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Poets’ Basement

Shelley in Oxford
Blasphemy, Bedlam, and Bookburning
by HEATHCOTE WILLIAMS

In Oxford High Street, in 1810,

Slatter & Munday’s Bookshop

Had a large, bow-fronted window

For displaying its latest wares.

 

At 19, Shelley flooded it with pamphlets

On ‘The Necessity Of Atheism’.

He could only get it printed in Worthing

As no one in Oxford would touch it.

 

Oxford’s spires hid a religious plutocracy

Promoting the State’s superstitions,

Aided by hundreds of clerics and bishops –

Golden mitres clutching gold crooks.

 

Congregations at dirge-like church services

Sang sadistic psalms begging God

To smite their enemies; kill off their livestock

And do away with Egypt’s first born –

 

Such social engineering pleased Empire-builders;

And hymns – such as, “The rich man

In his castle”, and “the poor man at his gate.”

“God made them high and lowly

 

“And ordered their estate” – suited a church

Which chose to consecrate the status quo

By its allocating special pews to the grandees,

Then being supine on class-ridden poverty.

 

The University was part funded by a profitable Press

Which had a monopoly on printing the Bible,

‘We get your land and your diamonds and your gold

While you? You get to be good, with our book’.

 

In Oxford’s hands the Bible became a colonial talisman:

Its Press printed a million copies a year

Whereupon countries accustomed to self-rule

Woke to find themselves ruled by George the Third.

 

Kings, according to the British establishment,

Got to be kings thanks to Britain’s God,

Though to Shelley, “the monarchy is only the string

Which ties the robber’s bundle.”

 

Meanwhile the celibate dons of the State religion

Guzzled venison from Magdalen deer park;

Then gnawed at the game, shot on college estates,

Washing it down with hogsheads of claret.

 

This academic mafia – its whims indulged

By underpaid college servants –

Was hired to cook up the date of Creation,

Or invent the location of Eden.

 

After their grasping such numerological nettles

As counting angels dancing on pinheads,

They’d pronounce on whether it was Eve or a snake

Who’d caused man’s original downfall –

 

A prurient topic for an all-male institution.

Transubstantiation was hotly debated,

Church mice proving theologically troubling

Through their nibbling of holy wafers:

 

If Oxford’s mice were consuming the living body

Of mankind’s sacrosanct saviour –

Should they be spared due to their chewing on a spirit,

Or, if exterminated, had some resurrected?

 

But, while Oxford’s minds might have been more usefully stretched

By their addressing the poet’s pamphlet

They dismissed it out of hand as upsetting their applecart

And demanded Shelley’s career be ended –

 

A fellow of New College, the reverend Jocelyn    Walker

Ordered Munday’s to burn every copy;

But keeping one back to show the authorities

As evidence of blasphemous libel.

 

Munday’s bookshop had caused a previous sensation

With another pamphlet of Shelley’s:

One Margaret Nicholson, a needlewoman aged 40,

Had taken a desert knife to King George.

 

She’d lunged at him twice as he left the royal carriage;

She was arrested and sent to an asylum.

Mischievously, Shelley pretended she was his aunt

And someone given to poetic composition.

 

Shelley then asked Munday to print the failed assassin’s verses

Which Shelley claimed were found on her person –

It was a clever way for him to attack the monarchy with impunity

And to accuse the king of bloodthirsty tyranny.

 

For Shelley knew how George had been ushered into his reign

With specially commissioned verses

Written by a courtly warmonger called Whitehead,

To be sung before George at St. James’s.

 

“To arms, to arms, ye sons of might./ And hail with sounds of war the new-born year ! /Britannia, from her rocky height, Points to the Gallic coast, and lifts her spear./

 

Whitehead exploited England’s ingrained hatred of France

To perpetuate war against revolutionary forces,

Concealing their desire to put paid to French colonial ambitions

By inciting a ‘King and Country’ bloodlust:

 

“Th’ immortal hatred, which by turns /Wakes and sleeps with fury burns: New cause of just offence has Albion found, /And lo! it bleeds afresh, th’ eternal wound!”

