Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Lost P. B. Shelley Poem Acquired by the Bodleian

In my access and outreach work I often tell potential applicants to Oxford about our wonderful Bodleian Library, and one fact that I like to reel off is that the library holds well over 11 million books. Well, this week marks a significant milestone, as the library has just acquired its 12 millionth book! And not just any book - the latest acquisition is a long-lost poem by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The pamphlet, 'Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things', was printed by Shelley in 1811, but scholars had long since considered it lost. The copy now in the Bodleian was found in a private collection in 2006 and was purchased with the help of a benefactor for an undisclosed sum.

Composed in the autumn and winter of 1810-11 when Shelley was an undergraduate at Oxford, the 172-line poem was written in support of an Irish journalist, Peter Finnerty, who had been imprisoned for libel. The poem is anti-war, and considers the abuse of press freedom and dysfunctional political institutions. Written in rhyming couplets, the text is attributed to 'A Gentleman of the University of Oxford' and is dedicated to 'Harriet W-B-K' (Harriet Westbrook, who subsequently eloped with Shelley).

I was extremely pleased to hear that the Bodleian has digitised the pamphlet and made the images available for anyone to view for free at a special dedicated website. This website also contains biographical information about Shelley, detailed background information about the text, two short videos, notes to the poem by Dr Nicholas Halmi, and links to further resources.

As Stephen Hebron - a curator at the Bodleian - explains in one of the short films featured on this site, pamphlets were 'a way of getting your opinion across' before the days of blogging and Twitter feeds. The poem is full of youthful passion and conviction, talking of 'legal murders' and those who lie in 'manged heaps' on 'War's red altar'.

The pamphlet will be on public display in the Weston Library until 23 December 2015.

Further details about the discovery of this text can be found here and information on viewing the pamphlet at the Weston library can be found here.

1 comment: