscripts.
The Bodleian's purchase makes this rare poem available to scholars, students and the general public for the very first time. The text of the poem has been fully digitised, and made freely available online here: poeticalessay.bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Actress Vanessa Redgrave, an admirer of Shelley's work, performed part of the poem
Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian commented: ‘The mission of a great library like the Bodleian is to preserve and manage its collections for the benefit of scholarship and to put knowledge into the hands of readers of all kinds. We will be preserving this remarkable work for ever, and making available online a lost work by one of the greatest poets of all time. We are extremely grateful to the generous donors who made this acquisition and our website possible.’
The poem was printed by a stationer on Oxford High Street, under the alias of 'a gentleman of the University of Oxford'
Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest English poets of the nineteenth century, wrote Poetical Essay in Michaelmas of 1810, his first term at Oxford, and published it in 1811. The poem was written as a response to Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic war and more specifically, in support of Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who was accused of libel by the government and was imprisoned after criticising British military operations. This rediscovered work shows a young Shelley engaging with the political and social issues that coloured much of his later work. The themes addressed by Shelley in Poetical Essay – the abuse of press, dysfunctional political institutions and the global impact of war – remain as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.
Poetical Essay is substantial in content but small in format. The small, 20-page pamphlet contains a 10-page poem of 172 lines accompanied by a preface and notes from the author. The pamphlet retains its original format without covers, still stitched at the side and in a good state.
Sketches of sailing boats by Shelley completed in 1822, also part of the Bodleian's collection
Mystery has surrounded the poem ever since it was printed by a stationers on Oxford High Street more than 200 years ago. Shelley published the pamphlet containing the poem under the anonymous alias of ‘a gentleman of the University of Oxford.’ It wasn’t until 50 years after his death that the work was attributed to Shelley, and even then, historical sources imply that it was impossible to find a copy of Poetical Essay. Little is known about the provenance of the rare copy acquired by the Bodleian apart from the fact that it was rediscovered in a private collection in 2006.
‘This is a tremendously exciting moment,’ said Michael Rossington, Professor of Romantic Literature at the University of Newcastle. ‘This substantial poem has been known about for years but as far as we know it hasn’t been read by any Shelley biographers or scholars since it was composed, and people are intrigued to find out exactly what it’s about. The poem is very interesting because it marks a new stage in Shelley’s development as a poet, revealing his early interest in the big issues of his day and his belief that poetry can be used to alter public opinion and effect change.’
This announcement was made by Bodley’s Librarian, Richard Ovenden, at a special event on 10 November to reveal the new acquisition held at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford. Dame Vanessa Redgrave CBE, and a friend of the Libraries, introduced the pamphlet and read the preface to the essay while a group of Oxford University undergraduate students in English Literature read the poem to an audience of more than 300 guests. To celebrate the event Professor Simon Armitage CBE, Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry, read his new translation of Book IV of Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid.
Vanessa Redgrave CBE, said: ‘I first read Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy when I was very young. He is intoxicating to read. His words transport you. I’m thrilled that, thanks to the Bodleian and its generous donors, this long lost poem of Shelley’s can be studied by students all over the world.’
Shelley’s Poetical Essay will also be on display in the Weston Library, Oxford and can be viewed until 23 December 2015. For more information about the display visit www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson.
A brief biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) was born in Field Place, the family home in Sussex, and educated at Eton College. He entered University College Oxford in 1810, but was expelled in 1811 after publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. He then eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook and for the next three years engaged in radical politics and lived in various parts of Britain. In 1813 he privately distributed his first major poem, Queen Mab. In 1814 he met and eloped with the 16-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. They married soon after Harriet’s suicide in 1816.
In 1816 Shelley and Mary spent time with Lord Byron in Geneva and visited the Alps, a visit which inspired Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc. In 1818 Shelley published his longest poem, The Revolt of Islam. Later that year he and Mary left England for good and moved to Italy, living in various cities and towns including Rome, Florence and Pisa, and spending more time with Byron. In Italy Percy Shelley wrote a series of masterpieces including Prometheus Unbound, Julian and Maddalo, Epipsychidion and Adonais; shorter poems such as ‘To a Skylark’ and ‘Ode to the West Wind’; and his greatest prose work, A Defence of Poetry. He drowned off the Italian coast on 8 July 1822. His body was cremated and his ashes buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.
Above right: Shelley's pamplet, The Necessity of Atheism, printed in 1811 while Shelley was an undergraduate at University College, led to Shelley being expelled.
About the Bodleian’s collections of Shelley materials
The Bodleian Library holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Shelley’s works and manuscripts, as well as those of writers in his family and his literary circles. For further resources, including digitised works see:
- · Shelley’s Ghost: a 2011 Bodleian exhibition bringing together the collections of the Bodleian Libraries and the New York Public Library to explore the lives and work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk
- · The Shelley-Godwin Archive: an online archive will bring together the digitized manuscripts of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. The archive, created brings together the collections based on a partnership between the New York Public Library and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, in cooperation with Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the S-GA will also include key contributions from the Huntington Library, the British Library, and the Houghton Library. In total, these partner libraries contain over 90% of all known relevant manuscripts. Shelleygodwinarchive.org.
- · William Godwin’s Diary: a digital edition of the diary of William Godwin (1756–1836) from the Bodleian’s Abinger Collection godwindiary.bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Shelley-related collections in the Bodleian Libraries (please note that special permission may be required to access them):