SHELLEY IN OXFORD:
BLASPHEMY, BEDLAM, AND BOOKBURNING
Percy B Shelley, from an original picture in the
possession of Mrs. Shelley.
Engraved by W. Finden, Published 1836, by J. Murray
In Oxford High Street, in 1810,
Slatter & Munday’s Bookshop
Had a large, bow-fronted window
For displaying its latest wares.
At 19, Shelley flooded it with pamphlets
On ‘The Necessity Of Atheism’.
He could only get it printed in Worthing
As no one in Oxford would touch it.
spires hid a religious plutocracy
Promoting the State’s superstitions,
Aided by hundreds of clerics and bishops –
Golden mitres clutching gold crooks.
Congregations at dirge-like church services
Sang sadistic psalms begging God
To smite their enemies; kill off their livestock
And do away with Egypt’s first born –
social engineering pleased Empire-builders;
And hymns – such as, “The rich man
In his castle”, and “the poor man at his gate.”
“God made them high and lowly
ordered their estate” – suited a church
Which chose to consecrate the status quo
By its allocating special pews to the grandees,
Then being supine on class-ridden poverty.
University was part funded by a profitable
Which had a monopoly on printing the Bible,
‘We get your land and your diamonds and your gold
You get to be good, with our book’.
Oxford’s hands the Bible became a colonial talisman:
Its Press printed a million copies a year
Whereupon countries accustomed to self-rule
Woke to find themselves ruled by George the Third.
according to the British establishment,
Got to be kings thanks to Britain’s God,
Though to Shelley, “the monarchy is
only the string
Which ties the robber’s bundle.”
the celibate dons of the State religion
Guzzled venison from Magdalen deer park;
Then gnawed at the game, shot on college estates,
Washing it down with hogsheads of claret.
academic mafia – its whims indulged
By underpaid college servants –
Was hired to cook up the date of Creation,
Or invent the location of Eden.
their grasping such numerological nettles
As counting angels dancing on pinheads,
They’d pronounce on whether it was Eve or a snake
Who’d caused man’s original downfall –
prurient topic for an all-male institution.
Transubstantiation was hotly debated,
Church mice proving theologically troubling
Through their nibbling of holy wafers:
Oxford’s mice were consuming the living body
Of mankind’s sacrosanct saviour –
Should they be spared due to their chewing on a spirit,
Or, if exterminated, had some resurrected?
while Oxford’s minds might have been more usefully stretched
By their addressing the poet’s pamphlet
They dismissed it out of hand as upsetting their applecart
And demanded Shelley’s career be ended –
of New College, the reverend Jocelyn Walker
Ordered Munday’s to burn every copy;
But keeping one back to show the authorities
As evidence of blasphemous libel.
bookshop had caused a previous sensation
With another pamphlet of Shelley’s:
One Margaret Nicholson, a needlewoman aged 40,
Had taken a desert knife to King George.
lunged at him twice as he left the royal carriage;
She was arrested and sent to an asylum.
Mischievously, Shelley pretended she was his aunt
And someone given to poetic composition.
then asked Munday to print the failed assassin’s poems
Which Shelley claimed were found on her person –
It was a clever way for him to attack the monarchy with
And to accuse the king of bloodthirsty tyranny.
Shelley knew how George had been ushered into his reign
With specially commissioned verses
by a courtly warmonger called Whitehead,
To be sung before George at St. James's.
“To arms, to arms, ye sons of might./ And
hail with sounds of war the new-born year ! /Britannia, from
her rocky height, Points to the Gallic coast, and lifts her
Whitehead exploited England’s ingrained
hatred of France
To perpetuate war against revolutionary forces,
Concealing their desire to put paid to French colonial
By inciting a ‘King and Country’ bloodlust:
“Th' immortal hatred, which by turns /Wakes
and sleeps with fury burns: New cause of just offence has
Albion found, /And lo! it bleeds afresh, th' eternal wound!”
