Saturday, July 15, 2006

"When glory’s views the titled idiot guide..."

Percy Bysshe Shelley is mainly remembered as a romantic poet. Yet a newly discovered poem underscores his reputation as a radical writer--he was expelled from Oxford in large part for "repeatedly declining to disavow a publication entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’"--and a bitter critic of war and empire.

In the Times Literary Supplement H. R. Woudhuysen tells the story of the poem that some doubted ever really existed:

In 1809 the controversial naval officer Sir Home Popham invited Peter Finnerty, a radical Irish journalist and supporter of the United Irishmen, to join him on the British expedition to the Scheldt: its object was to attack Antwerp, then held by the French. Although Flushing fell, a large number of troops succumbed to a form of malaria on the island of Walcheren and the expedition ended in disaster with the deaths of around 4,000 men. Finnerty’s reports on these events in the Morning Chronicle led to his arrest and transportation back to England. In January 1810 he accused his “ancient enemy” Lord Castlereagh of trying to silence him and compounded the offence by repeating accusations against the politician about the abuse of United Irish prisoners in 1798. Finnerty was tried for libel in February 1811 and sentenced to eighteen months in Lincoln Gaol. It was not the first time he had gone to prison as a result of clashing with Castlereagh: he had previously spent two years in prison in Dublin for printing a seditious libel and had been made to stand in the pillory. This second libel case was reported in great detail and Finnerty’s plight attracted widespread support, prompting a debate during the summer in the House of Commons and a public subscription, initiated by Sir Francis Burdett, which reached £2,000 on his release. Among those who contributed to a fund to maintain the journalist while he was still in prison was Percy Bysshe Shelley, then an undergraduate at Oxford in his second term at University College. His name appears in a list of four subscribers, each pledging a guinea, printed in the Oxford University and City Herald on March 2, 1811. A week later the journal carried an advertisement for a Poetical Essay, “Just published, Price Two Shillings”; it was described as “On the Existing State of Things . . . for Assisting to Maintain in Prison Mr. Peter Finnerty, Imprisoned for a Libel” and was “by a Gentleman of the University of Oxford”. Similar advertisements for the book appeared in the national press, in The Morning Chronicle (on March 15 and 21) and in The Times (on April 10 and 11).
Only recently has a copy of that pamphlet been discovered.

The poem which follows consists of 172 lines of rhyming couplets.

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 legal murders swell the lists of pride;
When glory’s views the titled idiot guide.

Click here to read the entire article at the TLS.

Paul O'Brien, author of Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland, has another take on the newly discovered poem in The Guardian.

--Marshal Zeringue