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Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by an unknown artist after Amelia Curran, dating from before 1858. Watercolour on ivory

Lost, revolutionary Shelley poem acquired by Bodleian Libraries

The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford today have announced the acquisition of the 12 millionth book in its vast and important historic collections: a revolutionary poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Front cover of A Poetical Essay

"The poem was written as a response to Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic war and more specifically, in support of Irish journalist Peter Finnerty"

First published in 1811 but considered lost until 2006, the rediscovery of Shelley’s Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things caused a wave of excitement a decade ago but until now this recently-resurfaced literary gem has only been seen by a handful of scholars and, thus, unavailable to students, scholars and lovers of poetry

 

This special acquisition marks the 12 millionth printed book held by the Bodleian Libraries, the UK’s largest academic library service and an international resource for scholars. The purchase makes this rare poem available to scholars, students and the general public for the very first time. The text of the poem has been fully digitized and made freely available online.

The printed pamphlet containing the poem is the only known copy in existence, and was purchased by the Bodleian Libraries with the support of a generous benefactor. Its acquisition allows this important poem to stay in the UK.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian 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 possible.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest English poets of the nineteenth century, wrote Poetical Essay in autumn/winter 1810-11 during his first year at the University of Oxford and published it in 1811. The poem was written as a response to Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic war and more specifically, in support of Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who was accused of libel by the government and was imprisoned after criticising British military operations. This rediscovered work shows a young Shelley engaging with the political and social issues that coloured much of his later work. The themes addressed by Shelley in Poetical Essay – the abuse of press, dysfunctional political institutions and the global impact of war – remain as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.

Poetical Essay is substantial in content but small in format. The small, 20-page pamphlet contains a 10-page poem of 172 lines accompanied by a preface and notes from the author. The pamphlet retains its original format without covers, still stitched at the side and in a good state.

Mystery has surrounded the poem ever since it was printed by a stationers on Oxford High Street more than 200 years ago. Shelley published the pamphlet containing the poem under the anonymous alias of ‘a gentleman of the University of Oxford.’ It wasn’t until 50 years after his death that the work was attributed to Shelley, and even then, historical sources imply that it was impossible to find a copy of Poetical Essay. Little is known about the provenance of the rare copy acquired by the Bodleian apart from the fact that it was rediscovered in a private collection in 2006.

The announcement was made by Richard Ovenden at a special event on 10 November at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford. Dame Vanessa Redgrave CBE, and a friend of the Libraries, introduced the pamphlet and read the preface to the essay while a group of Oxford University undergraduate students in English Literature read the poem to an audience of more than 300 guests. To celebrate the event Professor Simon Armitage CBE, Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry, read his new translation of Book IV of Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid.

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.’

Shelley’s Poetical Essay is available to view online. It will also be on display in the Weston Library, Oxford and can be viewed until 23 December 2015. For more information about the display visit bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson.

 

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