The discovery of a lost work by a major writer has always caused much excitement among critics and academics. The revelation in today’s Times Literary Supplement that an early poem by the great Percy Bysshe Shelley has come to light, and is in the possession of a London bookseller, will cause even more excitement than most.
The quintessential English romantic poet deserves a better place in history than Matthew Arnold’s description of him as “a beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain”. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a poet who wrote of beauty, and is always associated with his works To the Skylark and The Cloud, but Shelley wanted his poetry to be “the trumpet of a prophecy” that would ring down the ages to give voice to the inhumanity we see all around us. He was a devoted and courageous advocate of freedom, a political stance that quickly blossomed into a fierce anti-militarism: his hatred of war was one of the forces that “hurt him into poetry”. From an early age he was writing poetry against the Napoleonic wars. In an early poem, Queen Mab, Shelley cannot contain his fury:
War is the statesman’s game, the priests delight,
The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade.