Dulce de Castro
Professor Ashley Bender
30 October 2014
Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime. By Cian Duffy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. xiv, 260 pp.
Shelley’s notion of the sublime has been traditionally examined as moving away “from a radical empiricism to an increasingly apolitical idealism” (6) and moving toward Kant’s transcendental-idealist paradigms. In Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime, Cian Duffy provides a revision of the historical and theoretical contexts in which Shelley’s idea of the sublime has been explored and argues that the poet’s conception of the sublime should be examined in light of his understanding of and engagement with British and French discourse on sublimity rather than in terms of Kant’s theory of the sublime. The main thesis of the book is that “Shelley’s concept of an epistemologically and politically progressive imagination—the concept that informs the Defense of Poetry—was worked out during a career driven by his critique of sublimity” (188-189). Duffy contends that in his “lifelong engagement with the discourse on the natural sublime” (189), Shelley posits a conception of the natural sublime that is “politically radical and epistemologically sceptical” (190). He argues that Shelley challenges the British discourse that the natural sublime reflects God’s existence and divine power and considers this belief superstitious. Thus, unlike British theorists, Duffy’s Shelley explores the sublime according to “secular libertarian” (7) beliefs.
Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime consists of an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. In the first chapter, Duffy provides a close reading of Queen Mab and argues that in this poem Shelley rejects the views of theorists such as Archibald Alison and Thomas Reid who consider that natural grandeur—the natural sublime—proves God’s existence. Shelley criticizes and rejects such theistic views of the sublime as superstitious and prompted by irrational fear. Instead, he argues that the world is governed by Necessity and that God is created by the imagination. Shelley proposes a new imagination, which he calls cultivated imagination. This is a secularized imagination.
In Chapter 2 Duffy examines Alastor and the unfinished story The Assassins, in which Christ is followed by the Assassins, an Ismaili sect. Duffy argues that Shelley views the conflict depicted in The Assassins as part of the natural sublime and as a reflection of the tension between quietism and revolution. Duffy contends that in Alastor, Shelley shows that isolation and solipsism are dangerous.
Chapter 3 focuses on the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc. Duffy argues that in Hymn to Intellectual Beauty Shelley portrays Hume and Mary Wollstonecraft as examples of people who possess a cultivated imagination—a beautiful intellect. In Mont Blanc, as Duffy argues, Shelley elaborates on his conception of the cultivated imagination as a rejection of superstitious imagination but as a way of seeing the connection between natural laws and political laws. Duffy also suggests that Mont Blanc should be interpreted as following “the revolutionary tradition of Rousseau, Wordsworth and Byron” (110).
In Chapter 4 Duffy discusses Laon and Cynthia and emphasizes his argument that Shelley interprets political change in terms of natural laws, which can only be understood by means of the cultivated imagination.
Chapter 5 provides a close reading of Prometheus Unbound. In this chapter Duffy underscores his argument that political changes should be interpreted in terms of the natural sublime, of natural phenomena. Duffy argues that Shelley sees the natural sublime as “a figure for ideological rather than violent revolution” (174).
Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime provides an interesting and novel perspective on Shelley’s conception of the natural sublime by proposing that the poet’s discourse of the sublime is not based on Kant’s theory of the sublime but rather on a secularized view of the sublime that interprets political turmoil and changes as a function of natural events. Duffy supports his argument with thorough close readings of several of Shelley’s major and minor works. However, due to Duffy’s emphasis on presenting Shelley’s ideas on the sublimity as unfailingly consistent, his readings of the poet’s works may seem repetitive.