Wednesday 27th July 2016


The acquisition of a unique copy of Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things is a momentous event for scholars and readers of Percy Bysshe Shelley, equally so for the Bodleian Libraries and wider communities interested in poetry and early 19th-century history.

Known to have been published in 1811 but surfacing only in 2006, this pamphlet – the Bodleian’s 12 millionth book – is, thanks to the generosity of a donor, now freely available in digitized form. The themes it addresses (the abuse of press freedom, dysfunctional political institutions and the global consequences of imperial war) are as sharply present today as they were 200 years ago.

Not even scholars of his work thought that Poetical Essay could be Shelley’s, at least publicly, until 50 years after his death. Drawing on newspaper evidence, Denis Florence MacCarthy was the first biographer to deduce a connection between Poetical Essay and his subject (in Shelley’s Early Life, London, 1872). He reasoned that the ‘very beautiful poem’ by Shelley mentioned in the Dublin Weekly Messenger of 7 March 1812, ‘the profits of the sale of which we understand, from undoubted, authority, Mr. Shelly remitted to Mr. Finerty’ (The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. I, ed. E B Murray [Oxford, 1993], p. 298), must have been Poetical Essay. This was on account of a front-page advertisement in the Oxford University and City Herald for 9 March 1811 where Poetical Essay was announced as ‘Just Published, Price Two Shillings’. It described the proceeds of publication as ‘For assisting to maintain in Prison, Mr. Peter Finnerty’. Finnerty was a journalist whose exposure of a disastrous British military expedition to Walcheren in 1809 had landed him in jail. The Finnerty connection led MacCarthy to assert that the poem’s author, styled ‘A GENTLEMAN of the University of Oxford’ in the advertisement, could be none other than Shelley.

MacCarthy’s research prompted William Michael Rossetti, editor of The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley [London, 1870], to identify two years later what may be the first public authentication of this poem as Shelley’s, in Lady Charlotte Bury’s anonymously published Diary Illustrative of the Times of George the Fourth, two volumes (London, 1838) (see The Academy, vol. VI [19 December 1874], p. 658). Bury’s work reproduced a letter of 15 March 1811 from Christ Church – whose author was later revealed to be Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (1781–1851) – asserting that ‘Shelley’s last exhibition is a Poem on the State of Public Affairs’ (vol. I, p. 60).

In his journal entry for 5 December 1872, Rossetti noted that MacCarthy had given him ‘valuable information as to the library wherein a copy of Shelley’s Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things is affirmed to exist’ (The Diary of W. M. Rossetti 1870-1873, ed. Odette Bornand [Oxford, 1977], p. 217). That but one copy was then rumoured to be extant, and that the Bodleian’s acquisition is unique, make doubtful the claim of the Dublin Weekly Messenger that the pamphlet raised for Finnerty’s benefit ‘nearly an hundred pounds’ (Prose Works, p. 298). Such a sum, as H Buxton Forman states (The Shelley Library [London, 1886], p. 21), would have required the sale of almost a thousand copies. Were this so, more than one may be expected to have survived.

The pamphlet comprises 20 pages in two consecutive gatherings of four leaves each (fols. 2–5 and 6–9), within an outer wrapper (fols. 1 and 10). It is stitched neatly with what seems to be the original, natural-coloured thread, and shows evidence of having been folded both vertically and horizontally on separate occasions. A mark of indentation in the left margin indicates that the pamphlet may at some stage have been pressed alongside other materials.

The signature on the title page is that of Pilfold Medwin (1794–1880), the youngest brother of Thomas Medwin (1788–1869) and one of the earliest of Shelley’s biographers. Pilfold and Thomas, second cousins of Shelley, were sons of Thomas Charles Medwin, a solicitor of Horsham, Sussex. It has been suggested that Pilfold, then 16 and about to begin articles in his father’s office, may have been given this copy of the pamphlet by Shelley himself in the summer of 1811. Shelley had eventually returned to the family home at Field Place, near Horsham, in May to see his father, Sir Timothy Shelley, for the first time since he and Thomas Jefferson Hogg had been sent down from University College, Oxford, on 25 March. They were expelled ‘for contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to them, and for also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication titled The Necessity of Atheism (Minutes of College Meeting, 25 March 1811, University College, Oxford, UC: GB3/A1/2 fol. 148r). Two days later, Philip Bliss, a Fellow of St John’s and then an assistant at the Bodleian, recorded the expulsion and, in what has been described as ‘[t]he earliest bibliography of Shelley’s works’, noted that Poetical Essay was ‘4º’, i.e. in quarto (B C Barker-Benfield, Shelley’s Guitar [Oxford, 1992], p. 31; Bodleian MS. Top. Oxon. e. 51, p. 161).