 

Understandably Shelley, an ardent pacifist,

Took issue with this murderous course

And used the needlewoman’s poems as a vehicle

To lance King George’s warmongering vanity:

 

“Monarchs of earth! thine is the baleful deed,

Thine are the crimes for which thy subjects        bleed.

Ah! when will come the time, when o’er the plain

No more shall death and desolation reign?

When will the sun smile on the bloodless field,

And the stern warrior’s arm the sickle wield?

Not whilst some King, in cold ambition’s dreams,

Plans for the field of death his plodding schemes;”

 

Oxford had been the royalist base in the civil war

And traditionally still fawned upon royalty;

Thus it benefited from royal Charters, royal grants and royal blessings

But here was Shelley saying kings should be got rid of:

 

“…April’s sunshine is a Monarch’s smile,”

Kings are but dust – the last eventful day

Will level all and make them lose their sway.

Will dash the scepter from the monarch’s hand

And from the warrior’s grasp wrest the   ensanguin’d brand.”

 

Paranoia about revolutionary forces at work

Was turning England into a police state:

You could be transported for life to van Diemen’s Land

Just for possessing Paine’s Rights of Man.

 

Yet Shelley continued in this seditious vein,

Fired up by overseas war reports

Of Britain’s empire, and military massacres –

Each with a royal seal of approval:

 

“Whilst ruined towns and smoking cities tell,

That thy work, Monarch, is the work of Hell.

‘It is thy work!’ I hear a voice repeat,

Shakes the broad basis of thy bloodstained seat;

And at the orphan’s sigh, the widow’s moan,

Totters the fabric of thy guilt-stained throne –

‘It is thy work, O Monarch;’ now the sound

Fainter and fainter, yet is borne around,

Yet to enthusiast ears the murmurs tell

That Heaven, indignant at the work of Hell,

Will soon the cause, the hated cause remove,

Which tears from earth peace, innocence, and love.”

 

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 fashion in right-wing Oxford

 

For adopting a close-cropped military cut

As a homage to Wellington’s troops

Then fighting a superfluous Peninsular War.

Shelley had an ideological haircut.

 

To Oxford eyes 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 in Bedlam.’

 

Moreover, he’d sent the atheist pamphlet

To the heads of each Oxford college

In these pampered Gothic confections built by zealots –

Each college named after saints or God’s son.

 

Shelley was sent down after just two terms for saying,

“If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods,

Knowledge of nature is made for their destruction.”

And for exposing Oxford’s aversion to sense.

 

But for his pains he was subjected to, as he put it,

Oxford’s “violent tyrannical feelings ”

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.”

 

“Every reflecting mind must allow”, Shelley added,

“There’s no proof of the existence of a god.”

Then, as if the notion constituted a scientific proof,

The poet had written with relish, “QED”.

 

The Master of his college thought Shelley’s ideas

Must have derived from Tom Paine,

And took Shelley to task by saying he knew his mentor –

The maverick author of ‘Common Sense’ –

 

Had played a part in the French Revolution

As well as stirring up Americans to rebel

So the Master warned him that Oxford must be spared

Such ‘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 a finger at Shelley, ‘are seditious

And sedition is a capital offence.’

 

The Master had also taken legal advice

With regard to blasphemous libel

And duly informed those he’d summoned

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.”

 

So this gaggle of biddable dons whom the Master

Had empanelled to hear Shelley’s case

All agreed that if the blasphemer remained a moment longer,

Any respect that Oxford had would be lost.

 

‘…Should Shelley turn the student body seditionary,

Oxford could be depopulated,’ they concurred,

‘All his dupes could be taken to Traitors’ Gate,

Or to Tyburn tree to be hanged.’ They agreed.

 

Any ideas that Oxford stood for freedom of thought

Were to be crushed by this Christian Taliban;

Who rounded on Shelley as his expulsion was announced –

One don spitefully interjecting, “QED.”

