“What Shelley would have given for a blog or Twitter feed.”
“Shelley’s anti-war poetry wasn’t bulletproof but it was a handy weapon
- Date November 29, 2015
A protest against war by Shelley recently resurfaced. What the poet would have given for a blog as a conduit for protest.
It was 1811, and a student at Oxford University was incensed at the jailing of a journalist, Peter Finnerty, for libel, and at England’s militarism. He decided to put his anger down on paper. He called it a Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. It led to his being expelled and the work was then lost for 195 years. It became known in 2006 that a collector had a copy but did not care to share it with the world. Until now. The Bodleian Library has announced that it now owns the essay. It is available online.
The angry student was Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was 18. The poem began:
“Destruction marks theee! o’er the blood-stain’d heath
Is faintly borne the stifled wai of death;
Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie.”
Finnerty was found guilty in the Court of the King’s Bench of libelling Lord Castlereagh, who as Chief Secretary for Ireland had been instrumental in smashing the rebellion of 1798. Finnerty publicised that Castlereagh had in his position, in effect, sanctioned the torture and oppression of the Irish. He had witness accounts of atrocities. No matter, he was jailed for 18 months.
Shelley would follow up his Poetical Essay seven years later with The Masque of Anarchy, written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of the same year. In Manchester, tens of thousands of people gathered to call for parliamentary change, but as is the way with these things the army was called in, the calvary charged, and more than a dozen protesters died and hundreds were injured. Shelley castigates the authorities while advocating non-violent resistance and the necessity of people to pursue freedom.