Last week, the TLS reported that a 20-page pamphlet with a 172-line poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which no-one has read since 1811, has recently come to light ("the Poetical Essay is ... 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.")

Professor Henry R Woudhuysen, Professor of English at UCL, reproduces a few lines of the poem in the TLS, but why don't we get to read the whole thing?

Man must assert his native rights, must say
We take from Monarchs’ hand the granted sway;
Oppressive law no more shall power retain,
Peace, love, and concord, once shall rule again,
And heal the anguish of a suffering world;
Then, then shall things which now confusedly hurled,
Seem Chaos, be resolved to order’s sway,
And error’s night be turned to virtue’s day –

The writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen has written to me saying:

It seems to me incredible that a major poem has been found by a major poet and we can't read it. This is the poem that almost certainly got Shelley chucked out of Oxford. It is also a clear example of an anti-imperialist poem by a writer when it's often been stated, by Edward Said no less, that none of the liberal or left writers ever distanced themselves from the British Empire. As it happens, Ernest Jones did on many occasions, but Shelley clearly did in this poem if the extracts are anything to go by.

Can we please start a little enquiry as to why this poem is being held back from public view? Presumably so that someone can make some money out of it!

Readers Comments

  1. Michael Rosen Friday 21 July 2006

    Letter just sent to Henry Woudhuysen:

    Dear Henry
    If you've read the newly discovered Shelley poem, why can't we?

  2. Michael Rosen Friday 21 July 2006

    And charlotte street's running it too...

  3. And I've written to (Quaritch are the rare books seller that are selling the manuscript.)

    Good afternoon,

    My name is Mark Thwaite and I am the managing editor
    of the UK's largest independent
    literary website.

    I'm writing to enquire about Shelley's "Poetical
    Essay" about which many us read of in the Times
    Literary Supplement last week.

    My very many readers and I, like tens of thousands of
    readers throughout the world, would love to read this
    poem. Shall we be allowed to do so and soon?

    I am very keen to know when and where was it
    re-discovered and who, so far, has been permitted to
    read it?

    Vitally, I would like to know why the poem has not
    (yet?) been made available on the internet for all
    scholars and readers. Are there immediate plans to do
    this? If not, why not? (If you have nowhere to host
    it, ReadySteadyBook would happily publish it online,
    or set up a separate site for just the poem/pamphlet

    I look forward to hearing back from you at your
    earliest convenience.

    best regards

    Mark Thwaite

  4. Quaritch have just got back to me saying:

    Dear Mr. Thwaite,

    Thank you for your enquiry. I am afraid that the text of Shelley's
    Poetical Essay will not be available until the poem has been sold, and
    then it will be the decision of the buyer how to make it public in a
    responsible manner. Sorry if this is disappointing, but I have filed your message to pass on when the book is sold.

    Yours sincerely,

    T.M. Hofmann

  5. Michael Rosen Friday 21 July 2006

    Oh that's hysterical. I love it. A poem written two hundred years ago, 'belongs' to someone who is 'selling' it. These people are obscene. May they be consumed by book worms and suffocated with worm detritus.

  6. Michael Rosen Friday 21 July 2006

    And now this:

    Dear Michael

    I have read it, but only very quickly. The answer to your question is, I suppose, that Quaritch own the only known copy, they presumably want to to sell it and think it would be best (from their and a potential purchaser's point of view) if they don't let it be published at the moment. The rights and wrongs of that are another matter - but I was only the messenger, as it were.

    Best wishes


  7. Michael Rosen Friday 21 July 2006

    At this very moment and as a consequence of this poem being tied to one piece of paper, it has become in its entire existence a commodity - unlike a poem at a reading or in a book that you could borrow from a library, which breaks away from its commodity status. So in its present state, it has become viewable only by someone who by some quirk of fate is its owner, co-opted 'see-ers' like HW who can surround the poem with the correct metalanguage and the appropriate mediation, thereby recuperating Shelley.

    It is utterly against the spirit and intention of Shelley himself and HW's part in it, to my mind, confirms my worst suspicions of the academic world when it comes anywhere near this kind of 'property'.

    Free the Shelley One! Free the Shelley One!

  8. As I understand it, the government can place restrictions on the sale of important works of art (to stop them leaving the country, etc). I see no reason why the Shelley poem shouldn't be classified thus. Could they not just insist on a condition of publication of the content, whatever happens to the piece of paper itself. Seems much easier, and cheaper than trying to keep the Three Graces in Britain.

    Anyone with a first-hand knowledge of heritage law know whether this is feasible? Or, incidentally whether Tessa "My favourite film is Pretty Woman" Jowell has ever heard of Shelley?

  9. Can anyone tell me what has eventually happened regarding the Shelley poem?
    Thanks in anticipation
    Mick Cox

  10. I think things are still as they were ... but I'll go and do some digging!

  11. I'd be interested to know if there have been any developments with regard to this "rediscovered" Shelley text. Does anybody know what became of it?



  12. Michael Rosen Saturday 17 July 2010

    I've started to dig again. I thought I'd start at the TLS. I sent them a letter, reminding us of the discovery and the ensuing silence. Abrupt note back from the TLS, telling me that Woudhuysen had replied to me on this. I sent back explaining that that was four years ago. TLS then said that I should write to Quaritch. I pointed out that I had done that four years ago. I then got a letter back saying 'We want to know if the poem's any good or not.' I wrote back explaining that that was beside the point, for the reasons above. To date, the TLS hasn't published the letter. I also tried to sell a Radio 4 programme on the idea. No success. I've just tried sending an article to the Guardian books blog. That's pending while they try to find out where the poem is.

    I'm amazed that folks don't get the point of principle here. The poem was written 200 years ago. Why does it 'belong' to any one person? It should belong to all of us, but we're not even allowed to have the text of the poem, let alone a facsimile of it!


  13. Michael Rosen Monday 19 July 2010

    Same thing happening with the Kafka manuscripts. It's an outrage that because manuscripts and rare printed documents can be owned, it then means that the literature on these documents etc, can be owned too. And yet we all know that they can be reproduced without affecting who owns the manuscript. When it's a new manuscript, or a recent piece of writing, I can understand why authors and even their estates might want to make a penny or two out of restricting access, but with Shelley and Kafka we're talking about authors who've been dead for decades.

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