In July 2006, the scholar H.R.Woudhuysen was in a position to publish an article ("A Shelley pamphlet come to light") about a poem that had 'disappeared' for nearly 200 years but was at this moment (2006) 're-discovered'. It was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley under the title "A Poetical Essay". It was described as "On the Existing State of Things...for Assisting to Maintain in Prison Mr. Peter Finnerty, Imprisoned for a Libel". Advertisements for the poem appeared in the press in March 1811.
Excuse now a mass of names and details but it will help give a context.
The historic moment was a point at which Europe was convulsed by wars. In the kind of British history I was taught, it was useful to talk of these as caused by Napoleon but it's more rational to talk of them as struggles for dominance in Europe and across the European powers' empires and dominions in the rest of the world.
The immediate wars and battles that gave rise to Shelley's poem were: 'The War of the Fifth Coalition' and the 'Walcheren Campaign'.
This is wikipedia's description of that war:
"The War of the Fifth Coalition, fought in the year 1809, pitted a coalition of the Austrian Empire and the United Kingdom against Napoleon's French Empire and Bavaria. Major engagements between France and Austria, the main participants, unfolded over much of Central Europe from April to July, with very high casualty rates. Britain, already involved on the European continent in the ongoing Peninsular War, sent another expedition, the Walcheren Campaign, to the Netherlands in order to relieve the Austrians, although this effort had little impact on the outcome of the conflict. After much campaigning in Bavaria and across the Danube valley, the war ended favourably for the French after the bloody struggle at Wagram in early July."
And this is wikipedia's description of the Walcheren Campaign:
"The Walcheren Campaign was an unsuccessful British expedition to the Netherlands in 1809 intended to open another front in the Austrian Empire's struggle with France during the War of the Fifth Coalition. Around 40,000 soldiers, 15,000 horses together with field artillery and two siege trains crossed the North Sea and landed at Walcheren [in present-day Holland] on 30 July. This was the largest British expedition of that year, larger than the army serving in the Peninsular War in Portugal. The Walcheren Campaign involved little fighting, but heavy losses from the sickness popularly dubbed "Walcheren Fever". Over 4,000 British troops died (only 106 in combat) and the rest withdrew on 9 December 1809.
The British troops soon began to suffer from malaria; within a month of seizing the island, they had over 8,000 fever cases. The medical provisions for the expedition proved inadequate despite reports that an occupying French force had lost 80% of its numbers a few years earlier, also due to disease.
In all, the British government spent almost £8 million on the campaign. Along with the 4,000 men that had died during the campaign, almost 12,000 were still ill by February 1810 and many others remained permanently weakened. "
So, how do we get from here to Peter Finnerty - the person mentioned in the advertisement for Shelley's poem?
In 1809 the naval officer Sir Home Popham had invited Finnerty, a radical Irish journalist and supporter of the United Irishmen, to join him on that expedition.
Woudhuysen takes up the story:
"Finnerty’s reports on these events in the Morning Chronicle led to his arrest and transportation back to England. In January 1810 he accused Lord Castlereagh of trying to silence him and compounded the offence by repeating accusations against the politician about the abuse of United Irish prisoners in 1798.
Finnerty was tried for libel in February 1811 and sentenced to eighteen months in Lincoln Gaol. It was not the first time he had gone to prison as a result of clashing with Castlereagh: he had previously spent two years in prison in Dublin for printing a seditious libel and had been made to stand in the pillory. This second libel case was reported in great detail and Finnerty’s plight attracted widespread support, prompting a debate during the summer in the House of Commons and a public subscription, initiated by Sir Francis Burdett, which reached Pounds 2,000 on his release. Among those who contributed to a fund to maintain the journalist while he was still in prison was Percy Bysshe Shelley, then an undergraduate at Oxford in his second term at University College. His name appears in a list of four subscribers, each pledging a guinea, printed in the Oxford University and City Herald on March 2, 1811"
So, this "Poetical Essay" was written as a fund-raiser for Peter Finnerty.
It appeared as a 20-page pamphlet, dedicated to "HARRIET W-B-K" who is Harriet Westbrook, the woman he 'eloped with' in August 1811.
