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Queen Mab
"Throughout these infinite orbs of mingling light,Of which yon earth is one, is wide diffus'dA Spirit of activity and life,That knows no term, cessation, or decay...."
Queen Mab

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Details
Queen Mab
Percy Bysshe Shelley
SHELLEY, Percy Bysshe (1792-1822). Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem. London: P.B. Shelley, 1813.

First edition, a very fine unmutilated copy in original condition. Queen Mab is a "freethinking and socialistic gospel ... couched in a rhetoric so exalted as to pass easily for poetry" (DNB). Shelley's explosive conjunction of poetry and philosophy questions the nature of convention, custom, and the hypocrisy of institutional thinking. In the prose Notes following the verse, Shelley examines taboos relating to topics like sex, mob mentality, and the particularly divisive subject of God: "It is probable that the word God was originally only an expression denoting the unknown cause of the known events which men perceived in the universe ... Every reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity. God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof."

While Thomas Hookham was employed by Shelley to print Queen Mab (although Hookham actually sub-contracted the job to another printer), he would have doubtlessly refused the job had Shelley not agreed to use his own name and address on the title-page and imprint on the final leaf. Both men knew well that circulating printed matter without the printer's name was subject to stern punishment in the courts. Shelley willingly issued Queen Mab with his name as the printer, but keenly "mutilated" most of the copies he distributed by cutting out the imprint on the title and final leaf. At the time of publication, Shelley was also "on the eve of the great crisis of his life, his separation from [his wife] Harriet" (DNB). Shelley had with prescience written in the Notes to Queen Mab, "A husband and wife ought to continue so long united as they love each other." The dissolution of his marriage caused Shelley much pain, and so in addition to excising the imprint, Shelley removed most of the dedication leaves prior to distribution.

Although it is believed that 250 copies were printed for private distribution, Shelley never came close to disposing of the whole edition and shortly after Shelley's death, the publisher Richard Carlile advertised the remaining 180 copies. The book remained largely unknown until 1821, when a piratical edition by William Clark appeared. The hostile reviews by critics and resulting court cases and prosecutions brought Shelley and his book great notoriety and fame. Clark's actions brought him a prison sentence. Ashley V, p.57; Granniss/Grolier Shelley 15; Hayward 225; Tinker 1886; Wise Shelley, pp.39-40.

Octavo (196 x 118mm). Original drab boards, without label as issued, uncut (joints cracked, otherwise very fine). Provenance: word "Fairy" written in in a contemporary hand in upper margin of D2 – A.S.W. Rosenbach (pencil note) – Louis H. Silver (morocco booklabel; purchased by John F. Fleming at the sale of Newberry Library duplicates from the Silver accession, Sotheby's, London, 9 November 1965, lot 301) – Abel E. Berland (Christie’s, New York, 8 October 2001, lot 105).

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Heather Weintraub
Heather Weintraub Specialist, Books, Manuscripts, & Archives

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