Percy Bysshe Shelley was involved in setting the type for printing Queen Mab for the first edition of 250 in 1813, which was intended for private distribution. He wrote – ‘let only 250 copies be printed. A small neat quarto on fine paper & so to catch the aristocrats: They will not read it but their sons and daughters may'. Roughly a third of the copies were given out, and the rest were stored at William Clark’s bookshop in London. Shelley went on to rewrite the poem, which was published as The Daemon of the World.
What happened to the stored copies?
In 1821 the stored copies were discovered and sold on the black market, not by Clark; Shelley tried to suppress the distribution, but could not get an injunction as the poem was deemed to be illegal. Clark himself was imprisoned for ‘the publication of blasphemous libels’, not for sedition (see The Morning Chronicle, 11 December 1821).
Was the work republished?
After Shelley died his father put an embargo on Mary Shelley publishing any of his son’s works; Queen Mab and The Daemon of the World were both omitted from the Posthumous and Miscellaneous Poems of 1826. But unscrupulous publishers cashed in on the poet’s posthumous fame: although publishing brought charges of blasphemy, it was deemed too profitable to miss. The 1830 edition of The Beauties of Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of 26 editions of the poet’s works which was published between 1821 and 1841 (it contains ‘a revised edition of Queen Mab, free from all the questionable passages’).
Chartist newspapers regularly advertised cheap editions or synopses of Shelley’s life and works (see The Northern Star, 2 June 1838) or quoted from Queen Mab (see The Northern Star, 2 November 1839).
Publication of Queen Mab in its entirety continued to be illegal (see The Northern Star, 6 June 1840). Mary Shelley’s edition of the poet’s works in 1839 (reviewed in The Era, 17 February 1839) omitted many atheistically provocative passages - when these were restored, the publisher Edward Moxon was imprisoned for blasphemous libel (see The Northern Star, 3 July 1841).
In 1821, when Shelley was in Italy, a bookseller published an edition of Queen Mab as it originally stood. Shelley was hastily written to by his friends, under the idea that the publication might awaken fresh persecutions. At the suggestion of these friends, he wrote a letter on the subject, printed in The Examiner newspaper, which reads as follows:
TO THE EDITOR OF THE 'EXAMINER.'
Having heard that a poem entitled “Queen Mab” has been surreptitiously published in London, and that legal proceedings have been instituted against the publisher, I request the favour of your insertion of the following explanation of the affair, as it relates to me.
A poem entitled “Queen Mab” was written by me at the age of eighteen, I daresay in a sufficiently intemperate spirit--but even then was not intended for publication, and a few copies only were struck off, to be distributed among my personal friends. I have not seen this production for several years. I doubt not but that it is perfectly worthless in point of literary composition; and that, in all that concerns moral and political speculation, as well as in the subtler discriminations of metaphysical and religious doctrine, it is still more crude and immature. I am a devoted enemy to religious, political, and domestic oppression; and I regret this publication, not so much from literary vanity, as because I fear it is better fitted to injure than to serve the sacred cause of freedom. I have directed my solicitor to apply to Chancery for an injunction to restrain the sale; but, after the precedent of Mr. Southey's “Wat Tyler” (a poem written, I believe, at the same age, and with the same unreflecting enthusiasm), with little hope of success.
Whilst I exonerate myself from all share in having divulged opinions hostile to existing sanctions, under the form, whatever it may be, which they assume in this poem, it is scarcely necessary for me to protest against the system of inculcating the truth of Christianity or the excellence of Monarchy, however true or however excellent they may be, by such equivocal arguments as confiscation and imprisonment, and invective and slander, and the insolent violation of the most sacred ties of Nature and society.
I am your obliged and obedient servant,
PERCY B. SHELLEY.
Pisa, June 22, 1821.