 

The book-burnings were supervised by a senior cleric –

Yet not one of Oxford’s great minds

Addressed Shelley’s philosophical contentions,

And instead kept a self-serving silence

 

Or, in much the same way as Shelley’s furious father

(“In equine fashion”, as Shelley put it),

Could only whinny, ‘I believe because I believe.’

The five thousand intellectuals in Oxford

 

Claimed faith was the only proof they required.

Seeing Shelley in London shortly after,

Someone tried to change his opinions ‘for his own good’,

But they found him 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!”

 

To Shelley, priestly talk of heaven and hell

Represented an absurd assumption:

He once asked a baby on Magdalen Bridge,

To the bemusement of its mother,

 

Whether or not her baby remembered

Its pre-existence before it was born;

And he would retort in an anguished voice

Whenever compelled to attend church

 

And 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 persuaded people to be ruled by will o’ the wisps.

 

And as for his expulsion and Oxford’s death-threats –

Its continued threats of prosecution for sedition –

Instead of their quelling his urge to change the system

They’d make him more outspoken than ever.

 

Two years after leaving, he produces ‘Queen Mab’

Expanding his attacks on the state,

Which he berates for being run by racketeers:

“Royal murderers whose mean thrones

 

“Are bought by crimes of treachery and gore,”

And Shelley’s analysis continues:

“The bread they eat, the staff on which they lean.

Depended on their crime.”

 

As for the royal family’s panoply 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’d condemn them

For claiming a uniform 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 favour on Remembrance Day

At the Cenotaph’s royal wreath-laying,

Where the sorry myth there can be a “good war”

Is gloomily celebrated 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.”

He was saying that all war’s a war crime.

 

When at Oxford Shelley wrote a third pamphlet,

Never discovered by the powers that be:

It was called ‘The Existing State of Things’

But he published it more discreetly,

 

For it posed the clearest threat to the British powerbase;

And for Munday’s safety during its

printing

He 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

He exposed the glorification of war

But also showed how the powerful promote it for profit

To satisfy their imperial 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.”

 

Shelley urged George III to remove his ample behind

And let people sit on his privileged 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”

And embraced a proto-socialism

Of evolutionary change in which humanity inevitably,

Being fed on goodness, becomes virtuous.

 

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”

 

His watchword was that he wished no living thing harm.

His fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg,

Said the seeds of his vegetarian theories were sown in Oxford,

And his Pythagorean notions of natural living.

 

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.”

 

The pistols were a precaution against the “Shelley-baiting”

Of which Shelley been a victim at school;

They were never used but he found the glimpse of a bullet

Turned bullying ‘bloods’ 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 are smouldering 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 and national assemblies

 

With a social charter that can be fought for

And defended, just as Shelley advised?”

He 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.”

 

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.”

 

*

 

Should Shelley, still not believing in God

But perhaps believing in daemons,

Walk down Oxford’s High Street to the former site

Of Slatter & Munday’s bookshop,

 

He’d find in its place a branch of Lloyds TSB –

A fluorescent temple to the Golden Calf;

No calf-bindings; no gilt letters, just brochures

Enticing converts to the banker religion.

 

And instead of Shelley there are display panels

To interest the passer-by in interest rates;

Cash Points prove the existence of the money god

Whose religion’s compulsory, even for atheists.

 

The first thing to greet visitors at Oxford station

(Expecting a gentle scholar or a Jude the Obscure),

Is a bleak business school for the money-cult’s acolytes

Built by an arms-trader billionaire.

 

Then spiny fortresses, the colleges, ply for business by boasting

Of their success in producing government elites

And lure the gullible into spending half their lives

Paying off loans to buy Oxford’s trade secrets.

 

Mammon stifles the dreams of the dreaming spires –

The turreted antennae are tuned to investment

And scholarship for its own sake is considered redundant

Unless it’s sold with a business model;

 

And the soulful shops that Oxford once had,

Devoted to vinyl and second-hand books,

Are priced out by chains selling sweatshop products –

By ‘progressive’ councils favoring clone-towns.

