Cian Duffy. Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. ISBN: 0521854008. Price: US$85.[Record]

  • Christoph Bode

…more information

  • Christoph Bode
    University of Munich

This monograph intends to show how P.B. Shelley broke away from the traditional “pious” discourse on the natural sublime, which saw natural grandeur as a manifestation of God’s omnipotence, or even as a “proof” of God’s existence. In contrast, Shelley developed a secular response to scenes of natural sublimity, one that had a discernible political dimension, too. In Chapter 1, “From religion to revolution, 1810-1813,” Duffy, drawing on some Esdaile poems, Queen Mab, and “Ozymandias,” delineates how Shelley, with some help from Volney, Holbach, and Gibbon, positions himself against such representatives of the conventional British discourse on the natural sublime as Thomas Reid and Archibald Alison (Duffy follows Peter De Bolla in his curiously un-Foucauldian distinction between a discourse on the sublime and a discourse of the sublime.) Chapter 2 (“Cultivating the Imagination, 1813-1815”) offers a fine reading of The Assassins, of the “On Life” fragments, and a convincing interpretation of Alastor as a critique of Wordsworth’s Excursion, but here and elsewhere Duffy’s line of argument is marred by his false opposition of gradualist vs. revolutionary stance. Gradualist is not, as Duffy seems to think, the same as quietist, nor is quietist the same as pietist, nor is gradualist synonymous with acquiescent. For Shelley, the alternative was between violent action and non-violent resistance. Acquiescence was never even an option. In Chapter 3 (“Mont Blanc and the Alps, 1816”), Duffy means to showcase “Shelley’s revision of the conventional discourse on the Alpine sublime” (86) – hardly an original claim. The introduction of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Rousseau, and Gibbon at this point is a fortunate move, but on “Mont Blanc” itself Duffy is slightly disappointing, one of the reasons for this being that he is terribly confused about the final lines of the poem, “And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind’s imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?” Duffy says, “The question is rhetorical, to an extent even irrelevant since no definitive answer is possible.” (119) But a rhetorical question is not a question at all. It does not ask for an answer because it is a statement. Apart from that, why a question that has no definitive answer should be irrelevant remains as much a mystery as why “irrelevant” (as in “even irrelevant”) should be a comparative form of “rhetorical.” Chapter 4 (“Writing the revolution: Laon and Cythna, 1817”) is foreseeably a take on Laon and Cythna as a comment on the failure of the French Revolution, but there are two flaws here, I’m afraid. The first is that, although Duffy acknowledges that, for example, “the variety of contexts in which snake and eagle imagery features in Laon and Cythna makes it impossible to systematically associate either creature with good or evil” (132), he nevertheless has a marked tendency to arrest meanings (e.g., “The defeat of the serpent by the eagle amounts to the ascendancy of the solipsistic imagination,” 134). The second flaw is that, in his attempt to isolate a revolutionary sublime as part of Shelley’s discourse on the natural sublime, he time and again takes the metaphorical meaning of a topos as its literal meaning, which leads to such problematical and apodictic summaries as, “by denying the distinction between natural and political history, by using “awful” natural phenomena to figure “awful” political phenomena, Laon and Cythna’s natural history of politics effectively identifies political violence as [sic] a natural phenomenon, as an “awful” manifestation of Necessity in human history […]” (147/148). This “denying” of “a distinction between natural and political history” is simply the …