After some backroom profiteering, Percy Shelley’s Poetical Essay: The Existing State of Things has been made public some 200 years after it was thought lost.
The 19 year old calls for a “total reform in the licentiousness, luxury, depravity, prejudice, which involves society”.
A fiery denunciation of war and oppression, the abuse of press and politics, the poem goes further, asking if “rank corruption” shall “pass unheeded by”.
It was seditious, “Let Reason mount the Despot’s mouldering throne/And bid an injured nation cease to moan.”
Shelley’s hatred of war was one of the forces that “hurt him into poetry”.
Shelley rages against the “cold advisers of yet colder kings … who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang,/Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang,/Yourselves secure.”
Shelley became an even better political poet. But it is an early statement of his political views. It was written to support Irish journalist Peter Finnerty.
Finnerty was jailed for libelling Viscount Castlereagh, the politician who was sent to Ireland in 1797 to crush the United Irishmen rebelling against British rule. Finnerty denounced Castlereagh’s repression and the conduct of the British army in the Napoleonic wars.
Shelley placed an advertisement in the local paper announcing the new work, a Poetical Essay, “for assisting to maintain in prison Peter Finnerty”, for sale “price two shillings”.
The poem was a fundraiser for a dangerous cause. That enough is reason to celebrate its publication.
Poetical Essay: The Existing State of Things