Shelley’s Poetical Essay page 2The second page and the colophon identify the printers as Munday and Slatter, the booksellers and printers on Oxford’s High Street whose windows and counters, Henry Slatter later recalled, Shelley ‘strewed’ with copies of The Necessity of Atheism during Hilary Term 1811 (Robert Montgomery, Oxford. A Poem [4th edition, Oxford, 1835], p. 167). It was to this firm that Sir Timothy had, according to Slatter, introduced Shelley in 1810 with the words, ‘My son here, […] has a literary turn, he is already an author, and do pray indulge him in his printing freaks’ (Montgomery, p. 165). Shelley’s father continued to encourage his son’s literary ambitions the following year, engaging James (not Edward, as Hogg states) Dallaway (1763–1834) to advise him in the composition of a poem on the subject of the Parthenon for a University competition (Letters, vol. I, p. 53; Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 volumes [London, 1858], vol. I, p. 317). One such ‘freak’, possibly referred to by Shelley in his letter to Hogg from Field Place of 11 January 1811 – with a facetious, Frenchified rendering of Slatter’s business partner’s surname – was Poetical Essay: ‘I have a Poem, with Mr Lundi which I shall certainly publish.’ This letter goes on to claim that his sister Elizabeth had a hand in the poem, which was not ready to be printed, and that he wished it to appear anonymously: ‘There is some of Eliza’s in it […] I have something to add to it & if Lundi has any idea (when he speaks to you of publishing it with my name will you tell him to leave it alone till I come . .’ (Shelley and His Circle, 1773–1822, vol II, ed. Kenneth Neill Cameron [Cambridge, Mass, 1961], p. 701).

Poetical Essay, 172 lines long and in rhyming couplets, is not the first of Shelley’s poems to condemn war. The phrase ‘legal murders’ (p 10) echoes the description of military heroes as ‘legal murderers’ in line 4 of Henry and Louisa, a Poem in two parts (dated 1809 in manuscript but not published until 1964). Like Poetical Essay though less concentratedly, Henry and Louisa depicts the repercussions of European power struggles for other continents.

Shelley was eighteen when he wrote Poetical Essay and already had experience of publishing and promoting his own writings. He had recently wooed the London publisher John Joseph Stockdale, though fell out with him by the time the poem was advertised. His novel Zastrozzi and a volume co-written with Elizabeth, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, had appeared in March and September 1810 respectively, the latter suppressed on account of a plagiarism from M G Lewis. A second novel, St Irvyne, or The Rosicrucian, which included several original poems, was published in December 1810. It had been preceded the previous month by another volume of verse, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, whose reception led Shelley to claim boldly that ‘Nothing is talked of at Oxford but Peg Nicholson, I have only printed 250 copies & expect a second edition soon’ (Letters, vol. I, p. 22). The above four publications, like The Necessity of Atheism and Poetical Essay, appeared without the author’s name, though St Irvyne, like Poetical Essay, carried the sobriquet ‘A Gentleman of the University of Oxford’.
The poem is not immediately recognizable as the ‘Satirical Poem on L’infame’ that Shelley told Hogg he was ‘composing’ in a letter from Field Place of 20 December 1810 (Bodleian MS. Abinger c. 66, fol. 3r; Letters, vol. I, p. 28). Shelley’s correspondence with his future father-in-law, William Godwin, nevertheless points to Poetical Essay having been written during the Christmas vacation of 1810–11. In a letter to him of 16 January 1812, Shelley indicates with some precision when the influence of Godwin’s most celebrated work, An Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793), became evident in his literary publications: ‘You will perceive that Zastrozzi and St Irvyne were written prior to my acquaintance with your writings. The Essay on War a little Poem, since’ (Bodleian MS. Shelley c. 1, fol. 57r; Letters, vol. I, p. 231). Frederick L Jones, editor of Shelley’s letters, assumed that ‘The Essay on War’ referred to the first, untitled poem in Margaret Nicholson, now known from its opening line as ‘Ambition, power, and avarice’ but titled ‘War’ in some collected editions (Times Literary Supplement, 4 July 1952, p. 437). It seems more likely, however, that Shelley meant the Poetical Essay, which is largely concerned with war. The chronology he supplied to Godwin fits with the date on which he ordered a copy of Political Justice from Stockdale: 19 November 1810 (Letters, vol. I, p. 21). Godwin’s treatise resonates with Poetical Essay in several ways. It describes war as ‘evil’ (1793 edition, vol. II, p. 516), critiques monarchy, discourses on virtue and could well be the source of the assertion in the preface that ‘gradual, yet decided intellectual exertions must diffuse light’ (p. 6). A notable feature of Poetical Essay may thus be that it is the first poem published by Shelley to reflect a sustained reading of Political Justice.

