By Jess Owen
Thomas Paine was not the only associate of Clio Rickman to make a name for himself. When he was composing the verses that eventually became Queen Mab the young poet, Shelley, had recourse to his ideas.
In September 1812 Shelley and his entourage settled in Tremadog, Gogledd Cymru. There he continued the development of his first major work, the Spenserian allegory: Queen Mab. His background reading for the poem was prodigious. To obtain some of it he called upon the services of the veteran radical, poet, singer and bookseller, Thomas Clio Rickman, who lived at 148 New Cavendish Street.
In a letter to Rickman, Shelley told him; “I prefer employing a countryman, and a man of liberal and enlightened mind to a stranger”. He had already been in contact with Rickman ‘on another matter’ and so knew of Rickman’s radical reputation, and his association with Paine.
It is quite likely Rickmans’ shop was still under surveillance as he was involved in the publication of Eaton’s edition of Paine’s “Third Part” of The Age of Reason. A book which directly questioned the place of organised religion in any civilised society.
Shelley may have been drawn to the veteran radical by his eagerness for information on Paine. It was public knowledge that Rickman was preparing a life of his former lodger. It is also possible that Shelley knew, or at least suspected, it was Thomas Clio Rickman who provided an introduction and Impromptu to the publication by Eaton for which he went to prison in 1812.
There can be no doubt that Rickman’s ideas influenced the young poet. One commentator has remarked that; “Again and again in his comments on the French Revolution, he argued that the attempt to overthrow the old order by violent revolution merely perpetuated the spirit of that order…”
Rickmans’ poem on the trial of the king seems to have had an effect on Shelley;
Try your late king! by no means, no!
Behave like men and let him go.
To try him argues want of sense,
And tends to give him consequence.
Oh! be philosophers, and say,
Go, once our monarch, go away;
There’s money, where you please go, spend it,
And take your life, and learn to mend it.
For Shelley assumes throughout Mab, that by showing the evils inherent in monarchy, legislators can be taught to amend their ways through an appeal to conscience.
In Canto III of the poem Mab observes the ‘King’ unable to sleep and haunted by his condition, hoping for respite:
Oh visit me but once, but pitying shed
One drop of balm upon my withered soul
The Fairy points out that it is the baggage around the throne that ensnares a monarch in their tendrils;
Vain man! that palace is the virtuous heart,
And Peace defileth not her snowy robes
In such a shed as thine. Hark! yet he mutters;
His slumbers are but varied agonies,
They prey like scorpions on the springs of life.
There needeth not the hell that bigots frame
To punish those that err: earth in itself
Contains at one the evil and the cure;
And all-sufficing Nature can chastise
Those who transgress her law,”
And surely Shelley echoes Rickman’s sentiments when he asks;
Is it strange
That this poor wretch should pride him in his woe?
Take pleasure in his abjectness, and hug
The scorpion that consumes him? Is it strange
That, placed on a conspicuous crown of thorns,
Grasping an iron sceptre, and immured
Within a splendid prison, whose stern bounds
Shut him from all that’s good or dear on earth,
His soul asserts not his humanity?”
Rickman offered a benevolent attitude to monarchs, perceiving them as buffoons;
Why pray of late, do Europe’s kings,
No Jester in their courts admit?
They’ve grown of late such stately things,
To bear a joke they think not fit.
But tho’ each Court a jester lacks,
To laugh at Monarchs to their faces;
Yet all mankind behind their backs,
Supply the honest jester’s places.
This may not have been Shelley’s only borrowing from Rickman. In 1808 published an uncharacteristically frank condemnation of ‘market forces’.
You may labour and toil, wipe the sweat from your brow,
See your children half starv’d and in rags;
You may dig in the mines, waste your strength at the plough,
To enrich and fill insolent money’d men’s bags.
See where yon proud equipage waits at the gate,
Where each riot, and luxury, croud the domain;
There a bully, and wanton, in splendour and state,
Lord it haughtily over the neighboring plain.
To support their extravagance, plunder’d behold
Those whose suff’rings unceasing, their riches supply;
From whose labour and toil is wrung out the gold,
These unprincipled minions and miscreants enjoy.
