Shelley’s Irish Poem

Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Alfred Clint.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Alfred Clint.

By Julia Brodsky, Editorial Assistant
December / January 2016

A long-lost poetical pamphlet by Percy Bysshe Shelley was unveiled at the Bodleian Library in Oxford on November 10th. Shelley wrote the pamphlet, Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, in 1811 to protest Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic war and, in particular, the jailing of Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who had been accused of libel after critiquing British military operations.

Poetical Essay had been considered lost until a single copy was found in a private collection in 2006. The Bodleian Library recently acquired the copy and made it available to the public, marking the occasion with a reading of the 10-page essay by actress Vanessa Redgrave.

Journalist Peter Finnerty, whose name features more prominently in the poem than does Shelley’s (the author is noted simply as a “gentleman of the University of Oxford”), is believed to have been born in County Galway, and he was involved with the United Irishmen revolutionary movement. After the 1798 rebellion, Finnerty penned an attack on the judges who condemned members of the movement to death and was imprisoned for seditious libel. Upon his release, he emigrated to London and worked as a parliamentary reporter. His criticism of the British military action in Denmark and his condemnation of Lord Castlereagh, secretary of state for war, led to his second imprisonment in 1811.

Shelley was not Finnerty’s only supporter; there was a major campaign to raise funds in his defense, which included public meetings in Dublin and Belfast. Finnerty was released in 1813 and continued working as a journalist until his death in 1822. William Hazlitt, essayist and close friend of Finnerty’s, wrote that “he loved Ireland to the last.” ♦

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