Wave Dynamics as Primary Ecology in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound[Record]

  • Mark Lussier

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  • Mark Lussier
    Arizona State University

Across the last generation, critics have been extremely active in re-assessing Shelley's use of "figures and theories of light," since that particular imagistic pattern, as most Romantic theorists agree, allows the poet to overcome a perceived erratic incoherence embedded in the poetry and to establish an "extraordinarily systematic" symbolic pattern at the foundation of his theoretical poetics. While most critics have focused on The Triumph of Life to test hypotheses regarding this symbolic pattern, few have sought to probe the historical roots from which Shelley drew this imagistic pattern. Whether read from the recent perspective of Arkady Plotnitsky or the earlier rhetorical approach of Paul de Man, the symbolic pattern of light functions as the vehicle for forging what Shelley terms a "perfect symmetry" between inner and outer phenomena, where "the lights of nature and of mind entwine within the eye and call forth vision." Of course, Shelley's ability to synthesize scientific and poetic insights establishes the boundary condition for his ecological thought as well, given his commitment to a "comprehensive and synthetical view" of universal dynamics. Shelley founded his "synthetical view" on "the active collaboration of the human spirit with Nature," which suggests that such collaboration between spirit and phenomena frames what might be termed an extremely "deep" ecology. Shelley's approach establishes him as among the first ecopsychologists, who "proceed from the assumption that at its deepest level the psyche remains sympathetically bonded to the Earth that mothered us into existence." Critical exploration of Shelley's poetic use of physical theory, while remaining a steady state of kritical concern within Romantic Studies, has lately gained added intensity in relation to the emergence of a fully embodied ecological criticism. In Karl Kroeber's view, the imaginative acts of this scientifically oriented poet "proffer valuable insights into how and why cultural and natural phenomena have interrelated and could more advantageously interrelate." Shelley's poetry of physicality bridges the boundaries between mind and matter by insisting on the interpenetration and interaction between cosmos and consciousness, thereby treating "the nature of reality in general and of consciousness in particular as a coherent whole." With such assumptions established as boundary condition, Shelley's poetics thereby functions as a physical theory, where perceptual and phenomenal dynamics participate in the construction of reality. However, before expanding to the broadest expanse of Shelley's "implicate model" and how light's duality functions within it, some historical contextualization seems in order. Certainly, the imagistic evocation of light in Shelley's work reflects a sophisticated understanding of the often-acrimonious debates between advocates of wave versus particle theories of light and embodies the poet's "gift of expressing in his verse a scientific outlook." Shelley's use of the tension between differing constructions of the fundamental nature of light arises from a historical context of heated exchanges between proponents arguing over the nature of light itself, following observations that light tends to act as both wave and particle. This essay, then, seeks to bridge the somewhat conflicting modes of reading "light" by a two part procedure: initially, I examine the historical context of Shelley's understanding of the dynamics of light, and subsequently I strive to articulate a theoretical framework within which to connect Shelley's thought to physical models expressed within the new physics of relativity and quantum as these relate to matters of Shelley's deep ecology. Phrased differently, the essay seeks to find a common ground or middle path between conflicting descriptions of the play of light offered by de Man, Reiman, and Plotnitsky, for all such descriptions are required to investigate fully the role that light plays in Shelley's argument for the complementarity of consciousness and cosmos as …