The Necessity of Atheism (1811), the pamphlet for which Shelley was expelled from Oxford (Bodleian Libraries, Shelley e.1(2) p. 12)
On 2 March 1811, a week before the first advertisement for Poetical Essay appeared, Shelley wrote to Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, congratulating him on his acquittal after being tried for having published on 2 September 1810 an article entitled ‘One Thousand Lashes!!’ which condemned military flogging. Addressing Hunt as ‘a common friend of Liberty‘, he concluded thus: ‘On account of the responsibility to which my residence at this University subjects me, I of course, dare not publicly to avow all that I think, but the time will come when I hope that my every endeavour, insufficient as this may be, will be directed to the advancement of liberty’ (Letters, vol. I, p. 54). Although Shelley’s undergraduate career at Oxford was terminated by the end of the month, the publication of Poetical Essay had confirmed his newly assured poetic voice. This major discovery not only expands and enhances the Shelley canon, it also offers evidence of an earlier provenance than was hitherto known for ideas developed more extensively in Queen Mab (1813) and in such celebrated later poems as The Mask of Anarchy (1819).

Michael Rossington 

Curse of Kehama


Robert Southey

Kehama is the name of a fictional Hindu rajah who obtains and sports with supernatural powers.

Preface 1811  

Percy Bysshe Shelley 

The following Poem is such, as some might conceive to demand an apology; it might appear to those, who do not consider with sufficiently accurate investigation, that its ultimate view is subversive of the existing interests of Government. A moment’s attention to the sentiments on which it is founded must demonstrate the erroneousness of this supposition. Before the system which it reprobates can be ameliorated; before that peace, which, perhaps, with greater sanguineness than certainty, every good man anticipates, a total reform in the licentiousness, luxury, depravity, prejudice, which involve society, must be effected. This reform must not be the work of immature assertions of that liberty, which, as affairs now stand, no one can claim without attaining over others an undue, invidious superiority, benefiting in consequence self instead of society; it must not be the partial warfare of physical strength, which would induce the very evils which the tendency of the following Essay is calculated to eradicate; but gradual, yet decided intellectual exertions must diffuse light, as human eyes are rendered capable of bearing it. Does not every feeling mind shrink back in disgust when it beholds myriads of its fellow-beings, whom indigence, whom persecution, have deprived of the power to exert those mental capabilities which alone can distinguish them from the brutes, subjected by nature to their dominion? Is it not an insult to the All-wise, the Omnipresent intelligence of the universe, that one man should, by the abuse of that capacity which was formed to be exerted for the happiness of his fellow-creatures, deprive them of the power to use the noblest gift which his wisdom had imparted? As there is great reason to suppose that degrees of happiness will be adjudged to each, in a future state, in proportion to the degrees of virtue which have marked the life of the individual in this; as it is self-evident that the state of probation in which we now reside, is merely a preparatory stage in which to display our energies, to fit us for a more exalted state of existence, is not the deprivation of liberty the deepest, the severest of injuries?[1] Yet this is despotism.

Jump up ↑ These ideas of a future state of rewards and punishments, it must be confessed, do not exactly coincide with those of St. Athanasius, regarding that, by which he so liberally condemns all who differ from his own opinions to eternal torture. Independent of the evident spirit of intolerating priestcraft, which this anathema displays, I have another reason for not crediting the Reverend Father. St. Chrysostom, a saint in no less repute than the above-mentioned creed-maker, has, in his admonitions to the Bishops, whilst discussing the best method of expounding the scriptures, the following passage:
“Should you meet with any part of the Bible, which either does not accord with your own sentiments, or those which you think necessary to adopt, explain it as an allegory; if then it will not bend, say that it is typical of some future event; if you find it impossible to escape thus, expound it καθ᾿ ειζονἔιαν, directly contrary.”