Such, with sneers, will the children of VIRTUE discard,
Which hath ever, they’ll say, its own sweet reward.
Great, great GOD OF NATURE! amidst all this maze,
Say, who can the mode of thy government scan?
Who trace out thy seemingly-retrograde ways,
And justify evils, like these, unto men?
Who shall say, why the lot of the worthy is hard,
And why, VIRTUE gets only its own poor reward!
Whilst ‘Reason’ is indelibly associated with Rickman’s name through his association with Thomas Paine. It is surely more than a coincidence that both ‘Nature’ and ‘Virtue’ are conjoined,both this poem, and Shelley’s mind. In Canto IV it is ‘virtue’ the poet contrasts with the debasement of the human spirit engendered by ‘Commerce’;
Commerce has set the mark of selfishness
The signet of its all-enslaving power
Upon a shining ore and called it gold
Before whose image bow the vulgar great
The vainly rich, the miserable proud
The mob of peasants, nobles priests and kings
And with blind feelings reverence the power
That grinds them to the dust of misery
But in the temple of their hireling hearts
Gold is a living god, and rules in scorn
All earthly things but virtue.
Shelley’s poem, though he had baulked at distributing more than a few copies amongst his acquaintances, reached the radical community. Large extracts were published in George Cannon’s Theological Inquirer. In December 1822 Richard Carlile announced that he had “bought up all remaining copies of Shelley’s 1813 edition, and offered them for sale”
Four years later the veteran Spencean Allen Davenport wrote to Carlile’s paper recommending that the Revolt of Islam should also receive a cheap and popular edition He added a deeply felt tribute to Shelley, and Queen Mab;
Yet shall his imperishable mind,
Deeply engraved on adamantine pages,
Excite the admiration of mankind,
Through an eternal chain of future ages.
The philosophic Plato reason’d well,
Who stamp’d the soul with immortality,
For, although in prime of manhood SHELLEY fell,
His soul still lives,– ‘Queen Mab’ can never die!
Mab was reprinted in the journals of the Chartist movement. On the eve of the 1839 Newport and Yorkshire risings several Chartist papers, including the Northern Star, reprinted part of the poem dealing with monarchy influenced by Rickman.
Queen Mab, although of relatively limited initial availability, had a resonance that would reverberate through the following decades. It is more than likely that Dickens’ use of the three ghosts in A Christmas Carol owes something to Shelleys’ three ‘visions’ in Queen Mab. In both narratives, the protagonist is shown the ‘Past Present and Future’.
In the rest of Europe Shelley’s reputation grew. The literary polymath Everhard Johannes Potgieter had Frielegraths’ Shamrock Thistle and Rose in his library, along with its extract from Mab. Potgieter, one of the most influential of editors in Northern Europe through his De Gids exercised a formative influence on the Dutch Tachtigers of De Nieuwe Gids, a group of poets in the Netherlands who combined romanticism with social comment, a contrast with developments in England and France where the ethos became ‘art for art’s sake’.
As a later critic was to point out in Eliot’s influential literary journal:
“If I am speaking here of the Nieuwe Gids here at some length it is also because the whole movement is of some interest to Englishmen in so far as it was profoundly influenced by the poetry of Shelley and Keats and critically by Shelley’s Defence of Poetry”– (1)
But perhaps, ultimately the influence of Shelleys Mab was to be found butressing the system in a manner that both he, and Clio Rickman, would have despised.
At the outbreak of the First Great European War, Charles Masterman was given the task of convening a literary propaganda unit. He assembled most of the great figures of the day, who duly provided a stream of essays, books and poems to bolster the war effort. Most of the writers engaged on this venture drew from Shelley the Platonic belief that poets could influence public thought in a manner that ‘laws’ could not.
One outcome of this was the ‘cult’ of Rupert Brooke, whose poems were used to help influence public opinion in America, and bring the country into the conflict on the side of the Triple Alliance.
But Rickman was not the only Fitzrovian who could have influenced the young Shelley. Around the recently built Fitzroy Square were one or two other poets of a radical hue. They will be looked at in a later article.
1.A Den Doolard Dutch Chronicle, The Criterion Vol IX No 34, October 1929 pp 110-116; .