If we lived in a rational and just society, what would now follow would be a full text of the poem and, if I was up to it, my thoughts on it. But this isn't possible because the poem is 'in private hands'. As that 'rediscovered' copy is the only known copy in existence, it is entirely up to the owners as to whether the rest of the world is allowed to see it. Because we live in a world where the laws of property prevail over everything, it's thought rational and just that we are not allowed to see the full text of the poem. So, what follows is a digest of the meagre fare that we, the public, have been allowed to see. In short, it's a digest of what Woudhuysen was allowed to give, or chose to give, in his article of 2006.
The pamphlet has a “Preface”, in which Shelley calls for “a total reform in the licentiousness, luxury, depravity, prejudice, which involve society”, not by warfare, which he denounces, but by “gradual, yet decided intellectual exertions”.
Then comes the poem which is made up of 172 lines of rhyming couplets.
The subject matter of the poem includes: devastations of war, the fearless voice of Sir Francis Burdett, the iniquities of Castlereagh, the tyranny of Napoleon and the oppressions of colonial India.
"Rather than remaining focused on Finnerty and Ireland, Shelley is concerned with England and the war," Woudhuysen writes.
He quotes from the poem:
"Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie . . .
When 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”.
Burdett is the hero of the poem and Castlereagh, with his “Vices as glaring as the noon-day sun”, its principal but unnamed target. As former President of the Board of Control and Colonial Secretary, Castlereagh stands for the iniquities of British rule in India:
“The fainting Indian, on his native plains,
Writhes to superior power’s unnumbered pains”
while in Europe, Napoleon is like an “evil spirit brooding over gore”.
Shelley’s concluding vision is of the virtuous reign which the overthrow of monarchy will bring:
"Man must assert his native rights, must say
We take from Monarchs’ hand the granted sway;
Oppressive law no more shall power retain,
Peace, love, and concord, once shall rule again,
And heal the anguish of a suffering world;
Then, then shall things, which now confusedly hurled,
Seem Chaos, be resolved to order’s sway,
And error’s night be turned to virtue’s day-"
[I, (MR) can't be 100% sure of the punctuation and layout here - nor whether there are some lines missing from within this extract.]
Even though these are just glimpses, we can feel Shelley's rage here and some nicely spat-out phrases emerge: 'legal murders', 'titled idiot', 'cold advisers of yet colder kings', 'unnumbered pains', 'a suffering world'. It's not the poetry of contemplative metaphor, subtle ambiguity, internal monologue. It's the poetry of agitation, urgency and anger. It's in that halfway house between drama, journalism, speechifying and verse. Far too often, in the books of criticism, this kind of poetry is dismissed as 'propaganda' or 'soap-box' and the like. This misses the point. Poetry can do many different things in different ways. It can move towards or borrow the voices of other areas of language-use (other forms of 'discourse', if you like). I am always bemused as to why people who object to this kind of poetry might well be quite happy to listen to a political speech or read a column in a newspaper which uses similar language similar to the language of this poem. This is poetry wearing these kinds of clothes for this particular outing. In the right place at the right time, this could and would do its job: support or engage our indignation over the matter of, say, arbitrary rule and wanton death.
I hope that people hearing Maxine Peake's reading of "The Masque of Anarchy" get a sense of that. As John Mullan explained in the Guardian the other day, that great revolutionary poem didn't see the light of day for a good few years after the Peterloo Massacre for which it was written. Interestingly and valuably, the "Poetical Essay" appeared in the eye of the storm. I haven't yet been able to piece together how successful it was in raising money for Finnerty. We might also ask how 'successful' it was in aiding such matters as the overthrow of the arbitrary rule of 'titled idiots', British rule in Ireland and India and the winning of a society based on peace, love, concord and virtue. In truth, we shall never know. The British had to leave India - not before causing devastation, famine and death. The British have left most of Ireland - not before embroiling themselves with many dirty wars. Titled idiots don't get power simply by being titled idiots but people like Jeremy Paxman have shown how some very old networks of power run through the British ruling class. Put it this way, if you were on hand at the dissolution of the monasteries you're probably still doing OK. The future society that Shelley was dreaming of? Only happened in that woolly Olympics sort of a way. When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, and there is, say the bankers' casino writing off of trillions, then 'concord' is replaced by 'austerity'. Obviously, poor people must pay for rich people's policies. Obviously.
