Has Shelley’s Rediscovered Poem Been Sold Into Oblivion?

Owning manuscripts is one thing: owning the contents is quite another.
A Shelley poem that caused huge excitement when it was discovered four years ago remains out of bounds to everyone but the manuscript’s owner. This cannot be right
As the dust settles after all the to-ing and fro-ing over Kafka’s papers, it seems a good time to ask some questions about who, exactly, owns literature.
In most countries, property law means that people can take possession of manuscripts and, in some circumstances, a lone copy of a printed text. In these cases – where only one copy of the work exists – the owners of the manuscript also find themselves in possession of its literature. Yet the two things ought not to be conflated. We can easily envisage an owner owning a manuscript while we collectively own and know the piece of literature it contains. But in the case of the works of Kafka that are lying in those safes, we’re not allowed to do that. Both the manuscripts and the literature are in the possession of the owners.
And of course, it’s not the first time.
On July 14, 2006, the Guardian reported that a lost poem of Shelley, Poetical Essay, had turned up, and was now in the possession of a “London bookseller”. “This is a wonderful discovery,” the author of the article wrote. “Few Shelley scholars ever believed the poem would resurface and some even doubted its existence.” However, even as we were told that it existed, we discovered that we wouldn’t be allowed to read it. On July 22, the Guardian printed a letter I wrote:
You report the finding of a lost poem by Shelley and it seems as if the poem is explosive stuff, supporting the Irish in their attempts to get rid of British rule, while mentioning on the way the injustice of the British presence in India. People from many constituencies are interested – poets, poetry lovers, students of Romanticism, students of left-wing and anti-colonial movements and many more besides. So why is it that we are not yet allowed to read the poem? When and where was it rediscovered? Who are the privileged people who so far have been permitted to read it? Why don’t they spend the half-hour it would take to scan it and put it up on the web for all of us to read and enjoy? Presumably money is involved. The “owner” of the poem (past or future) will no doubt find a way of selling it, while the ghost of Shelley howls with contemptuous laughter.”
We know of at least three people who were able to read the poem: the owner, the seller and Professor Henry R Woudhuysen. He published an article about it in the Times Literary Supplement on July 12, 2006. It’s a fine piece of humane and interested criticism. Notice how it ends:
” The … copy of the Poetical Essay is all the more remarkable for its unexpected emergence and for the insights a full study of it will give into Shelley’s development as a poet and political thinker.”
A full study? Really?
No such luck. The found poem is now un-found, so it can’t be studied. Having been sold to a private owner by the antiquarian bookseller, Quaritch, it has disappeared into an ownership that will not show its face. What a scandal, I thought.
But perhaps there is another scandal: the fact that no one seems too bothered about it. Two weeks ago I wrote to the TLS, reminding them that we were approaching the fourth anniversary of the rediscovery of Shelley’s “Poetical Essay” and that we, the public, were no nearer to reading it. First, I got a reply telling me that Professor Woudhuysen had already dealt with the matter (a reference to a correspondence I’d had with the professor in July 2006, in which I had voiced the concerns expressed in my letter to the Guardian. Woudhuysen had replied telling me that it was nothing to do with him; the matter was in the hands of Quaritch the bookseller.) I pointed out that that brief correspondence with Woudhuysen had taken place four years ago. Nothing had happened since. The TLS then suggested that I go to the seller, Quaritch, to find out what had happened to Shelley’s poem. I replied that I had already done that and had been told that the matter of whom they had sold the poem to was confidential. Then the TLS wrote to say: “Well, I guess the thing we wd like to know is: is the poem any good?”
Well, I guess that isn’t the thing I’d like to know. Or at the very least, I don’t want anyone to decide that on my behalf.
First of all, I would like the poem to be available to read by anyone who is interested. I believe that should have happened the moment it was rediscovered. Secondly, I want to know why Professor Woudhuysen was given the right to look at the poem, but no one else was. Thirdly, I want to know why this situation doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the great republic of letters, least of all that guardian of literary precision and exactitude, the TLS. Isn’t it an outrage, that a long dead, great writer’s work can be hidden away in its owner’s drawer?
To date, the TLS hasn’t printed my letter. I also tried to interest Radio 4 in the idea, so that we could investigate it on air. Nope. They weren’t interested either.
I think I get it: it doesn’t matter after all.
by Michael Rosen

0 thoughts on “Has Shelley’s Rediscovered Poem Been Sold Into Oblivion?

  1. Taking a look at the history of poetry, we discover that the poet is generally at the doorstep of the rich, so in a perverse way it makes sense that this lost and found poem, whether it’s good or bad, is locked away in somebody’s vault. I’m not saying that it’s right, but that’s the way it is. What a shame.

  2. I’d rather it stay wrapped up under a veil of secrecy. If it had come out, it would have been devoured then forgotten. The audience would have been small. Maybe a few college students would peer at every once in a while. More than a few papers would have been quickly born from it and then it would go away.
    Make them wait. Deny the crowd something. They will want it more and more and when it is finally revealed, the audience will have grown in anticipation. The reception will be more appropriate.
    In the end more will read it, Shelley will have more subsequent attention, and interest in poetry will be better served.
    There’s no doubt it will eventually be released. I await that day with heady expectation.

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