An incendiary lost poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in which the young poet attacks the “cold advisers of yet colder kings” who “coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang … regardless of the poor man’s pang”, was made public for the first time in more than 200 years on Tuesday.
Shelley was just 18 and in his first year at Oxford University when he wrote his Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. The 172-line poem, accompanied by an essay and Shelley’s notes, was written in support of the Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who had been jailed for libelling the Anglo-Irish politician Viscount Castlereagh.
Printed in 1811 by a stationers on Oxford High Street, under the alias of “a gentleman of the University of Oxford”, it was only attributed to Shelley 50 years after his death, when copies were already said to be impossible to find. The work was considered lost until it was rediscovered in a private collection in 2006, and has only been viewed by a handful of scholars since.
Now the 20-page printed pamphlet – the only known copy of the text in existence – has been acquired by the Bodleian Library for an undisclosed sum. The library has digitised the text to make it available to the general public for the first time. It will display the physical copy, which is the 12 millionth book to join its collections, until December.
The themes Shelley addresses, said Oxford as it made its announcement, “remain as relevant today as they were 200 years ago”. Michael Rossington, professor of Romantic literature at the University of Newcastle, said it was a “tremendously exciting” moment, with the poem revealing Shelley’s “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 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,” said Rossington.
In the poem, Shelley calls for “a total reform in the licentiousness, luxury, depravity, prejudice, which involve society”.
A fiery denunciation of war and oppression, the abuse of press and dysfunctional political institutions, his poem goes even further, asking if “rank corruption” shall “pass unheeded by”, mourning how “Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die / In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie”. He also fulminates against the “cold advisers of yet colder kings … who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang, / Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang, / Yourselves secure.”
The poet and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen, who hasagitated for the poem to be made public since it was rediscovered in 2006, said that at times in the poem Shelley strays close to sedition, despite the young writer’s assertion at the start that the poem is not “subversive of the existing interests of Government”.
“It was dangerous of Shelley to write that ‘Man must assert his native rights, must say / we take from Monarchs’ hand the granted sway’”, said Rosen.
“The poem has great topicality for now with its mention of ministers supporting war and foreign oppression … Edward Said was at pains to point out that he couldn’t find any objection to colonialism and imperialism in English literature. Here it is. Shelley spends a good few lines on pointing out the oppression of British imperialism in India,” said Rosen, highlighting how Shelley writes that “The fainting Indian, on his native plains, / Writhes to superior power’s unnumbered pains.”
Rosen pointed out that the poem also sees Shelley write of government advisers, “To whose fell breast no passion virtue brings”, who have the power to “breathe / O’er all the world the infectious blast of death”, and to “Make a tired nation bless the oppressor’s name”.
“Even as Lynton Crosby comes up with yet another phrase to sustain this government in power (‘we must live within our means’), this poem appears. Wonderful reminder that ’twas ever thus,” said the poet.
Rosen said 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 us.”
Shelley was expelled from Oxford after publishing his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. He would go on to elope with Harriet Westbrook, the 16-year-old to whom the Poetical Essay is “most respectfully inscribed”. In 1813, he privately published his poem Queen Mab, eloping the next year with the 16-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. In 1818, Shelley and Mary moved to Italy, where he wrote works including Prometheus Unbound, To a Skylark, The Masque of Anarchy – a scathing response to the Peterloo massacre – and A Defence of Poetry, the great prose work in which he argues that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.
“This is someone who from a young age – he wrote the [Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things] when he was 18 – in spite of his position in the class system, chose to champion the poor, the exploited, the oppressed and the victimised,” said Rosen. “Shelley at this point is not a revolutionary. He is demanding ‘reform’. In particular to bring to an end ‘licentiousness, luxury, depravity, prejudice’ and this will be brought about by ‘gradual, yet decided intellectual exertions’. However, he sees that the poor afflicted by ‘indigence’ and ‘persecution’ are ‘deprived of the power to exert those mental capabilities which alone can distinguish them from the brutes’. To do so is ‘despotism’.”