Anyway, around the time of the publication of the poem, Shelley was expelled ('sent down') from University College, Oxford. It's been thought that this was largely or entirely for his writing of an essay, "The Necessity of Atheism". Scholars haven't yet decided whether this "Poetical Essay" was a contributing factor to his explosion.
By reading this blog, you are reading the only words that we the public have so far been allowed to see. Since the publication of Woudhuysen's article, I've tried in various ways to cause a stink about the squirrelling away of the poem: two letters to the Times Literary Supplement trying to rouse the serried ranks of Eng Lit scholars to fight for the release of the Shelley One. Response: zilch. I've written several times to the Guardian who have printed the letters and an article on Comment is Free. Response: zilch. I've tried to get a radio programme and a TV film commissioned either as stand-alones or as part of a series looking at the long and absurd story of the ownership and privatisation of literature. Response: unsuccessful.
So where is the poem, who's got it and why?
As Woudhuysen explained in his article, the poem emerged from some kind of private collection or library to be sold by the antiquarian booksellers Bernard Quaritch. I assumed that the first buyers would be the British Library, if not the Bodleian Library, if not - given its link to Ireland - the National Library of Ireland. Either these libraries weren't interested or they didn't have the dosh that Quaritch and/or the original owners wanted for it. You and I might guess what sort of price this might be - 20 grand? 50 grand? And secondarily, we might ask why would that be too much for one of these great national libraries to get hold of and make universally available a work by one of the country's foremost poets.
Needless to say, I find all this sickening and ironic. Any day of the week, we are regaled with self-congratulatory crap about how we live in a free country, ideas circulate freely, our politicians, our justice system and our press safeguard free speech, Britain has been at the forefront of the establishment of the rule of law, democracy and tolerance etc etc. As it happens, I'm someone who thinks that all these claims and statements are only partially true, usually contingent on such matters as 'well, it all depends on which part of Britain's rule you're living under" or 'well there's never been democracy and freedom when it comes to control over the resources of the earth or the products and services that spring from our hands and brains' or "there's hardly much freedom or democracy when it comes to the moment of declaring or justifying war"...and so on.
However, there are times - particularly tucked away in the corridors and rooms of universities you can kid yourself that these freedoms are absolute. With this episode, I do have to say it's a matter of 'kidding' myself. There is only one law that prevails here: "he who owns, hides". This isn't just a matter of crazy selfishness. We might imagine the owner in some kind of megalomaniac trance, poring over the pamphlet screaming, "All mine, all mine!" Tempted though I am by this gothic image, I have to concede it misses the point.
There is only one point. The owner of the pamphlet wants to make a buck. He's waiting for the value to go up. He's invested a few grand in it. He wants that pile to come back - with interest. For that to happen, he must not and cannot let us see the whole poem and circulate it.
Now, if this was a poem about the beauties of gold, the necessity of torture, the glories of mammon - it would all fit rather nicely. But - and I hardly need to say it - this is a poem about the cruelty of war, the arbitrary power of monarchy and a wish that a world could be ruled by peace, love, concord and virtue. More specifically, Shelley puts himself as one of the tiny few poets in the history of English literature who opposed the setting up of what we now call the 'British Empire'. The great critic Edward Said was wont to complain that English Literature had no voices that opposed this Empire, opposed colonial rule in India or opposed the imposition of slavery and genocide on millions of people. He wasn't 100% correct - even on the knowledge available to him in his own life: the Chartist poet Ernest Jones had words on the matter. Even so, we can see here that Shelley had strong words - and in the true spirit of solidarity, campaigning and struggle put the poem at the service of a fight for - yes - the freedom of speech! Yet, we are not free to read the poem. We must wait till its value rises and one of our libraries finds the money to buy it.
The owner of the poem is in fact Bernard Quaritch. The booksellers bought the poem from the person or persons who so happened to find the pamphlet in their collection.