Poetical Essay on The Existing State of Things 

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1811

Destruction marks thee! o’er the blood-stain’d heath
Is faintly borne the stifled wail of death;
Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie.
The sternly wise, the mildly good, have sped
To the unfruitful mansions of the dead.
Whilst fell Ambition o’er the wasted plain
Triumphant guides his car—the ensanguin’d rein
Glory directs; fierce brooding o’er the scene,
With hatred glance, with dire unbending mien,
Fell Despotism sits by the red glare
Of Discord’s torch, kindling the flames of war.
For thee then does the Muse her sweetest lay
Pour ’mid the shrieks of war, ’mid dire dismay;
For thee does Fame’s obstrep’rous clarion rise,
Does Praise’s voice raise meanness to the skies.
Are we then sunk so deep in darkest gloom,
That selfish pride can virtue’s garb assume?
Does real greatness in false splendour live?
When narrow views the futile mind deceive,
When thirst of wealth, or frantic rage for fame,
Lights for awhile self-interest’s little flame,
When legal murders swell the lists of pride;
When glory’s views the titled idiot guide,
Then will oppression’s iron influence show
The great man’s comfort as the poor man’s woe.
Is’t not enough that splendour’s useless glare,
Real grandeur’s bane, must mock the poor man’s stare;
Is’t not enough that luxury’s varied power
Must cheat the rich parader’s irksome hour,
While what they want not, what they yet retain,
Adds tenfold grief, more anguished throbs of pain
To each unnumbered, unrecorded woe,
Which bids the bitterest tear of want to flow;
But that the comfort, which despotic sway
Has yet allowed, stern War must tear away.Ye cold advisers of yet colder kings,

To whose fell breast no passion virtue brings,
Who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang,
Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang,
Yourselves secure. Your’s is the power to breathe
O’er all the world the infectious blast of death,
To snatch at fame, to reap red murder’s spoil,
Receive the injured with a courtier’s smile,
Make a tired nation bless the oppressor’s name,
And for injustice snatch the meed of fame.
Were fetters made for anguish, for despair?
Must starving wretches torment, misery bear?
Who, mad with grief, have snatched from grandeur’s store,
What grandeur’s hand had snatched from them before.
Yet shall the vices of the great pass on,
Vices as glaring as the noon-day sun,
Shall rank corruption pass unheeded by,
Shall flattery’s voice ascend the wearied sky;
And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?
Is public virtue dead?—is courage gone?
Bows its fair form at fell oppression’s throne?
Yes! it’s torn away—the crimes appear,
Expiring Freedom asks a parting tear,
A powerful hand unrolls the guilt-stain’d veil,
A powerful voice floats on the tainted gale,
Rising corruption’s error from beneath,
A shape of glory checks the course of death;
It spreads its shield o’er freedom’s prostrate form,
Its glance disperses envy’s gathering storm;
No trophied bust need tell thy sainted name,
No herald blazon to the world thy fame,
Nor scrolls essay an endless meed to give;
In grateful memory still thy deeds must live.
No sculptured marble shall be raised to thee,
The hearts of England will thy memoirs be.
To thee the Muse attunes no venal lyre,
No thirsts of gold the vocal lays inspire;
No interests plead, no fiery passions swell;
Whilst to thy praise she wakes her feeble shell,
She need not speak it, for the pen of fame
On every heart has written BURDETT’S name;
For thou art he, who dared in tumult’s hour,
Dauntless thy tide of eloquence to pour;
Who, fearless, stemmed stern Despotism’s course
Who traced Oppression to its foulest course;
Who bade Ambition tremble on its throne—
How could I virtue name, how yet pass on
Thy name!—though fruitless thy divine essay,
Though vain thy war against fell power’s array,
Thou taintless emanation from the sky!
Thou purest spark of fires which never die!

