Simon Schama at the Financial Times:
“Millions to fight compell’d, to fight or die
In mangled heaps on War’s red altar lie.
The sternly wise, the mildly good, have sped
To the unfruitful mansions of the dead.”
Two hundred and four years later, in our time of Syrian carnage, these lines from thePoetical Essay on the Existing State of Things still ring out with undimmed force and urgency. Passionate, grandiloquent and angry, they sound like the protest music of a teenage student — which is indeed what they were, though the title page declared the author to be “A Gentleman of the University of Oxford”. That same gentleman, the 18-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley, would get himself expelled from the university shortly afterwards for refusing to answer questions about his authorship of a much more incendiary tract: The Necessity of Atheism. So, although irony isn’t the quality we usually associate with the most histrionic of the Romantic poets, his ghost must have been chuckling this week as the Bodleian celebrated the long-lost text as the 12-millionth book in its collection, now publicly available for the first time since its rediscovery a decade ago. In Shelley’s own brief stint at the university in 1810-11, the library was closed to undergraduates.
With their occasionally overwrought emotion, the Romantics can seem tonally alien yet somehow culturally familiar. If their rhetorical flamboyance sits awkwardly with our contemporary cool (“Oppressors’ venal minions! hence, avaunt! / Think not the soul of Patriotism to daunt . . . ”), there was much about their self-casting as outsiders that the troubadours of the 1960s embraced.