Understandably Shelley, an ardent pacifist,
Took issue with this murderous course
And used the needlewoman’s poems as a vehicle
To lance King George’s warmongering vanity:
“Monarchs of earth! thine is the
Thine are the crimes for which thy
Ah! when will come the time, when o’er the
No more shall death and desolation reign?
When will the sun smile on the bloodless
And the stern warrior’s arm the sickle
Not whilst some King, in cold ambition’s
Plans for the field of death his plodding
Oxford had been the royalist base in the
And traditionally still fawned upon royalty;
Thus it benefited from royal Charters, royal grants and
But here was Shelley saying kings should be got rid of:
sunshine is a Monarch’s smile,”
but dust – the last eventful day
all and make them lose their sway.
the scepter from the monarch’s hand
And from the
warrior’s grasp wrest the ensanguin’d brand.”
about revolutionary forces at work
Was turning England into a police state:
You could be transported for life to van
for possessing Paine’s Rights of
Shelley continued in this seditious vein,
Fired up by overseas war reports
Of Britain’s empire, and military massacres –
Each with a royal seal of approval:
“Whilst ruined towns and smoking cities
That thy work, Monarch, is the work of Hell.
‘It is thy work!’ I hear a voice
Shakes the broad basis of thy bloodstained
And at the orphan’s sigh, the widow’s moan,
Totters the fabric of thy guilt-stained
‘It is thy work, O Monarch;’ now the sound
Fainter and fainter, yet is borne around,
Yet to enthusiast ears the murmurs tell
That Heaven, indignant at the work of Hell,
Will soon the cause, the hated cause remove,
Which tears from earth peace, innocence, and love.”
Shelley wore his hair in shanks,
‘Like a lion’s mane or meteor’s tail’
To show solidarity with the spirit of 1792,
Unlike the fashion in right-wing Oxford
adopting a close-cropped military cut
As a homage to Wellington’s troops
Then fighting a superfluous Peninsular War.
Shelley had an ideological haircut.
eyes the poet was surpassing himself:
‘Mere Republicanism can’t contain his disaffection
He must write an incendiary hymn to a fruit knife
As wielded by a mad wretch in Bedlam.’
he’d sent the atheist pamphlet
To the heads of each Oxford college
In these pampered Gothic confections built by zealots –
Each college named after saints or God’s son.
was sent down after just two terms for saying,
“If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods,
Knowledge of nature is made for their destruction.”
And for exposing Oxford’s aversion to
his pains he was subjected to, as he put it,
Oxford’s “violent tyrannical feelings”
And his book was high-handedly incinerated
In Slatter and Munday’s back-grate.
“It is easier to suppose that the universe
Has existed for all eternity
Than to conceive a being beyond its limits
Capable of creating it.”
“Every reflecting mind must allow”,
“There’s no proof of the existence of a god.”
Then, as if the notion constituted a scientific proof,
The poet had written with relish,
The Master of his college thought Shelley’s
Must have derived from Tom Paine,
And took Shelley to task by saying he knew his mentor –
The maverick author of ‘Common Sense’ –
Had played a part in the French Revolution
As well as stirring up Americans to rebel
So the Master warned him that Oxford must be spared
Such ‘uncommonly disagreeable’ views.
‘You have the gall to ask’, the Master said,
Waving the pamphlet in Shelley’s face,
‘“By what authority does the king reign?”
And then you ask, “On what grounds."
“Does the Church claim ascendancy?”’
‘Such questions’, the Master said,
Stabbing a finger at Shelley, ‘are seditious
And sedition is a capital offence.’
The Master had also taken legal advice
With regard to blasphemous libel
And duly informed those he’d summoned
That his advisors had clearly stated:
public importance of the Christian religion is so great
That no one’s to be allowed to deny its truth.
The history of the offence of blasphemous libel
Confirms that the world holds this view.”
So this gaggle of biddable dons whom the
Had empanelled to hear Shelley’s case
All agreed that if the blasphemer remained a moment longer,
Any respect that Oxford had would be lost.
‘…Should Shelley turn the student body
Oxford could be depopulated,’ they concurred,
‘All his dupes could be taken to Traitors’ Gate,
Or to Tyburn tree to be hanged.’ They nodded.
