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This spyglass belonged to the poet, atheist, and radical Percy Bysshe Shelley, and is held today in the collections of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. It is possibly the same one (subsequently repaired) as was recovered from the wreck of Shelley’s boat following his death at sea, aged just 29. Today, the spyglass is a reminder of exploration, observation, and reason: ideals which underpinned Shelley’s life, animated his poetry, and cemented his humanist approach.

It was Shelley’s impulse to look closely at things, and pursue his own reason where it led, which resulted in an early rejection of religion and the publication of his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (written with his friend T. J. Hogg), for which he was expelled from the University of Oxford in 1811. Resentful of the conventional upbringing and rigid education he experienced at Syon House Academy, Eton College, and University College, Oxford, Shelley’s rebellious and unconventional streak had been evident from an early age. Once at Oxford, he read radical authors, among them William Godwin and Thomas Paine, further firing his own radical ideals and defence of free thought. In a letter to his father following his expulsion, Shelley defended the path of reason that had led to his conclusions concerning religion, and railed against his treatment at the hands of authority:

You well know that a train of reasoning, & not any great profligacy has induced me to disbelieve the scriptures – this train myself & my friend pursued. We found to our surprise that (strange as it may appear) the proofs of an existing Deity were as far as we had observed, defective. We therefore embodied our doubts on the subject… How then were we treated? not as our fair, open, candid conduct might demand, no argument was publickly brought forward to disprove our reasoning, & it at once demonstrated the weakness of their cause, & their inveteracy on discovering it, when they publickly expelled myself & my friend… May I turn your attention to the advertisement, which surely deserved an answer not expulsion.

Today remembered as one of our best-loved poets, and an effervescent rebuttal of the idea of the ‘desiccated rationalist’, Shelley’s reputation has undergone great changes over the two centuries since his death. At the formal unveiling of a statue of Shelley –  housed at the university which expelled him – in 1893, the Master of University College declared that ‘the rebel of eighty years ago’ was ‘the hero of the present century’. Today, although Shelley’s atheist pamphlet would cause relatively little stir, the ideas expressed within it remain punishable by law and social derision in many parts of the world. The spyglass is also, then, a reminder to look beyond ourselves and outside the bounds of our own nations, working to defend – as Shelley did – the freedoms of our fellow humans (and humanists) everywhere.

Image: Shelley relics 20. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Read more

Shelley’s Ghost | Bodleian Library (archived exhibition)

Atheism’s aesthetic of enchantment | Andrew Copson | The Guardian

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