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The freewheeling Percy Shelley

In the week I first read the Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things — the long lost poem of Percy Bysshe Shelley — the tune on loop in my head was that of a less distant protest song, Masters of War. In 1963, unable to bear the escalating loss of American youth in Vietnam, the 22-year-old Bob Dylan sang out against those faceless profiteers of war:

“I hope that you die and your death will come soon,
I’ll follow your casket on a pale afternoon…”

In 1811, when the impact of war abroad had become as unbearably visible as it had for Dylan, Shelley too was driven to wish death upon those murderous men behind desks: “May that destruction, which ’tis thine to spread, / Descend with ten-fold fury on thy head.” By writing as much Shelley ran the very real risk of imprisonment for seditious libel. Just one copy of the pamphlet — smuggled to a cousin named Pilfold Medwin — survived the fiery purge, and that is the one which cropped up in 2006 and is now available online through Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

While Dylan identified with the apparently classless American youth, for Shelley the pawns in the rich men’s game were explicitly the poor, working-class fodder of Georgian warfare. He shows an uncommon sympathy too for the non-British war dead, including the blameless victims of the equally blameless frontline agents of colonialism. While being careful to distance himself from the recently vilified Bonaparte (just another Master of War in his poem), Shelley is — at the tender age of 18 — already the fully fledged radical and reformist poet who in 1819 would exhort British workers to “shake your chains to earth like dew”, remembering that “Ye are many — they are few.”

Unlike Dylan’s ultimately downbeat song, Shelley closes his passionate poetical essay on a hopeful note: “Peace, love, and concord, once shall rule again, / And heal the anguish of a suffering world.” This was the central message of the so-called Cockney school, with which Shelley and other Left-leaning metropolitans (think Leigh Hunt and John Keats) would be associated towards the end of the decade.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Alfred Clint, 1819. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Image credit: Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Alfred Clint, 1819. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Above Shelley’s preface he printed the words: “Nunquam ne reponam vexatus totiens?” — “Am I never to retaliate, [even when] repeatedly enraged?” In Juvenal’s first Satire, the quote’s origin, the frustrated Roman poet can hold his famously sharp tongue no more — not because of any social injustice, or the ravages of war — but because he has had quite enough of the windbag poet Cordus reading from his interminable epic poem about Theseus. Shelley’s Latin epigraph might at first glance seem to import little from Juvenal’s poem other than the sheer exasperation expressed, but it also importantly aligns the two poets in a common distaste for the tradition of singing songs about the bloody exploits of great men, or the “noxious race of heroes” as Shelley would call it in a letter to William Godwin the following summer.

In spite of such apparent anti-classicism, the late 1810s and early 1820s saw Shelley and his fellow cockneys produce dozens of classically inspired poems, all concerned — like the Poetical Essay — with post-revolutionary social reform. They consistently posed, if not always answered, the question: How can we hope for a better world in the war-torn ruins of a failed revolution? The cockneys were convinced that poetry had the potential to affect social and political change. Perhaps surprisingly, the poetry they turned to for this was frequently that which drew upon the Greek and Roman classics. Cockney classicism showed a completely different side of the classical world to that used in the traditional educational system, and (less surprisingly) the establishment hated it. A Tory critic wrote that “a Hottentot in top boots is not more ridiculous than a classical cockney.”

Their alternative classics had nothing to do with the rote learning of Latin grammar, rhetorical commonplaces, austere Roman stoicism, or heroic deeds; they wanted to build and explore an unapologetically pagan and openly erotic poetic landscape imbued with the radical and democratic ‘spirit of Greece.’ They used the classics in glorious Technicolor to combat the post-revolutionary introversion of mainstream contemporary poetry and the monochromatic despondency of the period.

In a cluster of bright allegorical poems written around 1818, the cockney poets provoked the establishment with hopeful songs for social reform, mostly wrapped up as love stories between mortals and divinities. Since the poets were considerably more familiar with Latin than they were with Greek, at the heart of this poetic universe of countercultural Hellenism we find traces of a certain Hellenizing Late Republican Roman poet. Catullus had been fully translated into English for the first time only in 1795, and his Greek-style, countercultural poetic made quite an impression on the cockneys.

The part of his work that they drew on most consistently was poem 64, in which Ariadne, stranded by Theseus on the isle of Naxos, is eventually rescued by Bacchus in his aerial chariot. The wine god’s motley crew flies noisily through several cockney classical poems, and his arrival — complete with cymbals, horns, Maenads and the severed limbs of beasts — is an emblem of hope in a world of despair. Bacchus swoops in, ever the harbinger of “Peace, love and concord.” And it is this determined presence of hope that distinguishes many of the political poems of the cockneys from the humble protest song. May our present and future “legislators of the world” take note: Shelley and his fellow patriots dared to do more than simply protest; they built their own utopian ‘Land of Cokaygne’ in the shared imaginative universe of their poems.

Headline image credit: Blake sculpsit © Henry Stead. Used with permission.

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