Any ideas that Oxford stood for freedom of
Were to be crushed by this Christian Taliban;
Who rounded on Shelley as his expulsion was announced –
One don spitefully interjecting,
The book-burnings were supervised by a senior
Yet not one of Oxford’s great minds
Addressed Shelley’s philosophical contentions,
And instead kept a self-serving silence
Or, in much the same way as Shelley’s furious
(“In equine fashion”, as Shelley put it),
Could only whinny, ‘I believe because I believe.’
The five thousand intellectuals in Oxford
Claimed faith was the only proof they
Seeing Shelley in London shortly after,
Someone tried to change his opinions ‘for his own good’,
But they found him unrepentant, even vehement:
“Do not talk
such stuff to me; I hear
enough of it at home. There is my
who with a painting of that imposter
up in his library, is
sometimes vain enough to suppose that
can make reason bow down before
absurdity. I have too
many of these follies
before my eyes: they drive me mad!”
To Shelley, priestly talk of heaven and hell
Represented an absurd assumption:
He once asked a baby on Magdalen Bridge,
To the bemusement of its mother,
Whether or not her baby remembered
Its pre-existence before it was born;
And he would retort in an anguished voice
Whenever compelled to attend church
And kneel obediently to ‘hear the word of
"If God has spoken, why is the world not convinced?"
Shelley wondered if there was something about Oxford’s damp
That let people be ruled by will o’ the wisps.
And as for his expulsion and Oxford’s
Its continued threats of prosecution for sedition –
Instead of their quelling his urge to change the system
They’d make him more outspoken than ever.
Two years after leaving he produces ‘Queen
Expanding his attacks on the state
Which he berates for being run by racketeers:
“Royal murderers whose mean thrones
“Are bought by crimes of treachery and gore,”
And Shelley’s analysis continues:
“The bread they eat, the staff on which they lean.
Depended on their crime.”
As for the royal family’s panoply of power,
The British Empire’s army and navy,
They were merely, “the hired bravos who defend
The tyrant’s throne - the bullies of his fear;
“These are the sinks and channels of worst
The refuse of society, the dregs
Of all that is most vile;” and he’d condemn them
For claiming a uniform gave them impunity.
“Guards, garbed in blood-red livery, surround
Their palaces, participate the crimes
That force defends and from a nation’s rage
Secures the crown, which all the curses reach
That famine, frenzy, woe and penury breathe.”
Not a passage to find favour on Remembrance
At the Cenotaph’s royal wreath-laying,
Where the sorry myth there can be a “good war”
Is gloomily celebrated by the unthinking.
“Man,” Shelley said, “has no right to kill
“It is no excuse that he does so in uniform:
He only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of
He was saying that all war’s a war crime.
When at Oxford Shelley wrote a third
Never discovered by the powers that be:
It was called ‘The Existing State of Things’
But he published it more discreetly,
For it posed the clearest threat to the
And for Munday’s safety during its printing
He was referred to as ‘Lundi’ (the French for Monday)
And the poem was circulated anonymously.
In ‘The Existing State of Things’ also
written at nineteen
He exposed the glorification of war
But also showed how the powerful promote it for profit
To satisfy their imperial death-culture.
“Millions to fight compelled, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie
When legal murders swell the lists of pride;
When glory’s view the titled idiot guide
It is the cold advisors of yet colder kings
Who have the power to breathe
O’er all the world the infectious blast of death.”
Shelley urged George III to remove his ample
And let people sit on his privileged throne:
For “Man must assert his native rights, must say
We take from Monarch’s hand the granted sway.”
And in these lines the nineteen year old
expressed his ideal –
A blueprint for an alternative society:
“Oppressive law no more shall power retain
Peace, love and concord, once shall rule again.”
He rejected violence as “circular and
And embraced a proto-socialism
Of evolutionary change in which humanity inevitably,
Being fed on goodness, becomes virtuous.
college meals; attended only one lecture
And lived off bread, pudding raisins and almonds;
Stewed fruit, cakes, gingerbread, but no red meat
Insisting that he wasn’t a “corpse-cruncher”
watchword was that he wished no living thing harm.
His fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg,
Said the seeds of his vegetarian theories were sown in
And his Pythagorean notions of natural living.
that Shelley lived like an untidy hermit
And described his friend’s college rooms:
“Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments,
Clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition,
innumerable, with money, stockings, prints,
Crucibles, bags, and boxes were scattered
On the floor and in every place. . . . An electrical
An air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope.”
were a precaution against the “Shelley-baiting”
Of which Shelley had been a victim at school;
They were never used but he found the glimpse of a bullet
Turned bullying ‘bloods’ into cowards.
tables”, Hogg completed his inventory,
“And especially the carpet,
Were stained with large spots of various hues,
Which proclaimed the agency of fire.”
scientific and chemical experiments
Came close to setting the college ablaze
But such flames could be put out, unlike those in his brain
That are smouldering centuries later.
In 2010 the
veteran firebrand Tariq Ali declared,
“Given the inability of the official parliament
To meet real needs
Why not a convocation of regional and national assemblies
With a social charter that can be fought for
And defended, just as Shelley advised?”
He then quoted from Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’:
who suffer woes untold
Or to feel or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold.”
In the same year the investigative
journalist, John Pilger,
Urged the country to take to the streets,
“There is no other way now. Direct action. Civil
Unerring. Read Shelley and do it.”
Should Shelley, still not believing in God
But perhaps believing in daemons,
Walk down Oxford’s High Street to the former site
Of Slatter & Munday’s bookshop,
He’d find in its place a branch of Lloyds TSB –
A fluorescent temple to the Golden Calf;
No calf-bindings; no gilt letters, just brochures
Enticing converts to the banker religion.
And instead of Shelley there are display panels
To interest the passer-by in interest rates;
Cash Points prove the existence of the money god
Whose religion’s compulsory, even for atheists.
The first thing to greet
visitors at Oxford station
(Expecting a gentle scholar or a Jude the Obscure),
Is a bleak business school for the money-cult’s acolytes
Built by an arms-trader billionaire.
Then spiny fortresses, the colleges, ply for business by
Of their success in producing government elites
And lure the gullible into spending half their lives
Paying off loans to buy Oxford’s trade secrets.
Mammon stifles the dreams of the dreaming spires –
The turreted antennae are tuned to investment
Ensuring scholarship for its own sake is thought redundant
Unless it’s sold with a business model;
And the soulful shops that Oxford once had,
Devoted to vinyl and second-hand books,
Are priced out by chains selling sweatshop products –
By ‘progressive’ councils favoring clone-towns.
In ‘Queen Mab’ Shelley singled out “Selfishness!”
As “Twin-sister of Religion”,
To him selfishness was the great delusion’s companion –
Its “Rival in crime and falsehood.”
Then as now Mammon keeps such selfishness supplied
With tricks for storing up treasure on earth:
Mammon’s sly deceivers count their gilt-edged angels
In fake Edens concocted from debt.
Economic charlatans claim to see the future
Marketing a financial pie in the sky
Only to dash peoples’ hopes as their coins dwindle away,
For “There is no real wealth but the labor of man” –
As Oxford’s prize pupil, its socialist anarchist,
Percy Bysshe Shelley once said,
Before adding, “The man of virtuous soul,
Commands not, nor obeys”.
He was echoing the eleven year-old Shelley
Who’d frequently sign off his letters,
I end. I am not Your obedient servant,
P. B. Shelley.” He was his own man –
A boy who’d grow up into someone despising excess,
Most of all monetary wealth.
depicts his 29-year-old corpse:
His body’s held up by winged lions.
Shelley saw that, “Commerce
has set the mark of selfishness:
The signet of its all enslaving power”
Which prompted Marx to say he grieved Shelley died so young,
“Because he was essentially a revolutionist”.
wrote the first atheist tract printed in English,
Scaring Oxford stiff with the implications,
Yet rather than confront them it’d defend its dubious values
And expel the rationalist who ruffled its feathers.
