Shelley's poetical essay

The Bodleian Libraries' 12 millionth book


Textual annotations prepared by Dr Nicholas Halmi, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Oxford

p. 1 (title page)

Epigraph: Robert Southey, The Curse of Kehama (1810), book 11, lines 109–12. On 2 December 1810 Shelley wrote to Stockdale that he was ‘curious to see’ Southey’s poem, and on 18 December he asked Stockdale to send it to him ‘in case [it] has yet appeared’ (Letters, ed. Frederick Jones [Oxford, 1964], vol. I, pp. 24, 25). The book was published around 21 December (The Curse of Kehama, ed. Daniel Sanjiv Roberts, vol. IV of Poetical Works 1793–1810 [London, 2004], p. xxvi). On 11 June 1811 Shelley described The Curse of Kehama in a letter to his friend Elizabeth Hitchener as his ‘most favorite poem’ (Letters, vol. I, p. 101).

Peter Finnerty: Irish journalist and republican (c. 1766–1822). In 1809, when he was a war correspondent for The Morning Chronicle, Finnerty was arrested and transported back to England because of his critical reports on the Walcheren Expedition (July–December 1809), in which the British army tried to create a Dutch front in the war against France but was forced to retreat from Walcheren after thousands of soldiers died of disease. The following year Finnerty accused Lord Castlereagh (Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, later Marquess of Londonderry, 1769–1822), who had been Secretary of State for War in 1809, of having tried to suppress his Morning Chronicle reports. In February 1811 Finnerty was tried for libelling Castlereagh, convicted, and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. On 2 March, a week before the Poetical Essay was advertised in the Oxford Herald, Shelley contributed a guinea to a public subscription for Finnerty.

p. 3 (Dedication)

Harriet Westbrook (1795–1816), the daughter of a successful coffee-house owner and in 1810 a pupil at the same Clapham girls’ school as Shelley’s sisters, one of whom, Mary, introduced her to Percy in January 1811 (see James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography [Baltimore, 2008], pp. 110–11, 114). On 11 January 1811 Shelley asked Stockdale to send Westbrook a copy of his novel St. Irvyne (Letters, vol. I, p. 40). In August 1811, a few weeks after Harriet’s 16th and Percy’s 19th birthday, they eloped to Scotland, marrying in Edinburgh on the 29 August.

p. 5 (Preface)

Epigraph: Juvenal, Satires 1.1–2: ‘shall I, so often attacked, never repay in kind?’

pp. 6–7 (note)

Athanasius: St Athanasius (c. 296–373), bishop of Alexandria and violent polemicist against Arianism, a doctrine that denied the full divinity of Christ as Son of God. Shelley referred to Athanasius similarly in letters written around the probable time of the composition of the Poetical Essay: once to Thomas Jefferson Hogg on 20 December 1810 (Letters, vol. I, p. 28), and once to his father, Timothy Shelley, on 6 February 1811 (Letters, vol. I, p. 51). Shelley’s knowledge of Athanasius probably derived from Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89), chap. 21, to which he also refers in the letter to his father.

St. Chrysostom: St John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), bishop of Constantinople. No such passage has been located in Chrysostom’s writings, and it is possible that Shelley invented the quotation. In fact Chrysostom taught that scripture should be regarded as allegorical only when it provided its own interpretation of the allegory (In Isaiam 5.3). The Greek phrase, more correctly κατ᾽ εἰρωνείαν, means ‘dissemblingly’ or ‘ironically’.

p. 9

War’s red altar: Apart from the period 25 March 1802 to 18 May 1803 (the so-called Peace of Amiens), Britain had been at war with France continuously since 20 April 1792. In 1809 alone British forces suffered heavy losses not only in the Walcheren Expedition but also in the Battle of Talavera, outside Talavera de la Reina, Spain (27–8 July). The war was to end only in November 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

p. 13

BURDETT’s name: Sir Francis Burdett (1770–1844), Whig MP for Westminster and outspoken advocate for political reform, who was confined in the Tower of London from 9 April to 21 June 1810 for having breached parliamentary privilege in criticising the exclusion of reporters from the House of Commons debates about the Walcheren Expedition. Shelley had dedicated his poem The Wandering Jew (composed in 1810) to Burdett ‘in consideration of the active virtues by which both his public and private life is so eminently distinguished’.

p. 14

Franklin: Benjamin Franklin (1706–90), American printer, author, scientist, diplomat, and one of the five drafters of the American Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. In a letter of 6 February 1811 to his father, Shelley included Franklin among a list of distinguished deists (Letters, vol. I, p. 51).

