Book Review from the March 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
Shelley at Oxford by Heathcote Williams. (Huxley Scientific Press, Oxford.)
Sadly, for this reviewer, Heathcote Williams disdains the discipline of what would have been called prosody in Shelley's day. Still, in these 30 pages of free verse, the language is Shelleyian, as is the anger and contempt for the latter-day version of capitalism.
Sub-titled ‘Blasphemy, Book-burning and Bedlam’ Williams's poetic narrative depicts the reaction among the bishops, aspiring bishops and potential managerial functionaries of the Christian church in 1811 when confronted by a pamphlet written by a 19-year-old Oxford student which challenged the sacred bona-fides of their founder.
A young upstart of impeccably aristocratic descent had written a pamphlet affirming The Necessity of Atheism here! In the sacred precincts of class-orientated, male-dominated Christian culture. Obviously there had to be a Christian response to this attack on the sinews of faith in God and the church system. Oxford bristled with divine erudition and an abundance of faith. But faith was simply belief without knowledge and the core beliefs of Christianity were logically unsustainable; so the holy men of Oxford and its wider hinterland turned to its traditional processes of defence: fear, intimidation and suppression
Heathcote Williams says now, with the forthrightness of Percy Shelley:
‘A theological mafia with every whim indulged
By their colleges' underpaid servants
Which is hired to cook up the date of Creation
Or to invent the location of Eden.’
Oxford and its professors of myth abandoned argument in favour of direct action. The single bookshop that had been persuaded to take The Necessity of Atheism was threatened and ostracised; the book was publicly burned and the author expelled for thinking out loud. Ten years later, when the news of his death by drowning was made public the holy ardour and charity of Christianity was expressed thus in the columns of the London Courier:
‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry has been drowned; now he knows whether there is a God or no.’