Document found in which Shelley declared himself an atheist

Many of us know that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was an atheist, and some also know that he was one of the first “out” atheists in Britain. In 1811, while a first-year undergraduate at Oxford, Shelley published an inflammatory pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, (You can read it online here.) I couldn’t find out how his name got associated with the pamphlet, as it was published anonymously, but he was found out—and expelled. As Wikipedia notes:

At that time the content was so shocking to the authorities that he was rusticated for contumacy in his refusing to deny authorship, together with his friend and fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. A revised and expanded version was printed in 1813.

I love that antiquated word “rusticated”, which is still used in India to mean “expelled” (check the link). And its linkage with “contumacy” is delicious. Here’s the pamphlet:

The_Necessity_of_Atheism_(Shelley)_title_page

At any rate, Shelley could be seen as the first “New Atheist,” since he argued that the idea of God should be seen one that requires supporting evidence. The frontispiece of my book Faith Versus Fact starts with a quote from the 1813 edition of the pamphlet:

“God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi  [burden of proof] rests on the theist.”

One of the characteristics of “New Atheists”, as I see it, is their framing of religious “truths” as questions subject to empirical and rational examination (i.e., science construed broadly). Although Shelley wasn’t a scientist, I adopted him as an Honorary Scientist (and honorary New Atheist) for making the statement above.

Shelley was offered readmission to Oxford if he recanted his views, but he refused. His love life was tumultuous, and he abandoned his pregnant wife to run off to Switzerland with Mary Wollstonecraft, who later wrote the novel Frankenstein. And of course he was one of the greatest lyric poets of his time, producing masterpieces like “Ozymandias” and “Ode to the West Wind“, with its famous last line. He drowned at age 29 while trying to sail his boat through a storm on the Gulf of La Spezia in Italy.

That’s a long introduction, but I do love Shelley’s poetry, especially “Ozymandias”; and his atheism is a bonus. Reader jjh brought to my attention a new discovery about Shelley’s nonbelief published on polymath Graham Henderson’s website. The title is self-explanatory, “Hotel register in which Shelley declared himself to be an atheist: found.”

Henderson explains:

On 19 July 2016, the University of Cambridge made a startling and almost completely unheralded announcement.  They were in possession of a page from the register of a hotel in Chamonix: not just any page and not just any hotel. The hotel was the Hotel de Villes de Londres and the page in question was the one upon which Percy Bysshe Shelley had inscribed his famous declaration that he was an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat. Not a copy of it….THE page. No reproduction or copy of this page has ever, to my knowledge been made available to the public.  Evidence for what Shelley wrote was based almost exclusively on either eye witnesses, such as Southey and Byron, or mere hearsay.

I make the point in my article “Atheist. Lover of Humanity. Democrat.” What did Shelley Mean?” that Shelley’s declaration is exceedingly important to our understanding of his entire literary output. There I wrote,

“I think his choice of words was very deliberate and central to how he defined himself and how wanted the world to think of him.  They may well have been the words he was most famous (or infamous) for in his lifetime.” Thus the discovery of this page is a rather momentous occasion; rather like finding a hitherto unknown, handwritten copy of the Gettysburgh [sic] Address.

This famous page, whose discovery was announced this month in the Cambridge News, has an enigmatic history. It disappeared from the hotel register three years after Shelley’s death, and then was found pasted into Shelley’s personal copy of one of his poems—ironically, “The Revolt of Islam.”

Here’s the only picture of the page on the Internet, unfortunately not in high resolution. Below it I’ve enlarged the part of the page on which Shelley declares himself.

static1.squarespace

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 12.53.30 AM

I can’t make out the Greek, as the document is not in high resolution, but perhaps a reader can.

Henderson continues:

On the left hand side of the page we see Shelley’s familiar signature – I don’t know why, but I felt quite emotional seeing this. Below it are the initials of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin: “MWG”.  Beside their names we have their country and city of origin: London, England.

Interestingly, Shelley’s signature has been underlined twice – but by whom?

Henderson thinks it was Shelley’s friend Lord Byron who did this. He goes on about the signature:

Under the column heading, “destination”, Shelley writes “L’Enfer” [JAC: French for “hell”]; both for himself and for Mary. We might find this amusing – but it was anything but in those days.

