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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 reflex of the refusal, on Duffy’s part, to distinguish between metaphorical and literal meaning – a “vulgar mistake,” according to Shelley (Notes on Queen Mab).
Chapter 5 (“‘Choose reform or civil war,’ 1818-1819”) interestingly relates Prometheus Unbound to Childe Harold IV, Byron’s “curse,” and Shelley’s short story, “In the Coliseum.” Duffy is greatly disconcerted by a Shelley footnote that he finds “extraordinarily un-Shelleyan”: “In effect, Shelley’s footnote advocates a purely aesthetic – that is a wholly depoliticised – response to the ruin, an aesthetic response which effectively elides both the amphitheatre’s historical function and the process of its ruination. Such an aesthetic wholly contradicts the terms of Shelley’s revision of the discourse on the sublime.” (168) Well, maybe one should reconsider one’s own idea of Shelley or, better still, one’s own idea of what “aesthetic” can entail. The mere phrase, “purely aesthetic – that is wholly depoliticised” gives much to ponder about. But more importantly, Duffy’s reading of the fall of Jupiter in Prometheus Unbound (“Jupiter’s volcanic defeat by Demogorgon,” 183, “Demogorgon’s role in Jupiter’s defeat figures the Necessary [sic] overthrow of tyranny by violent popular uprising,” 184) will send readers back to the text to check on the importance of Prometheus’s revocation of his curse and on the exact mechanics of Jupiter’s fall. The “Conclusion: ‘Good and the means of good,’ 1822,” “while not denying the broader register of The Triumph [of Life]” (194), suggests “that the poem explores the failure of the French Revolution” (193).
There is no denying that Shelley’s sublime is a decidedly secular one and that it has a political dimension. Neither can it be contested that in this Shelley broke away from the mainstream eighteenth-century British tradition (excluding Burke). What is wrong with Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime – a monograph that, although in parts unnecessarily repetitive, does give some interesting readings and points out some pertinent influences – is a serious error in self-positioning. The topic of “Shelley and the sublime,” or of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sublime in general, has not been hijacked by Kantians, as Duffy seems to believe. Leighton’s and Weiskel’s studies, which he cites as examples, are not informed by the Kantian sublime; indeed, I should say they are characterized by a conspicuous refusal to seriously engage with Kant’s theory of the sublime. Whatever is wrong with their readings and their theorizing, it is not Kantian. What is more: Shelley’s break with the “pious” discourse on the natural sublime, and his placing of sublimity in the faculties of man instead, is essentially Kantian, since it parallels Kant’s re-definition of the sublime as “respect for our own vocation.” But Duffy couldn’t know. Kant is sadly missing from his Bibliography. He only knows him second-hand, as an apolitical idealist philosopher. So much of his programmatic Introduction (“Approaching the ‘Shelleyan sublime’“) is given to the idea that “scholarly descriptions of the eighteenth-century British discourse on the sublime have been persistently distorted by a tendency to read that discourse, without any sensitivity to historical context, through the transcendental-idealist paradigms set out in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790)” (2), which book, to repeat, is not in Duffy’s Bibliography, and which, judging by what he says about it, he does not know. Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime means to redress that distortion and to scrutinize the “unexamined consensus amongst students of British Romanticism that the British “romantic” discourse on the sublime […] effectively coincides with the transcendental-idealist paradigms of the Critique of Judgement.” (3) Should one then not have gone back to the primary text, rather than have stopped with the “distorters”? It seems to me that in one point, viz. in their ignorance of Kant, Duffy and the “distorters” he attacks so relentlessly may have more in common than he knows.
Christoph Bode is Chair of Modern English Literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, and president of the German Society for English Romanticism. He is the author, most recently, of Der Roman: Eine Einführung (The Novel: An Introduction, 2005), and co-editor, with Sebastian Domsch, of British and European Romanticisms: Selected Papers from the Munich Conference of the German Society for English Romanticism (2007).