A little over two hundred years ago a college student named P.B. Shelley got himself expelled from Oxford. Now, at last, we know exactly why.
The Bodleian Library at Oxford has made available a recently discovered copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Poetical Essay on the State of Things.” Long thought lost, the poem, along with his essay “The Necessity of Atheism,” got the most intellectual of the Romantic poets expelled from Oxford.
The story of Shelley’s expulsion from university and his subsequent life as poet, free thinker, friend of both Keats and Byron, and political activist are well known and do not need further rehearsal. At this moment, given the horror of the recent attacks in Paris that we’re trying to comprehend, it seems particularly fitting to ponder Shelley’s arguments.
Shelley notes the terrible toll:
Destruction marks thee! o’er the bloodstain’d heath
Is faintly borne the stifled wail of death;
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.
He also notes that those responsible for “inspiring” (what a hideous use of the word) bloodshed rarely pay a price themselves:
Ye cold advisers of yet colder kings,
To whose fell breast no passion virtue brings
Who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang,
Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang,
Ever notice there are no Imam or Ayatollah suicide bombers? Yeah. Me too.
Our killing of a mouthpiece like Jihadi John – like our killing of Saddam Hussein, like our killing of Osama Bin Laden – are only temporary sops to what Shelley calls the real culprit: ignorance, hate, and intolerance – which must be overcome:
Man must assert his native rights, must say…
Oppressive law no more shall power retain,
Peace, love, and concord, once shall rule again,
And heal the anguish of a suffering world;
Then, then shall things, which now confusedly hurled,
Seem Chaos, be resolved to order’s sway,
And errors night be turned to virtue’s day.
“Virtue’s day” – like Shelley, we all yearn for that light – the light of virtue, where persons act from “peace, love, and concord” rather than from hate, intolerance, and fear. Sadly, our world, like Shelley’s bark in “Adonais,” is being “borne darkly, fearfully afar” from any place where tolerance or acceptance seems possible. It is instead likely we will fall upon and bleed from many more “thorns of life” before we reach safe harbor.