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Rediscovered: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Poetical Essay Against War

By July 15, 2006

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Headlines all over the British Commonwealth this week are trumpeting the rediscovery of a pamphlet containing Shelley’s long poem, published anonymously in 1811, which disappeared soon after its publication and is thought to have been the last straw leading to his expulsion from Oxford University. The Poetical Essay was written in response to the imprisonment of Peter Finnerty, a journalist who accompanied the disastrous British military expedition to Antwerp in 1809 and who was arrested after his newspaper accounts appeared, then sent to prison for libel after he accused Lord Castlereagh of trying to silence him. Scholars have searched for Shelley’s pamphlet in vain for nearly 200 years—now that it has surfaced, it is being sold by Quaritch antiquarian booksellers. In Britain and Australia, commentary on the rediscovered poem is focusing on its anti-war pronouncements. In India, because Lord Castlereagh is understood to represent the oppressions of British colonial rule in India, the focus is on that issue.

from The Times Literary Supplement (UK):
Shelley’s fantastic prank,” by H.R. Woudhuysen
“It ranges over the 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:

“Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie...
When the 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....’

“....The Quaritch copy of the Poetical Essay is all the more remarkable for its unexpected emergence and for the insights a full study of it will give into Shelley’s development as a poet and political thinker.”

More on Lost Poems Rediscovered:
Found: Dorothy Parker’s “Pollyanna A Trio of New Poems by Langston Hughes (February 2009)
A New Poem by William Shakespeare (April 2007)
A Robert Frost Poem Handwritten and Hidden Away: “War Thoughts at Home” (September 2006)
An Ancient Poem Carved in Stone (September 2006)
A New Sappho Poem Comes to Light (June 2005)
“And Yet”... A New Philip Larkin Poem Comes to Light After a Half Century Lost in the Library (August 2004)

Poems of War and Peace:
Poems for Peace, an About Poetry Anthology
Poems of War, a Collection of Classic War Poems


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