And the Greek inscription given as Shelley’s profession?

The words Shelley wrote in the register of the Hotel de Villes de Londres (under the heading “Occupation”) were (as translated by PMS Dawson): “philanthropist, an utter democrat, and an atheist”.  The words were, as I say, written in Greek.  The Greek word he used for philanthropist was “philanthropos tropos.”

Be sure to read Henderson’s complementary article, which explains in detail the significance of the words used by Shelley to identify himself. Henderson feels that all three descriptions were meant to be provocative, though it’s not quite clear whom Shelley intended to provoke by writing in a hotel register! Apparently it was meant to be seen by other British tourists who frequented the hotel. And it was, and they were outraged. As Henderson notes in his ancillary post:

The reaction to Shelley’s entry was predictably furious and focused almost exclusively on Shelley’s choice of the word “atheist”.  For example, this anonymous comment appeared in the London Chronicle:

Mr. Shelley is understood to be the person who, after gazing on Mont Blanc, registered himself in the album as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist; which gross and cheap bravado he, with the natural tact of the new school, took for a display of philosophic courage; and his obscure muse has been since constantly spreading all her foulness of those doctrines which a decent infidel would treat with respect and in which the wise and honourable have in all ages found the perfection of wisdom and virtue.

It took a lot more guts back then to declare yourself an atheist than it does now. But Shelley was the Hitchens of his day: he simply didn’t give a damn what people thought of him, and delighted in provoking the pious.

h/t: jjh

55 Comments

  1. Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    This is how Hitchens opened his speech at Sewanne University, February 23, 2004.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Looks like “rusticated” is used chiefly at Oxford and Cambridge to denote expulsion.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      But it’s used very widely in India, which of course uses a lot of archaic English. I heard rusticated used in conjunction with students expelled in both Delhi and Hyderabad.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        Consequence of the whole British thing back in the day I guess… didn’t update itself…

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:26 am | Permalink

        I was aware of “rusticate” used in the sense of going to stay in the woods or the country (or elsewhere “rustic”), but had never heard it used in a transitive sense before.

    • Dower_House
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      In the Ox/Cambs sense, rusticated implies that the expulsion is temporary, and the expectation is that the student will return for the next academic year.

      I don’t think I have ever heard the term except in relation to Oxbridge.

    • Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      I believe in Sir Isaac Newton’s day “rusticated” meant sent to the country for moral or intellectual recuperation. I think Newton worked on his Principia while rusticated.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    I have been wondering if a better term would be “anti religionist”, if it came to it that I had to admit anything in social circles… present social circle excepted…

  4. Posted July 31, 2016 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Might it be that Shelley was reacting to the first inscription on the page, where it looks like someone went on about a “love of God”?

  5. GBJames
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    sub

  6. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    “Mr. Shelley is understood to be the person who, after gazing on Mont Blanc, registered himself in the album as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Atheist;”.

    Translation: An atheist can’t feel wonder.

    “which gross and cheap bravado he, with the natural tact of the new school, took for a display of philosophic courage;”

    Translation: He is one of those New Atheists.

    “and his obscure muse has been since constantly spreading all her foulness of those doctrines which a decent infidel would treat with respect and in which the wise and honourable have in all ages found the perfection of wisdom and virtue.”

    Translation: I specially plead honor, wisdom, virtue and respect. So STFU!

    The more things change, the more religionists stay the same.

  7. Merilee
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Wonderful! Back to the boonies for Percy. Why do the Brits always use going UP or DOWN when referring to university? ( is it only Oxbridge?)

    • Diki
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      They don’t and if they were to speak like that these days they would be regarded as a knob.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    The Romantic poets have always been my favourite. They were the real thinkers. The Victorians who came after paled in comparison.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:17 am | Permalink

      So no love for the Brownings, Mr. & Mrs., or Tennyson, or the sisters Brontë?

