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A Poetical Essay was announced in the Oxford University and City Herald for 9 March 1811 as ‘Just published’. No example was thought to have survived until this copy was discovered in 2006. Since then no second copy has come to light, so it appears to be unique. The full Poetical Essay was acquired by the Bodleian in 2015 and can be read online.
Shelley published A Poetical Essay, anonymously, for the support of Peter Finnerty, an Irish journalist who had been imprisoned for libel after he accused the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, of attempting to silence him and of abusing Irish prisoners.
The Poetical Essay is described by its current owner, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, as ‘a 172-line poem in rhyming couplets on the devastations of war, the fearless voice of Sir Francis Burdett, the iniquities of Castlereagh, the tyranny of Napoleon and the oppressions of colonial India.’ It is prefaced by ‘an intriguing short essay, part Deistic apology, part political manifesto’, which includes the following passage:
Before the system which [this poem] reprobates can be ameliorated; before that peace, which, perhaps, with greater sanguineness than certainty, every good man anticipates, a total reform in the licentiousness, luxury, depravity, prejudice, which involve society, must be effected. This reform must not be the work of immature assertions of the liberty, which, as affairs now stand, no one can claim without attaining over others an undue, invidious superiority, benefiting in consequence _self _instead of society; it must not be the partial warfare of physical strength, which would induce the very evils which the tendency of the following Essay is calculated to eradicate; but gradual, yet decided intellectual exertions must diffuse light, as human eyes are rendered capable of bearing it.
Shelley dedicated the poem ‘To Harriet W[est]b[roo]k’, with whom he was soon to elope. The original owner of this copy, Pilfold Medwin, was his second cousin, and the younger brother of the poet’s friend and biographer, Thomas Medwin.
Shelley’s Guitar, no. 26 (p. 31); Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat (ed.), Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. i (Delaware: 2000), pp. 444-8; H. R. Woudhuysen, ‘A Shelley pamphlet comes to light’, Times Literary Supplement,14 July 2006; Bernard Quaritch Ltd, Shelley’s Lost Poetical Essay of 1811 (London: 2007).