Cian Duffy, Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime
Dana Van Kooy
University of Colorado at Boulder
Just as Mont Blanc has been central to the Shelleyan canon, so too the sublime as an aesthetic discourse has been pivotal to our understanding of Percy Shelley as a poet, a philosopher, and a radical. Cian Duffy’s Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime challenges the “critical orthodoxy which assumes not only that there is such a thing as a generic ‘romantic sublime’, but also that this ‘sublime’ rehearses the transcendentalist paradigms of [Kant's] Critique of Judgment” (5). Eschewing Burke and Kant, Duffy reorients the Shelleyan sublime through two other texts: C.F. Volney’s Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les Révolutions des Empires (translated into English in the early 1790s) and Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1766-88). Both texts, according to Duffy, embody the eighteenth-century idea of “ruin-sentiment” (38-9), a term which links imperial collapse to moral decadence and, as a discourse of political and social reform, offers to resolve the terrifying prospect of ruin through an appeal to moral restraint. Shelley, Duffy argues, takes this causal formulation a step further; the sublime provides the means of representing the inevitable imperial failure as a natural cultural process that mirrors society’s moral and political corruption. Shelley’s sublime landscapes—significantly, inhabited by volcanoes, avalanches, and other events marking geological catastrophe—signify the natural necessity of revolution. This essentially inverts the traditional theistic discourse of the natural sublime; instead of pointing to God as the organizing principle of life, Shelley’s sublime exposes “the artificiality, the un-naturalness of contemporary social structures” (9). Duffy’s study places a new emphasis on the catastrophic imagery of the natural sublime while it also redefines the Shelleyan sublime as an “aesthetic ideology” in order to be attentive to the figurative power of the natural sublime to change the observer’s conception of what is “natural” or what is “right.”
Organized chronologically, the first two chapters focus on the philosophical and literary influences that shaped Shelley’s early figurations of the natural sublime in the Esdaile poems, Queen Mab, The Assassins, and Alastor. Tracing Shelley’s early “radical, rationalist distrust of the imagination,” and his reactions to the theistic structure of the sublime in works like Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Archibald Alison’s Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790), Duffy maps Shelley’s shifting skepticism regarding the sublime and how it might be used in poetry as a discourse of political reform. In the first chapter, Duffy’s main concern is to identify the conflict between Shelley’s “gradualist politics and the revolutionism of his engagement with the discourse on the sublime” (48). He also shows how Shelley uses the sublime in Queen Mab to argue for Necessity and its ability as a natural process to bring about “a political and environmental utopia” (34). With chapter two, Duffy follows Shelley’s growing concern with the politics of the imagination and its relationship to the increasingly politicized notions of the natural sublime. Duffy’s reading of The Assassins is suggestive. Here, Duffy uses Gibbon and Delisle De Sales’ 1799 novel, Le Vieux de la Montagne to explore Shelley’s interest in incorporating the sublime to describe social bodies and their political activities. This transforms the sublime from a merely descriptive language into a means of visualizing political change. As with his work on Laon and Cythna in chapter four, here is a point where Duffy breaks new ground with regard to the texts and the contexts of the Shelleyan sublime. As with his reading of Alastor, he stresses Shelley’s disillusionment with Rousseau and with the post-Excursion Wordsworth, especially their politics of what Keats referred to as “egotistical sublime.”
Chapter three follows the traditional pairing of Mont Blanc with the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. This familiar ground—inhabited mostly by Byron, Coleridge, Rousseau, and Wordsworth—reveals Shelley’s growing awareness of the ideological power wielded by the sublime in travelogues, poetry, and in the works on natural history. Duffy also provides us with a view of how this super-saturated landscape was disfigured by the consumerism of tourists and by the imperial demands for natural resources such as rock (taken from ancient ruins and from the local landscape) to build roads. Responding to these unwieldy forces, Shelley, Duffy argues, pursues the need to develop a praxis for the “cultivated imagination.” A term introduced in chapter two, the cultivated imagination amounts to a means of using the sublime to reform an individual’s ideas about social and political questions. This is a central premise in Duffy’s narrative regarding Shelley’s evolving deployment of the sublime. Duffy invokes Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in order to define intellectual beauty not as a platonic idea but rather as “a product, and a defining characteristic” of the cultivated imagination (99). This pragmatic view of intellectual beauty takes it out of the idealistic realm too often associated with Shelley and makes clear the transformative power of the Shelleyan sublime as an experience and as a discourse.
Chapters four and five examine Laon and Cythna and Prometheus Unbound. In both chapters Duffy focuses on Shelley’s representation of the sublime through the imagery of natural, catastrophic events such as floods, storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. For Duffy, the sublime exposes the violence of politics and history “as a function of natural history” (146). This formulation of a “natural history of politics” nonetheless exposes Shelley’s anxieties about the reform movement: 1) Is it possible to break the cycle of oppression and retributive violence? 2) How can reform be successful if this cycle is either natural or inevitable? 3) How can a vision of gradualist reform counter the “natural” violence of revolution? With regard to Laon and Cythna, Duffy responds to these questions by expanding further on the praxis of the cultivated imagination. As the beau ideal of the French Revolution, Laon and Cythna re-presents the ideals of the revolution and allows for its relocation as an “apparent disaster” within a “natural economy of hope” (125). Analogous to the concept of intellectual beauty, this beau ideal is the means of recasting historical events in the language of the sublime that can only be read accurately by the “‘wise’ or cultivated imagination” (135). In his reading of Prometheus Unbound, Duffy uses Shelley’s Coliseum to make his case about how Promethean reform is a rejection of the politics of defiance associated with Byron and Childe Harold IV. Duffy’s analysis juxtaposes Prometheus’s need to recall his curse with a historical account of the ideological battle over the ruins of Rome—beginning with Napoleon’s first entry into Rome in 1798 and concluding with the restoration of the papacy under Austrian control after Napoleon’s defeat. These readings present the Shelleyan sublime as a means of reflecting on the revolutionary possibilities of political action, effectively re-forming the public mind paralyzed by the continued violence of the post-Napoleonic era.
Duffy’s study offers a profusion of contextual readings that are suggestive and erudite, and he often rewrites conventional interpretations of Shelley’s texts. This comprises the book’s strength and its weakness. In the case of Prometheus Unbound, contextual material overshadows his reading of Shelley’s drama. In such instances the reader is left to make connections Duffy could have made more explicit. There are also some surprising omissions, for example Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary (1811). An influential text for Shelley’s early poetry, especially Alastor, it has at its center the dilemma of advocating political reform through the discourses of the sublime and sensibility. Also, while reading through the chapters on Mont Blanc, Laon and Cythna and Prometheus Unbound, I hoped to find a more definitive discussion of the contemporary scientific debates between catastrophists and evolutionists. This deficiency made Duffy’s argument about the catastrophic imagery less convincing and more difficult to follow than it should have been. In the final assessment, however, Duffy’s investigation rewards the patient reader with a more complete vision than usual of Shelley as a radical poet and provides a new analysis of the Shelleyan sublime as a politically effective aesthetic.