      Anyway, what the Victorians did best was novels — Dickens and Thackrey and Trollope, natch. And George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and that expatriated American, Henry James.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        I agree – the Victorians did novels better. I hate their poetry for the most part with a few exceptions.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          Agreed on the poetry, though my favorite Romantic-era writer was a nifty prose stylist who hung out with the Lake poets, Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater — the ur-text of dope-lit. Without him, we wouldn’t have had William Burroughs or Hunter Thompson, or have Jerry Stahl, or an entire sub-genre of transgressive, outlaw writing.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

            When you said “lake”, alas, I again thought of Shelly and his untimely demise.

  9. Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Really enjoyed this post, thank you.

  10. Jenny Haniver
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    “Many of us know that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was an atheist, and some also know that he was one of the first “out” atheists in Britain.”

    I did not know this prior to reading Henderson’s posts, but I should have. Shame on me. Thank you for the additional information.

    My father occasionally used the word “rusticated” and he was neither English nor Indian but he loved words that had a certain “mouth feel,” here meaning the way it rolled off the tongue (can one also say “brain feel” because it pleases my brain, too?). I detest the phrase “mouth feel” but it precisely illustrates the concept — it has a bad “mouth feel” and brain feel for me.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      And did I miss the recipe for the cherry pie, or is it a secret? What torture it is to behold that pie and not be able to dig into it with some Polish ice cream. Also torture to behold the gorgeous landscape but unable to experience it in the flesh.

  11. Posted July 31, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    “I love that antiquated word “rusticated”, which is still used in India to mean “expelled” (check the link). And its linkage with “contumacy” is delicious.”

    👏👍

    I had the same reaction to those words and their pairing. I got excited by them. If I were at a computer (writing on phone), I’d be looking them up to enjoy them more!

    • chewy
      Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      And let’s not forget “invigilate/invigilator”. Just reading a collection of Hitchens’ essays from 1988 where the word pops up regularly. I’ve been attempting to insert it when appropriate but not often meeting with much success.

      Thanks for the Shelley note — helped give hope for an otherwise trying day. That and the cherry pies….

      • Merilee
        Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        In Canadian schools we teachers invigilate exams. Don’t believe it’s used in the States??

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          I never heard that word in high school. I heard it only when I went to university where we had “invigilators” who received a stipend for wandering around as we wrote our exams, keeping an eye on us.

          • Merilee
            Posted July 31, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

            It might only have been used during standardized tests where there were large numbers of kids in the cafeteria or gym.

          • Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:44 am | Permalink

            My US colleagues tell me the corresponding term is ”proctoring” – in my work, I’m writing about the use of biometric methods for remote invigilation/proctoring of online exams, to corroborate that it is the registered student who’s taking it.

            /@

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

              I guess in Canada with use invigilate. Must be a British term we picked up.

        • Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          “Proctor” was used both at UBC and at CMU, so there’s one US usage and another Canadian. (“Invigilate” is what all the places I went to in Quebec used, for what that’s worth.)

  12. Posted July 31, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Shelley is a marvellous counter-example to the supposed artlessness of atheists. While Wordsworth was writing romantic poetry with a heavy religious bent, Shelley harnessed the sublime in a similar way to produce wonderful naturalistic poetry (no religion required). Consider this stanza from Mont Blanc itself, declaring his mind naturally determined:

    Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee
    I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
    To muse on my own separate fantasy,
    My own, my human mind, which passively
    Now renders and receives fast influencings,
    Holding an unremitting interchange
    With the clear universe of things around

  13. Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t compare Shelley to Hitchens. To my knowledge, Hitchens was a nice man, while Shelley was often callous to people around him.

  14. Mark R.
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I too love Ozymandias. As a freshman in high school (9th grade in the US) my English class used the poem to teach about “situational irony”. Of course there was no mention of Shelley being an atheist.

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:46 am | Permalink

      I wonder if “king of kings” was a deliberate reference to religion.

      /@

  15. Hilton
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    The Pursuit by Richard Holmes is a wonderful biography of the poet : http://www.nyrb.com/products/shelley-the-pursuit?variant=1094931245

  16. Barbara Radcliffe
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I like the term rusticated. It reminds me of ‘gardening leave’ that was used in a small town near hear when the workers in its only industry, a lead smelter, had unacceptably high blood lead levels. They were given ‘gardening leave’ to work for local government maintaining the public parks and gardens until they could be safely exposed to lead again. The level of lead exposure in those days may explain the rather nice gardens there.

