Paul O’Brien: Shelley's Adventure in Irish Politics

Roundup: Talking About History

Paul O’Brien is a writer and critic and the author of Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland (Bookmarks, London)

THE GREAT lyrical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley seems destined to be forever linked to clouds and skylarks – but he was far more than that. Shelley was a republican, an atheist, a feminist, and an egalitarian; he was a poet of the revolution. He was despised when he was alive and patronised when he was safely dead.

For Shelley, born in 1792 in Sussex, the revolutionary upheavals towards the end of the 18th century in France and Ireland were a tradition rather than a personal experience. But he was formed by these events, just as the first generation of Romantics – Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey – were transformed by the reality of those great revolutionary upheavals. Shelley experienced them second-hand through the books of William Godwin and Tom Paine. But his radicalism grew out of a living contact with the brutality of war and imperialism at the beginning of the 19th century, and Ireland was central to that experience. His friend, Thomas Hogg, suggested that Shelley’s interest in Irish politics was fired by Irish revolutionaries who frequented the coffee-shops of London.

In 1811, while at Oxford University, Shelley had published a “poetical essay” in support of the Irish journalist Peter Finnerty, then in Lincoln jail for libelling Lord Castlereagh. Shelley’s essay was highly critical of the British government and this may have influenced the decision to expel him from Oxford shortly afterwards....

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