Imagine discovering a new set of string quartets by the composer Beethoven. Or perhaps a large canvas by artist JMW Turner that was previously thought to be lost. In either instance, the media would have been all over it. So it is remarkable that the release to public view on 10th November of a major work by their near contemporary, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley has been met with an air of disinterest, as though it really was not worth the bother. There were brief mentions in the mainstream media (The Guardian newspaper excepted) and some excerpts read out on Radio 4. No comments by Government ministers, including Culture, Media and Sport. But this was an early work by one of this country’s most famous poets!
The work in question is Shelley’s Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things written in 1811. The only surviving copy of the poem has remained hidden from public view in private collections for 200 years. You can now read (and even download a copy) from the Bodleian Library site. So how did we finally get to read the work? Poet and ex-childrens Laureate Michael Rosen has been campaigning for the release of the work for some time. Rosen gives his thoughts about the reason for the poem’s suppression and why he campaigned to get it released in this blog post.
Man must assert his native rights, must say; We take from Monarchs’ hand the granted sway;
What about the poem itself? The Poetical Essay is a response to the perceived ills and injustices of the world around him by an 18 year old radical. It is anti-monarchist, anti-militaristic and implacably opposed to the abuses of wealth. It also contains sharp criticism of the role of the media. The thing that impresses through the 172 lines is the range and scope of the criticism. But that strength is also the source of its weakness. As John Mullen has pointed out in this comment, the targets are hidden behind abstractions. It does not deliver the punch of some of Shelley’s later works such as the sonnet England in 1819 and the poem Masque of Anarchy where the focus is on a single event, the outrage of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. Incidentally, both of these works were also suppressed until the 1830s.
Then will oppression’s iron influence show; The great man’s comfort as the poor man’s woe.
Ultimately the suppression of Poetical Essay highlights issues about our cultural values. It does contain ideas which the British establishment would regard as dangeous, even in the 21st Century. But dangerous ideas are just what a truly open society should be able to encompass and discuss, not suppress. Some issues dealt with by Shelley are directly relevant to us today. Firstly the poem was written to help raise money for Michael Finnerty who was a journalist and critical of Britains military commanders. He was imprisoned for libel. With the increasing focus on military issues can we be certain that valuable criticism of the military will not be suppressed today? Likewise, Shelley also points out that war is worse for the poor than it is for the wealthy. So was the 200 year long wait worth it? the answer is unreservedly ‘yes’. As Rosen says in this article by Alison Flood:
..the poem was full of “portable triggers, lines of political outrage for people to catch and hold”. He added: “Political writing is often like that, but in times of oppression and struggle, this is no bad thing: a portable phrase to carry with us may help us.