David Duff, Romance and Revolution: Shelley and the Politics of a Genre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN: 0 521 45018 7 (hardback) Price: £35 (US$54.95)[Record]

  • Mark Sandy

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  • Mark Sandy
    University of Durham

An antithetical relation between a Romantic revival of romance and a Europe reeling from the political aftershock of revolution in France, is central to David Duff's study. Following in the footsteps of Northrop Frye, Frederic Jameson, and Harold Bloom, Duff is concerned, on one hand, to underline romance's possession of a 'poetics' as well as a 'politics' and, on the other, both to remind us of the contradiction present in discussing a 'politics of romance' and alert us to the way in which these discussions have become an often unremarked upon critical commonplace. Such a critical presumption originates, according to Duff, in a political appropriation of romance during the pamphlet war of the 1790's, which drew upon a genre already marginalised by religious condemnation and identified, in the 1800's, with the derisory labels of 'chimerical', 'fantastic', and 'extravagant'. Romance's 'unnatural' imagery became for political thinkers an 'accurate metaphorical language to write about the extraordinary phenomenon' of the French Revolution. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and his other polemical writings not only popularised Bunyan's metaphor of the 'Enchanted Ground', but equated Marie-Antoinette's ill-fortune with a decline of the 'age of chivalry' and provided a source for English pamphlet titles, including The White Dwarf, The Black Dwarf, and The Gorgon . By contrast, Tom Paine's Rights of Man is shown to employ a negative 'rhetoric of disenchantment', rejoicing in Enlightenment's breaking of the ancient regime 's spell. Duff's initial discussion both excavates the reasons for a critical pairing of romance with politics and investigates European polemical writing of the period to establish a context for English radicalism and its own appropriation of romance's fantastic language and landscapes. Focusing on the Hunt-Shelley circle in 1815-1817, Duff explores a revival of chivalry amongst radicals, setting Godwin's positive advocation of the chivalric values of magnanimity and disinterest, in Political Justice , against Southey's and Coleridge's negative use of romance imagery to interpret Robespierre's fall from political grace as a 'trajectory from romance to tragedy'. Even The Prelude's retrospective account of Wordsworth's response to events in France, is shown to unite these positive and negative political uses of romance imagery and to weave elements of Shakespearean, Spenserian and Miltonic romance together. Duff's literary and historical observations are intended to provide a context for a reading of Shelley's Queen Mab and Laon and Cythna. Unfortunately, this earlier part of the study, on occasions, does not clear space for Duff's interpretation of these poems, but litters the way with numerous examples of romance imagery found in literature of the period; included amongst this bewildering catalogue are works by Richard Hurd, Thomas Warton, Thomas Rowlandson, Mary Burges, John Thelwall and George Dyer. Although Duff deals intelligently with each of these writers there is a danger his argument is obscured by these prolific references, when he could have argued his case more effectively and succinctly, simply by concentrating on Paine, Burke, Godwin, Southey, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Shelley's alignment with Satan and the 'satanic school' by contemporary critics, Duff argues, was a manipulation of public perception, which was already haunted by the devilish 'spectre of Jacobinism'. Queen Mab 'recreates at the level of form the fusion of romance and revolution' which existed in the imagery of the 1790's and, in turn, provokes a personal and political attack upon its author from critics, who also adopted a politically charged language of romance for their own ends. Romance and revolution are once again firmly entwined, so that Duff can ...