Oxford concurred with the London Courier, a Tory
Which published an obituary of Shelley that began,
“Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been
Now he knows whether there is a God or no.”
But Byron’s verdict transcended the vicious sneers,
“You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley.
He was the best and least selfish man I knew.”
An atheist who could be the supreme altruist.
Ironically the sympathy expressed in Shelley’s lines,
fainting Indian on his native Plains/
Writhes to superior power’s unnumbered pains.”
Made Krishnamurti say,“Shelley is as sacred as the
Establishment Victorians such as Mathew Arnold
Would dismiss him as “beautiful, but ineffectual”
Yet to hardcore activists his words were dynamite
And he was to become a guiding light to the Chartists.
Pirate versions of ‘Queen Mab’ were circulated;
It was declaimed at trade union meetings
Whereupon it was thought so dangerously inflammatory
That Moxon, its printer, was jailed.
who suffer woes untold
Or to feel or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold.”
In 1989 students stood in front of tanks and chanted
Lines from Shelley to demonstrate
Against the autocratic and murderous cult
Of the Chinese god, Chairman Mao.
(‘Ye are many they are few’)
And in 2011 as world wide anti-capitalist risings
Denounced the idols of Mammon,
Crowds again quoted from Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’
On both their banners and in their meetings.
“Rise like lions from your slumber
Ye are many, they are few.”
Showing that, despite Oxford’s attempts to silence it,
A godless anarchist voice is still being heard.
In 1812, having shaken Oxford’s dust off his feet,
Shelley’s in London building sky lanterns –
Fire balloons with under-carriages filled with poems,
And protests about England being in Ireland.
These lanterns “laden with knowledge”, as Shelley put it,
Would fly a thousand feet in the air
Then burn out, for the poems to tumble down,
Scattering across England to transform it.
P. B. Shelley, A Philosophical View of Reform,
written in 1820, but not published until 18-- “That
sentence made a good headline for Socialist Worker’s
coverage of the Royal Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in
1977.” Paul Foot, ‘Shelley's revolutionary year’ the
Peterloo writings of the poet Shelley with a
critical introduction by Paul Foot
Nora Crook, Shelley’s Venomed Melody, Cambridge
University Press, 1986, p.131
The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, I, No. 50 , ed.
F.I.Jones, OUP, 1964, , pp. 55-6
The contemporary opinion of a
Mr Justice Coleridge as cited in Blackstone
W.H.Merle, article in The Athenaeum, 1848, p. 705,
reprinted in Edmund Blunden, ‘Shelley and Keats as
they struck their Contemporaries’, 1925
“His food was plain and simple as that of a hermit,
with a certain anticipation, even at this time, of a
vegetable diet, respecting which he afterwards
became an enthusiast in theory,”
at Oxford’, by Thomas Jefferson Hogg,
1832/33, (1904 reprint from the original magazine
Nora Crook, ‘Shelley's Venomed Melody’, Cambridge
University Press, 1986, for specific details of his
‘Why can't we protest against cuts like the French?’
London: The Guardian,19 October 2010
“The lesson of the French anti-government protests
is that “normal” politics exists only to promote
corporate interests. Britain must prepare for a
rebirth of the only thing that works — direct
"Rise like lions after slumber/In unvanquishable
number!/Shake your chains to earth, like dew/Which
in sleep had fall'n on you:/Ye are many - they are
These days, the stirring lines of Percy Shelley's
"Mask of Anarchy" may seem unattainable. I don't
think so. Shelley was both a Romantic and political
truth-teller. His words resonate now because only
one political course is left to those who are
disenfranchised and whose ruin is announced on a
John Pilger, ‘The party game is over. Stand and
fight’, London: The New Statesman, 4th November,
‘Shelley and Socialism,’ by Edward and Eleanor Marx-Aveling,
To-Day, April 1888, pp. 103-116
The Courier, 5 August 1822
Timothy Morton, The Cambridge companion to Shelley,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 40
Copyright © 2012 Heathcote