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One of the Guardian Unlimited Books' top 10 literary blogs: "A home-grown treasure ... smart, serious analysis"

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Friday 21 July 2006

Why can't we read Shelley's poem?

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!

Posted by Mark Thwaite
Tags: ,

Reader Comments

Friday 21 July 2006

Michael Rosen says...

Letter just sent to Henry Woudhuysen:

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

Friday 21 July 2006

Michael Rosen says...

And charlotte street's running it too...

Friday 21 July 2006

Mark Thwaite says...

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

Friday 21 July 2006

Mark Thwaite says...

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

Friday 21 July 2006

Michael Rosen says...

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.

Friday 21 July 2006

Michael Rosen says...

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


Friday 21 July 2006

Michael Rosen says...

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!

Saturday 22 July 2006

Tim says...

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?

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Omens, after Alexander Pushkin

I rode to meet you: dreams
like living beings swarmed around me
and the moon on my right side
followed me, burning.

I rode back: everything changed.
My soul in love was sad
and the moon on my left side
trailed me without hope.

To such endless impressions
we poets give ourselves absolutely,
making, in silence, omen of mere event,
until the world reflects the deepest needs of the soul.

-- Louise Gluck
Averno (Carcanet Press)

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