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.
What Ruston usefully expands upon is Shelley's connection with the central medical debate of his age: the controversy surrounding vitalism - what gives life to matter. In early 19th-century Britain, the debate about the "living principle" became quite public. At one point, it primarily centred on two London surgeons, John Abernethy and William Lawrence. The question boiled down to whether there was something super-added to matter that gave it that spark of life (Abernethy), or whether the organised elements themselves combined to make life (Lawrence). Ruston makes it clear that Shelley was not only intellectually interested in the key issues but that, as someone who for a time seriously considered a medical career, he also had close contact with the primary players and their circles. With this information, Ruston also reads some of Shelley's work, and she shows how the discourse of vitalism informed aspects of poetry. This is good, and although these readings remain somewhat limited and selective, they add something new to Shelley studies.
Matthew Arnold, a Victorian of considerable cultural clout and muttonchops, was uncertain what to make of Shelley. He found his work not to be material but ethereal: he described Shelley as "a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain". But, as Ruston and many others in the past few decades have shown, Shelley was firmly engaged in the larger arguments of his age. His goal, though, was bigger, and to read and hold Shelley too closely within his time is to miss what makes him great.
Shelley and Vitality
By Sharon Ruston
256pp, £18.99.ISBN 9781137011121
Published 17 July 2012