How Shelley’s Poetical Essay Against War Surfaced and Sank Down Again
In July 2006, headlines all over the British Commonwealth trumpeted the rediscovery of a pamphlet containing Percy Bysshe Shelley’s long poem, A Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. It was published anonymously (attributed only to “a gentleman of the University of Oxford”) in London in 1811, when Shelley was 18, just a year after he entered University College, Oxford. The pamphlet disappeared soon after its publication and is thought to have been the last straw leading to his expulsion from Oxford.
The Poetical Essay was written in response to the imprisonment of Peter Finnerty, a journalist who accompanied the disastrous British military expedition to Antwerp in 1809 and who was arrested after his newspaper accounts appeared, then sent to prison for libel after he accused Lord Castlereagh of trying to silence him. Shelley’s voice in this poem is not that of the sublime lyric poet of “To a Skylark,” but the fiery poetical orator of “Song to the Men of England”—it is anti-monarchical, anti-military, anti-war, anti-colonialism, anti-all forms of oppression.
When the pamphlet surfaced in 2006, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, commentary on the rediscovered poem in Britain and Australia focussed on its anti-war pronouncements: Calling it “Shelley’s fantastic prank” in The Times Literary Supplement, H.R. Woudhuysen quoted its chanting lines on the devastations of war:
“Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie...
When the legal murders swell the lists of pride;
When glory’s views the titled idiot guide
It is the ‘cold advisers of yet colder kings’ who have ‘the power to breathe
O’er all the world the infectious blast of death....”
But Shelley’s concerns range across all the political manifestations of oppression and across the globe, and in other parts of the former British Empire, the newly surfaced copy of the pamphlet sparked more local concerns. In India, for instance, because Lord Castlereagh was understood to represent the oppressions of British colonial rule, the focus was on that issue. And in Ireland, because Finnerty was Irish....
When the long-lost Poetical Essay was rediscovered in 2006, it was to have been sold by Quaritch Rare Books & Manuscripts in London. In 2010, tragically, it became clear that it had been sold to a new owner who had no interest in letting the rest of us read the poem: In The Guardian Books Blog, Michael Rosen complained that “The found poem is now un-found.... A Shelley poem that caused huge excitement when it was discovered four years ago remains out of bounds to everyone but the manuscript’s owner. This cannot be right.” (“Owning Manuscripts Is One Thing: Owning the Contents Is Quite Another”). And we agree. It’s a real shame that the only remaining visible scrap of the lost poem is a photograph of the pamphlet’s cover page, granted by Quaritch to the Bodleian Library/New York Public Library for their wonderful joint exhibition, Shelley’s Ghost.