Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry

Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry

Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry

Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry


What is the role of poetry in bringing about change? This book explores that question in the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley, examining his fascination with the role of contingency in physical and historical processes. In considering the long-standing debate over Shelley's philosophical stance, Hugh Roberts turns to the poet's reading of Lucretius to show how Shelley developed an alternative approach to the issues of history, change, time, and process&- one that incorporates the most compelling features of skepticism and idealism. He sheds new light on the importance of De rerum natura to Shelley's thought, and through extended readings of The Revolt of Islam and The Triumph of Life he shows the poet struggling with the intellectual limitations of Romanticism and the Enlightenment and moving beyond them.

Roberts then deploys some of the key concepts from the new science of chaos theory to illuminate the wider implications of Shelley's approach. He shows how with the help of this new paradigm much that has seemed baffling about the poet falls into place&- most notably a new understanding of political process that allows us to better comprehend Shelley's claim that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Readings of a number of Shelley's poems and prose works demonstrate the wide-ranging implications of this approach for our understanding of his entire oeuvre. Shelley and the Chaos of History presents a Shelley whose investigations into the nature of history and the role of poetry lead us beyond contemporary deconstructionist-historicist debates. It shows that the complexity of Shelley's engagement with the major philosophical issues of his time has been greatly underestimated.


Few authors have made claims as bold as Shelley's for the direct political efficacy of poetry. the ringing declaration that ends his Defence of Poetry--"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World"--is something of a litmus test for our belief in the political significance of poetry; the extent to which we can avoid an ironic response to the claim is the extent of our willingness to dispute Auden's despairing conclusion that "poetry makes nothing happen."

The major impediment to our taking this claim seriously lies in the philosophical underpinnings of our habitual ways of conceiving the political nature of the text. Our reflex assumption that a "political" reading of the text must be broadly historicist in fact drastically reduces the possible political effect of literature. the contemporary dominance of this assumption can be traced to the post-Kantian response to the disintegrative threat of Enlightenment analytics, which has its political expression in the "fury of destruction" of the French Revolution. the attempt to conceive of a politics in which all (phenomenal) revolutionary negation is preemptively recuperated by a (noumenal) absolute moral and political order--be it the state, history, or culture--ultimately renders any politically effective action (which is to say, an action that results in a change in the existing social and political order) unthinkable.

Shelley's divided intellectual inheritance from, on the one hand, the skeptical revolutionary Enlightenment and, on the other, the emergent Romantic response to that Enlightenment makes him acutely aware of the attractions and dangers of both camps. the skeptical revolutionary . . .

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