The last page of Shelley's letter of December 7 1811, with his signature and address-panel to Wedgwood. © University College, Oxford
University College Oxford and the Bodleian Library have together acquired a group of intriguing letters that shed some light on the thinking of one of its most famous undergraduates.
Written by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg before the pair were expelled from the college in March 1811, the letters were sent to the inventor Ralph Wedgwood, who is most famous for inventing carbon paper.
Shelley’s last letter to him in February 1811 is indeed a carbon copy, written with a sample of the carbon paper, which Wedgwood had sent him.
Previously unknown, the unlikely correspondence stemmed from an advertisement the two precocious undergraduates had seen for another of Wedgwood’s inventions – the Othiograph. This complicated invention intended to convert letters, numbers and musical intervals into a new universal language and notation system, which Wedgwood explained and justified through a convoluted theology.
The first page of Shelley's letter of January 13 1811, written from his home at Field Place, Horsham. © University College, Oxford
The inventor claimed he would restore the ‘Universal Language and Character’ of Adam, by harking back to a time before Babel. It was the latter that sparked Shelley and Hogg’s ironic interest and what followed was a sequence of brilliant letters that poked fun at the basis of Wedgwood’s theological beliefs.
Bruce Barker-Benfield, who looks after the Shelley Collections within the Department of Special Collections and Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, explained the importance of the discovery.
“One of the main reasons why this discovery is so exciting is that they come from the Oxford period – Shelley only spent two terms at Oxford with his associate Thomas Jefferson Hogg. It gives an insight into the thinking of Shelley during the run up to the pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism.”
The pamphlet, which Hogg and Shelley wrote and anonymously sent to Bishops and other leading clerics, used the principles of logic to attack the Christian theology of the time. For their pains the two were expelled.
Miniature (tinted drawing) of Shelley as a boy, by the Duc de Montpensier. © Oxford, Bodleian Library
“We have a few letters from this period and a few from elsewhere and the discovery caused extreme excitement,” added Dr Barker-Benfield.
The question now is how much the letters will reveal about the atheistic ideas that Shelley famously developed during his short time at Oxford.
“We can’t be absolutely sure that the letters influenced the Necessity of Atheism,” added Dr Barker-Benfield, “but these ideas are certainly a strong part of the letters and the development of their ideas at the time.”
Recently discovered with a small group of other Wedgwood papers in the house contents of a pair of recently deceased brothers, the letters were recognised and valued by Christies just before they were sent to a car boot sale.
Signature of Thomas Jefferson Hogg at the end of his letter of December 8 1810, with quotations in Greek and Hebrew. © University College, Oxford
With the aid of a donation from the AG Leventis Foundation, they were purchased at auction by University College in cooperation with the Bodleian Library, where they have been deposited. Now available for study alongside the library’s own Shelley papers, they now form part of what is recognised as the world’s most important collection of his manuscripts.
“We are enormously grateful to the A G Leventis Foundation for helping us to acquire these fascinating letters, uniting them with the Bodleian Library’s existing collection of Shelley papers,” said Lord Butler of Brockwell, Master of University College.
“I’m delighted that scholars will now have the opportunity to study these letters, adding to our understanding of one of England’s finest Romantic poets.” He added.