'Lost' Shelley poem is 12 millionth Bodleian acquisition | University of Oxford
Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Bodleian Libraries

'Lost' Shelley poem is 12 millionth Bodleian acquisition

The Bodleian Libraries today announced the acquisition of the 12 millionth book in its vast and important historic collections: a revolutionary poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley that was first published in 1811 but was considered lost until 2006.

The rediscovery of Shelley’s Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things caused a wave of excitement a decade ago but until now this recently-resurfaced literary gem has only been seen by a handful of scholars and, thus, unavailable to students, scholars and lovers of poetry.

This special acquisition marks the 12 millionth printed book held by the Bodleian Libraries, and makes this rare poem available to scholars, students and the general public for the very first time. The text of the poem has been fully digitized and made freely available online via a dedicated website.

The printed pamphlet containing the poem is the only known copy in existence, and was purchased by the Bodleian Libraries with the support of a generous benefactor. Its acquisition allows this important poem to stay in the UK where it will become part of one of the world’s greatest collections of Shelley works and manuscripts, housed at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian said: ‘The mission of a great library like the Bodleian is to preserve and manage its collections for the benefit of scholarship and to put knowledge into the hands of readers of all kinds.

'Through acquiring our 12 millionth book, Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, we will be preserving this remarkable work for ever, and making available online a lost work by one of the greatest poets of all time. We are extremely grateful to the generous donors who made this acquisition and our website possible.’  

Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest English poets of the nineteenth century, wrote Poetical Essay in autumn/winter 1810-11 during his first year at the University of Oxford and published it in 1811. The poem was written as a response to Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic war and more specifically, in support of Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who was accused of libel by the government and was imprisoned after criticizing British military operations.

This rediscovered work shows a young Shelley engaging with the political and social issues that coloured much of his later work. The themes addressed by Shelley in Poetical Essay – the abuse of press, dysfunctional political institutions and the global impact of war – remain as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.

Poetical Essay is substantial in content but small in format. The small, 20-page pamphlet contains a 10-page poem of 172 lines accompanied by a preface and notes from the author. The pamphlet retains its original format without covers, still stitched at the side and in a good state.

Mystery has surrounded the poem ever since it was printed by a stationers on Oxford High Street more than 200 years ago. Shelley published the pamphlet containing the poem under the anonymous alias of ‘a gentleman of the University of Oxford.’

It wasn’t until 50 years after his death that the work was attributed to Shelley, and even then, historical sources imply that it was impossible to find a copy of Poetical Essay. Little is known about the provenance of the rare copy acquired by the Bodleian apart from the fact that it was rediscovered in a private collection in 2006.

‘This is a tremendously exciting moment,’ said Michael Rossington, Professor of Romantic Literature at the University of Newcastle. ‘This substantial poem has been known about for years but as far as we know it hasn’t been read by any Shelley biographers or scholars since it was composed, and people are intrigued to find out exactly what it’s about.

'The poem is very interesting because it marks a new stage in Shelley’s development as a poet, revealing his early interest in the big issues of his day and his belief that poetry can be used to alter public opinion and effect change.’

This announcement was made by Bodley’s Librarian, Richard Ovenden, at a special event on 10 November to reveal the new acquisition held at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford. 

Dame Vanessa Redgrave CBE, and a friend of the Libraries, introduced the pamphlet and read the preface to the essay while a group of Oxford University undergraduate students in English Literature read the poem to an audience of more than 300 guests.

To celebrate the event Professor Simon Armitage CBE, Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry, read his new translation of Book VI of Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid. 

Vanessa Redgrave CBE, said: ‘I first read Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy when I was very young. He is intoxicating to read. His words transport you. I’m thrilled that, thanks to the Bodleian and its generous donors, this long lost poem of Shelley’s can be studied by students all over the world.’

Shelley’s Poetical Essay is available to view online. This special website includes a digitized version of the poem alongside the fully transcribed text that is available to download and has been encoded with Extensible Markup Language (XML). The website also provides information and video interviews about the poem and its history.

Shelley’s Poetical Essay will also be on display in the Weston Library, Oxford and can be viewed until 23 December 2015. For more information about the display visit the Bodleian's website.