A radical journalist reports on the horrors of war in the national press, and finds himself imprisoned for his words. A young, impressionable writer is moved by the incident to write a stirring poem that criticizes the nation”s national policies and calls for The young man publishes his poem and sells copies of it to support the defense of the imprisoned journalist, and as a result is expelled from his university class. If it all sounds like the plot to a modern novel or movie of the week – guess again.
In 1809, Peter Finnerty was invited to join a British military expedition which ended in disaster. Nearly 4,000 men lost their lives, and Finnerty reported on the horrors of that expedition in a series of reports to the Morning Chronicle. Those reports led to his arrest, and to his being sentenced to 18 months in Lincoln Gaol for libel. The case evoked widespread interest and a fundraising campaign to “maintain the journalist in prison”.
Among those who stepped up to contribute to that fund was a young man in his second term at University College – Percy Bysshe Shelley. A 20 page pamphlet consisting of a preamble against the war and a 172 line poem appeared in the shop windows and on the streets, selling for two shillings per copy, with the funds pledged to the maintenance of Mr. Finnerty in Prison. The pamphlet was published under the name of “a Gentleman of the University of Oxford“, but it was well-known among Shelley”s friends and contemporaries that he was the author.
While the story of the pamphlet is well-known among Shelley scholars – it was advertised for sale in the newspapers of the time, and those adverts carried a reproduction of the title page of the pamphlet – the booklet itself has not been seen since 1811, when it was published. Some theorized that Oxford University stopped the publication of the pamphlet, or that the press to which Shelley took it for publication refused to print it until the account was paid in full – but no one is quite sure just what happened to all the copies of the pamphlet. The sole surviving copy which has just turned up was apparently given to the seventeen year old younger brother of a friend of Shelley”s by the poet himself, and bears his signature.
Scholars are thrilled with the chance to study an early work by Shelley, to see some of the forces that shaped both the poet and the man. I personally am as enthralled by the story itself, and by the few stirring lines of Shelley”s poem that have been reprinted in today”s edition of The Times Literary Supplement
Shelley was 19 when those lines were written. The entire poem is believed to have been a collaboration between the poet and his sister Elizabeth, and to have been “the nail in the coffin” that led to his expulsion from the University, along with another of his writings. Those writings have been called by some “pranks” – but I see a young man, impassioned by righteous indignation against injustice, trying to make a difference with a tool that he knows how to use – his words. In that, he did what poets since ancient times have done and continue to do today – protest, illuminate, inform, enlighten, entertain and inflame.