Bodleian acquires lost Shelley poem

The Bodleian Libraries have bought a lost poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, marking their 12 millionth book.

The poem was published in 1811 when Shelley was in his first year at Oxford, but remained lost until 2006. This is the only copy of the poem in existence and was written shortly before he was expelled from Oxford.

The 20-page pamphlet entitled ‘Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things’ contains a 10-page poem of 172 lines with both a preface and notes from the author himself. This pamphlet, which was printed by stationers on Oxford High Street over 200 years ago, will also be available online for free for the public.

The poem begins: “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.” It goes on to address issues of the dysfunctional political institutions, the global impact of war and the abuse of the press.

After the copy of the pamphlet was rediscovered, having believed to have been lost to fire, a London book dealer held possession of it until the Bodleian acquired it. Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, announced this news at the Weston Library on Tuesday evening. The actress and political activist Vanessa Redgrave read its preface, while Oxford students read the poem itself.

The price of the pamphlet remains confidential, but Cherwell understands it was purchased with the support of a benefactor.

Ovenden said, “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. Through acquiring our 12 millionth book, ‘Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things,’ 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.”

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Michael Rossington, Professor of Romantic Literature at the University of Newcastle stated, “This is a tremendously exciting moment. 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.”

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.”

The poem was written in response to Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars and in support of Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who was accused of libel by the government and was imprisoned after criticising British military operations.

In the same year as writing this poem, he was expelled from Oxford after refusing to deny he had written a pamphlet called ‘The Necessity of Atheism’.

In Ovenden’s speech on Tuesday evening, he also said, “Our 12 millionth book was thought lost for 200 years. It was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, an Oxford undergraduate, a twenty year-old who had already, somewhat precociously, been published as a novelist and poet.

“Although from a privileged background, he held strong moral principles like political freedom, the freedom of the press, the horrors of war, and the injustices that war and tyranny bring to the lives of ordinary people. His views on religion were radical enough to get him thrown out of Oxford. This young, passionate, brilliant undergraduate took the manuscripts of his latest poem a few hundred yards up the High Street from his college rooms at Univ to the printing firm Munday and Slatter, where it was printed and placed in their shop window.

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“All of this transpired in the spring of 1811, a few short weeks before Shelley would be expelled from his college and from his university – and the stock of this book lost – probably through an act of deliberate destruction.

“This young man would however, rise above these misfortunes and become one of the most famous and influential poets of all time, one whose work is still studied, read, enjoyed and which remains a source of inspiration today.”

The poem will be on display at the Weston Library until 23 December, the online version is available at poeticalessay.bodleian.ox.ac.uk.