Long-lost work by Horsham poet Shelley snapped up by world-famous library


A revolutionary poem by the Horsham-based artist Percy Bysshe Shelley has been bought by the University of Oxford.

The rare work - first published anonymously in 1811 - was considered lost until 2006.

But now it has become the 12 millionth book acquired by the university’s vast Bodleian Library and is to be shared with the world.

Shelley was born at Field Place in Broadbridge Heath on August 4 1792 and died in Italy just before his 30th birthday. He was married to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

The rediscovery of Shelley’s Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things caused a wave of excitement a decade ago but until now the newly-resurfaced literary gem has been seen by only a handful of scholars.

The university’s special acquisition means the rare poem will now be available to scholars, students and the general public for the first time.

The text of the poem has been fully digitized and made freely available online via a dedicated website at poeticalessay.bodleian.ox.ac.uk

The printed pamphlet containing the poem is the only known copy in existence, and was bought by the Bodleian with the support of a benefactor.

Its acquisition allows the poem to stay in the UK where it will become part of one of the world’s greatest collections of Shelley works and manuscripts, housed at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford.

Librarian Richard Ovenden said: “Through acquiring our 12 millionth book, Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, we will be preserving this remarkable work for ever, and making available online a lost work by one of the greatest poets of all time.”

Shelley, one of the greatest English poets of the nineteenth century, wrote the poem in the autumn/winter of 1810-11 during his first year at Oxford and published it in 1811.

The poem was written as a response to Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic war and more specifically, in support of Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, who was accused of libel by the government and was imprisoned after criticising British military operations.

Mystery has surrounded the poem ever since it was printed by a stationers on Oxford High Street more than 200 years ago. Shelley published the pamphlet containing the poem under the anonymous alias of ‘a gentleman of the University of Oxford.’

It wasn’t until 50 years after his death that the work was attributed to Shelley, and even then, historical sources imply that it was impossible to find a copy of it. It was rediscovered in a private collection in 2006.

Thd announcement of the Bodley’s acquisition was made at a special event last week.

Dame Vanessa Redgrave CBE - a friend of the Libraries - introduced the pamphlet and read the preface to the essay while a group of Oxford University undergraduate students in English Literature read the poem to an audience of more than 300 guests at the event.

Vanessa Redgrave said: “I first read Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy when I was very young. He is intoxicating to read.

“His words transport you. I’m thrilled that, thanks to the Bodleian and its generous donors, this long lost poem of Shelley’s can be studied by students all over the world.’

Shelley’s Poetical Essay will also be on display in the Weston Library, Oxford and can be viewed until December 23.

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