Percy Shelley, Queen Mab (London: Printed and published by W. Clar 1821); annotation p. 180 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge ABLibrary 19thCent PR5417 .A1 1821b
Percy Shelley, Masque of Anarchy. A Poem. Now First published with a preface by Leigh Hunt (London: Edward Moxon, 1832) (London, Bradbury and Evans, Printers) ABLibrary 19thCent PR5412 .A1 1832
Rare Item Analysis: Early and First Editions of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Works
By Moriah Speciale
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major Romantic Poets who wrote with strong social and political convictions. While he did not rise to popularity during his lifetime, his wife and editor, Mary Shelley, made sure that he would leave behind an expansive repertoire in print.
The items I presented on were two early and first editions of Shelley’s poems, Queen Mab and The Masque of Anarchy, which can both be found in the 19th Century Collection of Baylor’s Armstrong Browning Library. Shelley drew much of his inspiration from the political upheavals of his day, and I chose to focus most of my presentation on the history behind his famous work, The Masque of Anarchy. Shelley wrote this political poem in 1819, while he was living in Italy after having been pushed out of England due to family and relationship drama. The poem is written in response to the infamous Peterloo Massacre, which took place in August of 1819. The massacre was the first event to merit large scale journalism across Britain and Europe, which is how Shelley was able to learn of it so quickly even though he was away in Italy. The massacre took place just after the Napoleonic wars, during a time of paranoia and some terror.
After the Napoleonic wars, large majorities of people were not well due to famine and unemployment and by the time 1819 rolled around pressures and tensions were rising due to the poor economic climate. In addition, the English government instated “Corn Laws” which were tariffs on foreign grain meant to protect English grain farmers. Food costs rose steeply and the already poor working class was forced to buy the English grain, which happened to be lower quality than foreign grain in addition to being much more expensive. All of these events set up what eventually happened on that August day when cavalry charged into a crowd of around 70,000 who had gathered in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to protest.
Shelley was inspired by these events to write his poem, which is a call for freedom, but also the first modern literary representation of nonviolent resistance. Shelley includes as an epigraph a line from a poem of his that was written two years prior—The Revolt of Islam. The epigraph reads: “Hope is strong: Justice and truth their winged child have found.” The Revolt of Islam can be summed up in one sentence by saying that the poem is about two characters that initiate a revolution against their ruler. That being said, it seems a good choice for an epigraph and a good indicator for what is to come in the larger poetical work.
Interestingly, though Shelley wrote this poem in 1819, it was not published until 1832, which was actually ten years after his death. The reason that the poem wasn’t published right after or around the time it was written is easily explained by the political and social context of the time. As aforementioned, the Peterloo Massacre was the largest journalistic event of the time, drawing reporters from across Britain and continental Europe. Immediately after the event, there was a lockdown on radical and liberal journalism, and tensions were raised. English leaders were on high alert to stop any reform-minded presses or writers. This explains why, when Shelley sent his poem to Leigh Hunt in 1819, it was not immediately published. At the time, Hunt was the editor of The Examiner, a newspaper that had acquired a reputation for being politically independent and at times radical. Since The Masque of Anarchy involves a call for freedom and a biting critique of the English authority, Hunt would not have felt comfortable publishing it during a time when his paper was already under careful watch. In fact, he stated himself in his 1832 introduction to The Masque of Anarchy that: “[Shelley’s writings] have aided the general progress of knowledge in bringing about a wiser period; and an effusion, which would have got him cruelly misrepresented a few years back.” By examining the context of the time and reading Hunt’s introduction, it is evident that the decision to publish in 1832 as opposed to 1819 was carefully calculated.
In addition to The Mask of Anarchy, I also looked at an early edition of Queen Mab, which held an interesting treasure: an annotation by S. T. Coleridge. While I was unable to find out just how the book made its way to Coleridge’s hands, there was still something to learn from the annotation. The page he chose to comment on is page 180, which is located in the middle of one of Shelley’s lengthy notes, after the poem. This particular note argues the virtues of vegetarianism, and Coleridge snidely notes that “Mr. Shelley’s favorite diversion at present is hunting” which is especially humorous and biting considering that Shelley seems to be writing from the standpoint of a committed and passionate vegetarian. It is also of note that, through this annotation, we are able to see a small piece of how the first generation of Romantics may have responded to the second generation. Since the poem and the notes include strong anti-Christian and atheistic themes, they would have offended Orthodox Christians and it is of note that by the time Coleridge made the annotation in 1822, he had converted and was a committed Anglican. While just a small aspect of the item as a whole, the annotation is potentially telling of the relationship of the older romantics to the younger romantics and also provides important commentary on some of Shelley’s more outlandish ideas.