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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)

  • Mark Sandy

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  • Mark Sandy
    University of Durham

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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 read Queen Mab's romance as a crucial and innovative 'deployment of the genre'.

Duff's consideration of Shelley's choice of a 'philosophical poem' for Queen Mab 's subtitle, like his previous panoply of pamphlet writers, verges on becoming a catalogued history of the 'philosophical poem' tradition, drawing on poetical works by Richard Blackmore, William Dawson, Thomas Heming, Edward Young, Alexander Pope and, even, Lucretius's De Rerum Natura . This kind of thoroughness bears testimony to Duff's own erudition and never fails to bring to light interesting material, but at times can make a beleaguering read.

Queen Mab 's full title identifies the poem with previous revolutionary writing of the 1790's, because its own evocation of itself as 'philosophical' poetry fuses polemical tradition with magical folklore. Shelley's polemical concern to liberate humanity's moral and intellectual nature is balanced against his decision to imitate the 'metrical romance style' of Southey's Thalaba . Yet as a 'revolutionary mode of writing' Queen Mab extends beyond its literary precursors, drawing upon the thought of Paine and Godwin, to mount an unprecedented attack upon the system of commerce, or what Shelley termed 'the sordid lust of self'. Even Shelley's choice to imitate Thalaba , Duff contends, reflects a commitment to the politics of liberation and equality, as Southey's irregular metres had become inseparable from his 'unreasonable political desires'. Shelley's revolutionary romance is viewed as achieving a 'bold synthesis of the form of Thalaba with the subject-matter of a "philosophical poem"'.

Shelley's poem echoes and transforms a moral allegorical form, present in works of the mid-Eighteenth Century onwards, including James Thomson's The Castle of Indolence , William Mickle's The Concubine , Leigh Hunt's 'The Palace of Pleasure' and Erasmus Darwin's The Temple of Nature . Shelley's romance is not a mere fairy flight from historical realities, but unlike many of its precursors, a direct assault upon a corrupt and tyrannical political system. Consequently, Duff suggests, Queen Mab 's adoption of the bower of bliss motif more fully enacts a 'paradise of peace' than any found in its predecessors. Shelley deliberately violates traditional bower imagery by using bowers in Queen Mab as means to justify pleasure through sexual and political liberty.

Duff, on the whole, deals deftly with Queen Mab as a 'romance' (a term which he points out himself is rarely applied to the poem), successfully charting both its literary sources and imaginative innovations. Queen Mab 's ability to transform a generic tradition is shown to mirror the revolutionary extent of Shelley's conception of a 'regenerated world', which extended far beyond the Utopian visions and Enlightenment reason of contemporary political thought represented by Godwin, Volney and Condorcet.

This study's final chapter on Laon and Cythna; or The Revolution Of the Golden City is Duff's most eloquent and engaging. Using Bloom's essay on internalised quest romance, Duff argues that it is the poem's revolutionaries who are seen as courageous hero and heroine, as Shelley deliberately reverses Burke's portrayal of the French Revolution. Shelley's Laon and Cythna can be considered a romance, partly because it is a love story in Spenserian stanzas, and more importantly, because its magical imagery is saturated with dragons, errant knights, and bewitched places. Duff argues, pursuing a similar line to his reading of Queen Mab , that Laon and Cythna is a millennial poem, preoccupied with a future time rather than a hankering after a 'remote past'. In this respect Laon and Cythna is unlike similar works by Scott, Southey and Keats, as Shelley ensures his poem is seen as 'A Vision of the Nineteenth Century' and its story unfolds in contemporary Constantinople and Greece.

With reference to Walter Scott's 'Essay on Romance' and Godwin's 'Of Romance & History', Duff explores further how 'real' social and political history is transformed into the 'ideal' and 'fabulous' history portrayed in romance. Shelley performs this transformation by basing Laon and Cythna 's narrative on an idealised account of the French Revolution and its failure to ensure that its form and subject-matter are truly revolutionary.

Valuable parallels are drawn between Shelley's imagery and structure in Laon and Cythna and Wordsworth's poems of 1815, The Prelude and The Excursion . Karl Krober's observation that The Prelude incorporates important historical moments only as they touch upon one individual's life, prompts Duff to suggest Wordsworth's autobiographical poem as a useful model for appreciating Shelley's inclusion of the Revolution of the Golden City amidst a tale of human passion. Wordsworth is considered a motivating force behind the composition of Laon and Cythna , which Shelley intended to offer a 'progressive alternative to Wordsworth's reactionary prescription' and 'sombre reflections on the Revolutionary experience' in The Excursion. Shelley's Laon and Cythna share with Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Wordsworth's The Prelude the romance theme of a paradisal quest, where a hoped for utopian state originates in the external world, when it can only ultimately be restored within the human mind.

Duff's scholarly fascination with literary (and on occasions pictorial) sources benefits most his interpretation of Laon and Cythna , where he elegantly illustrates Shelley's echoing of contemporary literature, including amongst others, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'The Nightingale', Wordsworth's 'The Emigrant Mother' and less known, 'A Slumber Did My Spirit Steal', Southey's The Curse of Keham a, and Byron's The Corsair . Shelley's Laon and Cythna is regarded as a melting pot for significant literary works of the period, as its 'psychological narrative' coalesces 'disparate images of grief and joy, of loss and redemption', becoming (as Laon says of Cythna) 'Like broken memories of many a heart / Woven into one'. This inter-textual account of Laon and Cythna also makes an interesting contribution to the field of Romantic Miltonism. Milton's Paradise Lost is evoked, according to Duff, through Cythna as an Eve figure, but an Eve who is imaginatively redeemed and liberated by Shelley. Shelley's rendering of Cythna as a liberated Eve, Duff suggests, is in keeping with 'other Romantic readings of the satanic rebellion' and effects a less remarked upon Romantic redemption of Milton's Eve. Echoing his earlier argument about Queen Mab , Duff directly equates sexual freedom in Laon and Cythna with an 'ideal' political and social liberty.

Initially, Shelley's experiments with revolutionary romance had difficulty in reaching a wide readership; both Queen Mab and Laon and Cythna were unleashed upon a public haunted by 'the Spirit of Jacobinism', horrified by events at Spa Fields on 2 December 1816, and in a political climate which favoured the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the Seditious Meetings Act. Later, Queen Mab became the Owenites bible and Laon and Cythna was widely cited by the radical press of the working class. Shelley's revolutionary romances, which looked towards a restoration of a paradisal state, had to wait their own turn for a more favourable public reception in the future.