An early poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley has unexpectedly come to light after an absence of nearly 200 years.
Shelley wrote Poetical Essay to raise funds for Peter Finnerty, the radical Irish journalist who was imprisoned for libelling the British government in his reports of the disastrous naval expedition to the Low Countries in 1809.
Despite Finnerty’s background – he was a revolutionary who had been imprisoned in 1798 in Ireland for his support for the United Irishmen – he was invited to join the expedition as an “embedded journalist”.
Today, that would be like sending John Pilger or Robert Fisk to the Middle East with the British army and then being surprised when they wrote articles critical of the war.
If journalists step out of line today they are denied access to official sources – for Finnerty, it meant 18 months in Lincoln Jail.
A fund was set up by British radicals to support him in prison. Shelley, then an 18 year old undergraduate at Oxford University, wrote the Poetical Essay to support Finnerty.
A short essay, in which Shelley denounces war and the devastation it causes, prefaces the poem. The 172 lines that follow are written in rhyming couplets in the style of the popular ballads common to the period. Shelley was writing for a popular audience, not the “fireside reformers” of the Whig establishment.
The poem is important for two reasons. Firstly, because it hints at the great lyrical poetry to come. Secondly, because it confirms Shelley as a great radical writer and bitter critic of war and intolerance, right from the beginning of his career.
His hatred of the “cold advisers of yet colder Kings” echoes the scandal of the intelligence briefing about weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq war and has a freshness that resonates down to this day. Shelley denounces the advisers who have:
The power to breathe
O’er all the world the infectious blast of death.
Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red alter lie
When legal murders swell the lists of pride;
When glory’s views the titled idiot guide.
Paul O’Brien’s Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland (£11) is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
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