Some Chief: probably a reference to the British general Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738–1805), who as Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of colonial India (1786–93) led British and East India Company forces in the Third Anglo-Mysore War (1789–92) against Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the southern Indian Kingdom of Mysore. In 1794 Cornwallis returned to Britain and 4 years later was appointed Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief of Ireland, where he oversaw the British government’s military and judicial response to the rebellion of 1798 (with Castlereagh assisting him as Acting Chief Secretary of Ireland) and led the defeat and capture of a small force of French invaders in Kallala Bay, County Mayo, in August 1798.

Pitt: William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806), twice prime minister (1783–1801 and 1804–6), widely reviled in politically radical circles for his government’s measures against political assembly and publication and repeated suspension of habeas corpus after the outbreak of war with France – measures that increased in severity in 1795, when a poor harvest and sharp rises in corn prices produced social unrest. Shelley may have meant impervious to the power of gold in two senses: that Pitt did not use his position to enrich himself (although he was unsympathetic to the poor), and that his government introduced paper currency in England in 1797 (to enable the Bank of England to make overseas payments more easily and to prevent a run on county banks during scares of a French invasion).

p. 17

Napoleon: Napoléon Bonaparte (1744–1821), French general and politician who, having joined the French Revolutionary army in 1792 and commanded it in Italy in 1796, rapidly consolidated his political power, becoming First Consul in 1799, Consul for Life in 1802, and the first Emperor of the French in 1804. By early 1811 Napoleon controlled most of continental Europe and had not yet suffered a major defeat on European soil. On 27 December 1812, when news of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia was reaching England, Shelley was to write Thomas Jefferson Hogg, ‘Buonaparte is a personage to whom I have a very great objection, he is to me a hateful & despicable being. [. . .] Excepting Lord Castlereagh, you could not have mentioned any character but Buonaparte whom I contemn & abhor more vehemently’ (Letters, I, pp. 345-6).

p. [19] (Notes)

one of his Majesty’s ministers: Shelley may refer to a debate of 13–14 June 1810 in the House of Commons about the financial regulation of the Admiralty Courts, whose registrar was Charles George Perceval, Lord Arden (1756–1840), older brother of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval (1762–1812). Admitting that Arden received £7,000 annually in interest payments on securities held by the Admiralty, the Prime Minister, who was himself the reversionary heir to his brother’s sinecure, ‘professed himself always averse to the disturbance of vested rights in places of this nature’ (The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time, ed. T. C. Hansard, vol. XVII [London, 1812], col. 651).

“Rex ille est”: ‘That is the king.’ This phrase does not appear in Horace’s writings. The closest phrase that Horace uses, ‘idem rex ille’ (‘That same king’), in Epistles 2.1.237, refers to Alexander the Great and makes a very different point from Shelley’s: namely that Alexander, although insisting on having the best painters and sculptors represent himself, was content to have a poor poet, Choerilus, write him flattering verse. Shelley may be misremembering a phrase from Horace’s Satires 1.3.132–3, which is closer in spirit to argument about kings in the Poetical Essay: ‘sapiens operis sic optimus omnis | est opifex, solus sic rex’ (‘thus the wise man is the best workman in all things, thus he alone is the king’).

p. [20] (Errata)

frigorific: a figurative use of this word, whose literal meaning is ‘producing cold, freezing’ (OED). Shelley used the unusual word also in his Gothic novel Zastrozzi (1810), chap. 14: ‘A frigorific torpidity of despair chilled every sense.’