At Oxford 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 fashions of the right-wing
For adopting close-cropped military styles
As a homage to Wellington’s troops
Then engaged in a superfluous Peninsular War.
Shelley adopted an ideological haircut.4
But to Oxford authorities 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 now in Bedlam.’
Moreover, he was now sending his atheist pamphlet
To the heads of each Oxford college,
To each one of these privileged neo-Gothic confections,
Each one named after a saint, or God’s son.
Shelley was put on trial by the University authorities for saying,
“If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods,
Knowledge of nature is made for their destruction” –
Tried for exposing their aversion to sense.
For his pains he was subjected to, as he put it,
Oxford’s “violent tyrannical feelings ”5
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.”
Besides which,” he’d written, “such a creator would need creating
And so on ad absurdum.”
Shelley believed that atoms had chanced together to create man
So any prayers to unknown powers were in vain
For, as the planet spun round, where could they be accurately aimed –
These random prayers as they hurtled into space?
Shelley wasn’t to be the puppet of some fear-inducing being
But rather felt he was a mass of electrified clay –
Playing freely, and unendingly mutable,
And at his trial he defended his position with passion.
“Since the astronomer Herschel has shown the solar system
To be infinite, and that the universe
Contains billions of inhabitable planets,
No narrow concept of a single Redeemer Can be sustained
For there would be so many other ‘Fallen’ worlds to redeem,
And so the idea of God being born and being crucified on each and every planet becomes absurd.”
There was silence.
Shelley then painted a farcical picture of God
Invigilating his infinite galactic machine,
Where despite Sirius being 54 trillion miles from the Earth…
The Almighty would still hot foot it to Palestine
“To begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman
In order to save mankind.
God’s works” Shelley said of such gymnastic clowning through the vaults of the heavens
“Have borne witness against him…”
“Every reflecting mind must allow”, Shelley wrote in his pamphlet,
“There’s no proof of the existence of a god.”
Then, as if his notion had constituted scientific proof,
The poet had written with relish,“QED”.
At his trial the Master of his college insisted Shelley’s ideas
Must have derived from Tom Paine,
And he challenged Shelley by saying he knew that his mentor
(The author of ‘Common Sense’)
Had played a part in the French Revolution,
As well as stirring up the colonies to rebel,
So he firmly decreed that Oxford must be spared
Paine’s ‘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 his finger at Shelley, ‘are seditious,
And sedition is a capital offence!’
The Master had also taken legal advice
With regard to blasphemous libel,
And he’d announced to all those whom he’d summonsed
That his advisors had clearly stated:
“The 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.”6
So then this gaggle of biddable dons, whom the Master
Had empanelled to hear Shelley’s case,
Came to agree that if the blasphemer remained there any longer,
Any respect the University had would be lost.
‘…Should Shelley turn the student body seditionary,
Oxford could be depopulated,’ the Master added dramatically,
‘And all Shelley’s dupes could be taken to Traitors’ Gate,
Or to Tyburn tree, there to be hanged!’
And the dons duly nodded with pious alarm.
Thus any idea that Oxford stood for freedom of thought
Was soon crushed by this Christian Taliban
Rounding on Shelley as his expulsion was announced
With a cleric snidely muttering, “QED.”
Though the book-burnings were supervised by a senior theologian –
Not one of Oxford’s great minds
Addressed any of Shelley’s philosophical contentions
But instead kept a self-serving silence.
Or, in much the same way as Shelley’s own father
(“In equine fashion”,as Shelley put it),
Would only whinny, ‘I believe because I believe’.
The five thousand intellectuals of Oxford
Claimed blind faith was the only proof they required.
A friend seeing Shelley in London shortly afterwards,
Had Shelley burst in on him at dawn
To announce: “I’ve been expelled!
For atheism!” and then collapse.
Shelley described being skewered by Oxford’s dreaming spires
Their being no more than a Shangri La for an elite;
He quoted Epicurus whose arguments Shelley insisted
Were altogether unanswerable:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but unable?
Then he’s not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he’s malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence does evil come? Is God neither able nor willing?
…Then why do you call him God?”
His friend tried to change his opinions ‘for his own good’,
But found Shelley unrepentant, even vehement:
“Do not talk such stuff to me; I hear enough of it at home. There is my father, who with a painting of that imposter Christ, hanging up in his library, is sometimes vain enough to suppose that he can make reason bow down before absurdity. I have too many of these follies before my eyes: they drive me mad!”7
To Shelley, bribes of heaven and warnings of hell
Only betrayed two ridiculous assumptions
And he once asked a baby on Magdalen Bridge,
To the bewilderment of the baby’s mother,
Whether or not her baby “might remember
Its pre-existence, that is, – before it was born?”