 

In ‘Queen Mab’ Shelley singled out “Selfishness!”

As “Twin-sister of Religion”,

To him selfishness was the great delusion’s companion  –

Its “Rival in crime and falsehood.”

 

Then as now Mammon keeps such selfishness supplied

With tricks for storing up treasure on earth:

Mammon’s sly deceivers count their gilt-edged angels

In fake Edens concocted from debt.

 

Economic charlatans claim to see the future

Marketing a financial pie in the sky

Only to dash peoples’ hopes as their coins dwindle away,

For “There is no real wealth but the labor of man”

 

As Oxford’s prize pupil, its socialist anarchist, Percy Bysshe Shelley once said,

Before adding, “The man of virtuous soul,

Commands not, nor obeys”.

 

He was echoing the eleven year-old Shelley

Who’d often sign off his letters,

“Now I end. I am not Your obedient servant,

P. B. Shelley.” He was his own man –

 

A boy who’d grow up into someone despising excess,

Most of all monetary wealth.

A mausoleum depicts Shelley’s 29-year-old corpse,

His body’s held up by winged lions.

 

Shelley saw that, “Commerce has set the mark of selfishness:

The signet of its all enslaving power”

Which prompted Marx to say he grieved Shelley died so young,

“Because he was essentially a revolutionist”.

 

Shelley wrote the first atheist tract printed in English,

Scaring Oxford stiff with the implications,

Yet rather than confront them it’d defend its dubious values

And expel the rationalist ruffling its feathers.

 

Oxford concurred with the London Courier, a Tory paper,

Which published an obituary of Shelley that began,

“Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned:

Now he knows whether there is a God or no.”

 

Byron’s verdict transcended the vicious sneers,

“You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley.

He was the best and least selfish man I knew.”

An atheist who could be the supreme altruist.

 

Ironically the sympathy expressed in Shelley’s lines,

“The fainting Indian on his native Plains/

Writhes to superior power’s unnumbered pains.”

Made Krishnamurti say,“Shelley is as sacred as the Bible.”

 

Establishment Victorians such as Mathew Arnold

Dismissed him as “beautiful, but ineffectual”

Yet to hardcore activists his words were dynamite

And he’d become a guiding light to the Chartists.

 

Pirate versions of ‘Queen Mab’ were circulated;

It was declaimed at trade union meetings

Whereupon it was thought so dangerously inflammatory

That Moxon, its printer, was jailed.

 

Ye who suffer woes untold

Or to feel or to behold

Your lost country bought and sold

With a price of blood and gold.”

 

 

In 1989 students stood in front of tanks and chanted

Lines from Shelley to demonstrate

Against the autocratic and murderous cult

Of the Chinese god, Chairman Mao.

 

你们人多,他们人少

(‘Ye are many they are few’)

 

And in 2011 as world wide anti-capitalist risings

Denounced the idols of Mammon,

Crowds again quoted from Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’

On both their banners and in their meetings.

 

“Rise like lions from your slumber

Ye are many, they are few.”

Showing that, despite Oxford’s attempts to silence it,

A godless anarchist voice is still being heard.

 

*

 

In 1812, shaking Oxford’s dust off his feet,

Shelley’s in London building sky lanterns –

Fire balloons with under-carriages full of poems,

And protests about England being in Ireland.

 

These lanterns “laden with knowledge”, as Shelley put it,

Would fly a thousand feet in the air

Then burn out, for the poems to tumble down

And scatter across England to transform it.
Heathcote Williams, a poet, playwright and actor, has made a significant contribution to many fields.  He is best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects: Whale Nation, Falling for a Dolphin,Sacred Elephant and Autogeddon.  His plays have also won acclaim, notably AC/DC produced at London’s Royal Court, and Hancock’s Last Half Hour.  As an actor he has been equally versatile – taking memorable roles in Orlando, Wish You Were Here, and Derek Jarman’s The Tempest, in which he played Prospero.

 

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