  17. W.Benson
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Re “Going to l’Enfer: A few years ago I while rummaging through some of Lord Byron’s views on pre-Adamic man, I came across reports of what happened, less atheism, that summer of 1816 in Switzerland. That was when and where Mary Godwin Shelley invented Frankenstein’s Monster and John William Polidori (who was Lord Byron’s doctor) conceived “The Vampyres”, source of everything that has come after. Lord Byron and a girl friend were also there. Everyone complained about the rainy, unpleasant summer, making them stay inside a lot, but I suspect they had lots of fun.

  18. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted July 31, 2016 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always liked Ozymandias. I can still recall most of the 14 lines, though I haven’t read it for four or five decades.

    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’.
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of this colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on Ozymandias also lists Shelley’s friend Horace Smith’s attempt at the same subject, which I’d never heard of before but which, to my mind, has a very strong flavour of Omar Khayyam to it. This makes me realise that Shelley’s Ozymandias does share a similar world view to Fitzgerald, but I’d never made the connection before.

    cr

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      A book of verse, a jug of wine, and thou
      Beside me in the wilderness
      And wilderness is paradise enow.

      I’m not sure the shores of Lake Geneva constitute “a wilderness” but I’m sure Shelley and friends would recognise the sentiment.

      /@

      • Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:55 am | Permalink

        PS. Or, I should say, Lake Léman, as a courtesy to my Swiss friends who are annoyed by Geneva’s arrogating the whole lake for itself.

        • GBJames
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:07 am | Permalink

          Yeah. Lake Geneva is the name of a town in Wisconsin. It lies on the shore of Geneva Lake, just to keep things clear.

      • GBJames
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:06 am | Permalink

        Sheesh. Early in the morning and just started my coffee. I read it as:

        “A book of verse, a jug of wine, and tofu”

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

          😜

  19. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    OK, here’s Smith’s version, which to my mind is okay – about as good as most of Omar Khayyam – though IMO Shelley’s is better, which is probably why Smith’s is little known.

    In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
    Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
    The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
    “I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
    “The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
    “The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
    Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
    The site of this forgotten Babylon.

    We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
    Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
    Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
    He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
    What powerful but unrecorded race
    Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

    What reminds me strongly of Omar is the repeated dashes, enclosing long parenthetical clauses.

    For example, (I think this is from the first version, could be wrong):

    Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
    Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
    How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
    Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

    They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
    The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
    And Bahram, that great Hunter–the Wild Ass
    Stamps o’er his Head, but cannot break his Sleep.

    … and much more.

    I even found a deterministic one specially for PCC:

    And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
    Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die,
    Lift not your hands to It for help–for It
    As impotently moves as you or I.

    cr

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      That was actually a follow-up to Ant’s comment.

      The ‘Comment’ button lurks, and once it’s hit
      Thy post is set, nor all thy frantic wit
      Shall lure it back to fix one errant tag
      Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.

      cr

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      “He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess…”

      “Ah, damn you! God damn you all to Hell!”

      /@

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:52 am | Permalink

        I must be a bit slow tonight, I don’t get the allusion?

        cr

        • Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:02 am | Permalink

          Think New York rather than London.

          /@

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:58 am | Permalink

            I would guess – because I don’t know the quote at all, and I only saw snatches of the movie, but from the context of this comment – Planet of the Apes, which concluded with the top of the Statue of Liberty above the beach?

            cr

            • Posted August 1, 2016 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

              Bingo! Well worked out, if you’d never seen the scene.

              youtu.be/ZWphqA1Slrw

              /@

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 1, 2016 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

                No, I had seen the scene. That is to say, I saw snatches of Planet of the Apes on TV, not really bothering to watch because I wasn’t into SciFi then, many decades ago. So none of the dialogue ever registered in my memory, I just had a visual snapshot of that last shot with the statue half-buried on the beach.

                Certainly ranks up there as one of the most powerful shock endings in storytelling.

                cr

  20. Mike
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Good old Perce, told it like it was.

  21. DickK
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I think I was born an atheist. My mom took me to Sunday school as a child, but I remember being embarrassed to listen to talk about a dead guy loving me. I don’t think I was ever a believer.


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