And Shelley would remonstrate in an anguished voice,
Whenever compelled to attend church
Or to kneel obediently to ‘hear the word of God’,
“If God has spoken, why is the world not convinced?”
Shelley wondered if there was something about Oxford’s damp misty air
That made people susceptible to will o’ the wisps.
As for his expulsion and Oxford’s death-threats –
(Its continuing talk of prosecution for sedition) –
Rather than quelling his urge to transform the world,
They made him more outspoken than ever.
Two years after leaving he’d produce ‘Queen Mab’,
Expanding his attacks on the state
Which he’d now berate for being run by criminals:
“Royal murderers whose mean thrones
“Are bought by crimes of treachery and gore,”
Then Shelley’s analysis continues:
“The bread they eat, the staff on which they lean.
Depended on their crime.”
And as for the royal family’s displays 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 vice,
The refuse of society, the dregs
Of all that is most vile;” and he condemned them
For thinking their uniforms 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 any favour on Remembrance Day
Where at the Cenotaph’s wreath-laying,
Royalty’s vampire myth that dying for the King makes war a “good war”
Is perpetuated by the unthinking.
“Man,” Shelley said, “has no right to kill his brother.
“It is no excuse that he does so in uniform:
He only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.”
Shelley insisted that all war’s a war crime.
While at Oxford Shelley would write a third pamphlet –
Never discovered by the powers that be –
It was called ‘The Existing State of Things’
And this one he published the most discreetly,
For it posed the clearest threat to the British powerbase,
And so for Munday’s safety during its
Monday 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,
Shelley exposed the glorification of war
And he showed how the powerful promote it
To fuel their profitable 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.”
In it Shelley also urged George III to shift his ample behind
And to let everyone else sit on his 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 unnatural”
He embraced a pacifist socialism
Of evolutionary change in which an humanity fed on goodness
Must become virtuous by cause and effect.
He spurned 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” –
Shelley’s watchword was that he wished no living creature harm.
And his fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg,
Said the seeds of Shelley’s vegetarian theories were sown in Oxford,
Where he insisted the “use of dead flesh made men barbarous”.8
Hogg said 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,
“And phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints,
Crucibles, bags, and boxes were scattered
On the floor and in every place. . . An electrical machine,
An air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope.”
For fun he and Hogg would sail paper boats
On the lake at Headington Hill
Where Shelley dreamt of and discussed a flying machine
As they both tried to outrun the wind.
“The balloon,” he’d say, “has not yet received the perfection
Of which it is surely capable;
The art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy.”
And he’d speak of “aeronauts flying across continents”.
“If you could manufacture water”, Shelley would then exclaim
As ideas tumbled over ideas,
“You could transform the deserts of Africa
“Rich meadows and vast fields of maize”.
His pistols were a precaution against the “Shelley-baiting”
Of which Shelley been a victim at school;
He never used them but found if he brandished them wild-eyed
Then the College bullies could be turned into cowards.
“The tables” – Hogg completed his inventory –
“And especially the carpet,
Were stained with large spots of various hues,
Which proclaimed the agency of fire.”
Shelley’s scientific and chemical experiments
Came close to setting the college ablaze
But such flames could be put out, unlike those in his brain
That still smolder 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 assemblies
With a social charter that can be fought for
And defended, just as Shelley advised?”
Ali then quoted from Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’:
“Ye who suffer woes untold
Or to feel or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold.”9
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 disobedience.
Unerring. Read Shelley and do it.”10
4 Nora Crook, Shelley’s Venomal Melody, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p.131
5 The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, I, No. 50 , ed. F.I.Jones, OUP, 1964, , pp. 55-6
6 The contemporary opinion of a Mr. Justice Coleridge, as cited in Blackstone.
7 W.H.Merle, article in The Athenaeum, 1848, p. 705, reprinted in Edmund Blunden, ‘Shelley and Keats as they struck their Contemporaries’, 1925
8 “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,”
‘Shelley at Oxford’, by Thomas Jefferson Hogg, 1832/33, (1904 reprint from the original magazine articles, pp110-115);
cf also Nora Crook, ‘Shelley’s Venomed Melody’, Cambridge University Press, 1986, for specific details of his fare
9 Tariq Ali, ‘Why can’t we protest against cuts like the French?’ London: The Guardian,19 October 2010
10 “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 action.
“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 few.”
“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 government spreadsheet.”John Pilger, ‘The party game is over. Stand and fight’, London: The New Statesman, 4th November, 2010