Yet let me pause, yet turn aside to weep
Where virtue, genius, wit, with Franklin sleep;
To bend in mute affliction o’er the grave
Where lies the great, the virtuous, and the brave;
Still let us hope in Heaven (for Heaven there is)
That sainted spirit tastes ethereal bliss,
That sainted spirit the reward receives,
Which endless goodness to its votary gives.
Thine be the meed to purest virtue due—
Alas! the prospect closes to the view.
Visions of horror croud upon my sight,
They shed around their forms substantial night.
Oppressors’ venal minions! hence, avaunt!
Think not the soul of Patriotism to daunt;
Though hot with gore from India’s wasted plains,
Some Chief, in triumph, guides the tightened reins;
Though disembodied from this mortal coil,
Pitt lends to each smooth rogue a courtier’s smile;
Yet does not that severer frown withhold,
Which, though impervious to the power of gold,
Could daunt the injured wretch, could turn the poor
Unheard, unnoticed, from the statesman’s door
This is the spirit which can reckless tell
The fatal trump of useless war to swell;
Can bid Fame’s loudest voice awake his praise,
Can boldly snatch the honorary bays.
Gifts to reward a ruthless, murderous deed,
A crime for which some poorer rogue must bleed.
Is this then justice?—stretch thy powerful arm,
Patriot, dissolve the frightful [erratum: frigorific] charm,
Awake thy loudest thunder, dash the brand
Of stern Oppression from the Tyrant’s hand;
Let reason mount the Despot’s mouldering throne,
And bid an injured nation cease to moan.
Why then, since justice petty crimes can thrall,
Should not its power extend to each, to all?
If he who murders one to death is due,
Should not the great destroyer perish too?
The wretch beneath whose influence millions bleed?
And yet encomium is the villain’s meed.
His crime the smooth-tongued flatterers conquest name,
Loud in his praises swell the notes of Fame.
Oblivion marks the murdering poor man’s tomb,
Brood o’er his memory contempt and gloom;
His crimes are blazoned in deformed array,
His virtues sink, they fade for aye away.
Snatch then the sword from nerveless virtue’s hand,
Boldly grasp native jurisdiction’s brand;
For justice, poisoned at its source, must yield
The power to each its shivered sword to wield,
To dash oppression from the throne of vice,
To nip the buds of slavery as they rise.
Does jurisprudence slighter crimes restrain,
And seek their vices to controul in vain?
Kings are but men, if thirst of meanest sway
Has not that title even snatched away.—

The fainting Indian, on his native plains,
Writhes to superior power’s unnumbered pains;
The Asian, in the blushing face of day,
His wife, his child, sees sternly torn away;
Yet dares not to revenge, while war’s dread roar
Floats, in long echoing, on the blood-stain’d shore.
In Europe too wild ruin rushes fast:
See! like a meteor on the midnight blast,
Or evil spirit brooding over gore,
Napoleon calm can war, can misery pour.
May curses blast thee; and in thee the breed
Which forces, which compels, a world to bleed;
May that destruction, which ’tis thine to spread,
Descend with ten-fold fury on thy head.
Oh! may the death, which marks thy fell career,
In thine own heart’s blood bathe the empoisoned spear;
May long remorse protract thy latest groan,
Then shall Oppression tremble on its throne.
Yet this alone were vain; 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;
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 errors night be turned to virtue’s day.—


Vices as glaring as the noon-day sun.—See the speech of one of his Majesty’s ministers in the last Session of Parliament.—The candour of the Right Hon. Gentleman demands our admiration, his impudence has ceased to surprise us.

Oblivion marks the murdering poor man’s tomb.—It cannot be supposed that by this the Author means to justify the crimes of the indigent, but thinks that no earthly power for whatever offence, has a right to deprive an individual of that life which a will, superior to human law, entrusted to his preservation, with which intention human law ought to concur. Confinement, restriction, punishment even is necessary for the support of civilized society; but to shut the door of repentance even upon a murderer, to put an eternal termination to his usefulness in this life, to force him upon an unknown, inconceivable existence, is beyond what we can conceive to be the authority of custom. The morality, if not the necessity of war, must in course be impeached by this argument. If war then is proved to be deleterious, which I think few will deny, then those, in the identification of whom none can hesitate, ought to be deprived of the power of mischief, whose interest, whose desire it is to promote so forcible an outrage on its happiness.

Kings are but men, &c.—By Kings here the Author must be understood to mean, not merely those men who are invested with the regal authority, but also all who are entrusted with the executive part of legislation, to whom more advantages result from the station which they fill, than the consciousness of having discharged their duty for the welfare of their fellow creatures.

We cannot say with Horace “Rex ille est.”


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