Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Shelley and Vitality

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Shelley and Vitality

Article excerpt

Shelley and Vitality. By Sharon Ruston. Palgrave Macmillan

256pp, Pounds 18.99.ISBN 9781137011121

Published 17 July 2012.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of those dead, white, male Romantic poets, has had a wonderfully shifting reputation. Since his death in 1822, Shelley has been an angel, a devil, a radical, an idealist, a sceptic, a liberal, a scoundrel, a Commie and a deconstructionist, to name a few. With Sharon Ruston's Shelley and Vitality, he's a materialist - but who, in these digitised, post- Post-Modern days, isn't? - likewise deserving of such a reading. That Shelley has a materialist side is not such a revelation, and any materialist reading of him needs to provide something new and useful. Few studies achieve both; Ruston's offers a little of each.

With a materialist critical lens, a writer and his work are examined through the details of his culture and personal life. This is not a bad thing when it leads to big ideas, or at least to productive understandings. With the drive to say something new, though, it can, in the name of that bottomless pit known as context, also offer less profitable diversions. That is, such micro-managed historicising cannot always tell us what to do with the object of study: in his case, presumably, the poetry of Shelley, since without it, we wouldn't be much interested in him. It also cannot tell us if the work is any good, even if, in many relativist circles, this is a rather quaint idea rife with cultural prejudice. But if you read much poetry, it is not hard to tell the good from the bad, and thankfully, despite a writing career of about a decade, and without even reaching his 30th birthday (due to a deckless sailboat over-designed for speed but frightfully under-designed for rough seas), Shelley is among the best.

In the broadest sense, Ruston's book rehearses something well known: like his fellow Romantics, Shelley was knowledgeable about the sciences. Despite his high-flying and crammed poetry, which often purposefully challenges the difference between the metaphysical and real, he was at heart a materialist with sights often set on the real world - and on changing it if he could. …

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