Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality

Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 231 pp. £18.99 pb. ISBN. 978-1-137-01112-1.

Midway through her study of Percy Bysshe Shelley and vitality, now issued in paperback, Sharon Ruston claims that the poet was 'linked publicly and intellectually with this band of men who questioned the existence of a soul, the need for an external, controlling principle to regulate the natural impulses of the body and the nature of life itself' (86). With this statement, Ruston suggests the broad social implications of the poetic evidence of Shelley’s knowledge about the vitalism debate of the early nineteenth century. She summarizes the debate in her admirably clear and accessible style with the following assertion about the very public battle between surgeons John Abernethy and William Lawrence, formerly Abernethy’s pupil: 'Abernethy believed that life did not depend on the organization of the body but existed as a material substance "superadded" to the body. His opponent, Lawrence... perceived life simply as the working operations of the body’s functions, the sum of its parts' (10-11). Ruston argues that vitalism and the opposing materialist view of life was not an arcane interest of Shelley’s; neither is evidence of it in his poetry and other works merely a record of his brief desire to become a surgeon and the lectures he attended in this pursuit, nor simply confirmation of the friendships with radical scientists that he fostered for a period of his young life, although Ruston generously describes these interesting matters.

Rather, 'By restoring the neglected context of the vitality debate,' as she puts it, Ruston hopes to 'prove that Shelley does not simply allude to theories of life, but that he employs the vocabulary and ideas of the new science to express social, political and poetic questions and ideals' (103). In short, by helping the reader to notice and understand Shelley’s assertions about the vitalist debate in his writings, Ruston increases our knowledge of his complex aesthetics and wider contributions to Romantic-era culture. Importantly, too, Ruston thereby demonstrates that literature and science were not separate disciplines in the Romantic era, but were integrally related. As she expresses the goal of her study, 'In this book I return the search for a principle of life to its rightful place at the centre of Romantic concerns' (5). Her central theses include: that the vitalism debate in the Romantic period was loaded with politico-religious overtones; that Shelley’s use of its terminology expresses his political position; and that Romantic-era vitalists relied on 'metaphor' and 'analogy' – literary terms that Ruston uses often to describe their scientific assertions about life. All of these well-argued points reveal that literary and scientific language overlapped in the Romantic period to the extent that ignorance of this dialogue would undermine our full appreciation of a major element of Romantic-era literature and the vibrancy of the cultural conversation in the period.

Evidence that Ruston establishes her point well is the 2012 paperback edition itself. Indeed, the original hardcover edition, published in 2005, was so well received that Palgrave Macmillan has offered this more affordable version of the study. It is sure to appear on reading lists of university classes on Romantic-era literature and science, and – thanks to Ruston’s lively and accessible writing style – it will even appeal to a popular audience. This new edition is augmented by a new preface, which provides a select, descriptive list of other critical books written after the 2005 edition that also contribute to our knowledge of Romantic-era literature and science.

This preface does a good job of illustrating the breadth of works on the topic of Romanticism and science, but it also occasions a question about Ruston’s own argument about how Shelley’s poetry relates to the vitalism debate. In the Preface she notes that, in Life: Organic Form and Romanticism, Denise Gigante asserts that Shelley was a vitalist after the manner of John Abernethy, 'rather than in William Lawrence’s [way,] as Shelley and Vitality argues' (xii). However, Ruston’s discussion of the conclusion of Adonais seems to present the poet as a vitalist of the Abernethian variety. After commenting on the empirical dimensions of Adonais’s eternal existence as Shelley expresses it at the end of the poem, Ruston adds that 'The material of the world is recognized as ‘dross’ and ‘dense’ until it is transformed by this [spiritual] power... Shelley uses a vitalist metaphor here to imagine a way in which life can be regarded as eternal; the ‘Spirit’ is a kind of principle of life, which has the power to animate all beings' (162). While the body may die, then, the 'Spirit' can continue – a process that is necessary for the final apotheosis of Adonais in Shelley’s elegy, and one that also establishes the separate existence of the 'Spirit' from Adonais’s body, which, as 'material of the world,' is, again, "dross" and "dense" until it is transformed by this power' (162). This 'Spirit' is therefore superadded to the body. As Ruston describes the conclusion to Adonais, then, the difference between Shelley’s vitalist position and Abernethy’s is unclear.

Notably, the crux of the study’s argument about the political implications of the Abernethy/Lawrence debate on vitalism depends on a clear distinction between the former’s conservative vitalist view that life is 'superadded' to the body and, in Lawrence’s case, the radical notion that life is the action that proceeds from the proper working of the body. The political overtones of this dynamic are evident: in the conservative view, some authority or first-mover rules life, whereas, in the latter view, the body alone is allowed to be a legitimate source of study. This distinction is, in fact, Ruston’s stated thesis in Chapter Three, on Prometheus Unbound; she writes, 'In this chapter I first examine the way that Shelley uses the political ramifications of theories of vitality to imagine the volitional and internal change that enables resistance to tyranny' (103). A few pages later, she clarifies the political implications of the vitality question: if there is no superadded principle of vitality, she asserts, then man 'remains in possession of his life. This operation is not effected by a superadded external body but internally: man is his own master' (109). And on the topic of her chosen representatives of each view, Ruston states that 'Empiricism had led Lawrence to believe that there was only matter, that the body and the mind or spirit were inseparable' (22), and, with regard to Shelley, that her main goal is to show 'the importance of his materialist thinking' (1). Given the significance of the distinction between Abernethy’s and Lawrence’s positions on vitalism for Ruston’s otherwise seamless argument about Shelley’s politics, clarification of the above matter in her discussion of Adonais would be welcome.

Overall, though, this study is a model of how to investigate the topic of Romantic-era literature and science. As she engages with some of the most important and difficult of Shelley’s works, Ruston’s argument advances convincingly and – pleasantly surprising in a scholarly work – entertainingly. In addition to explaining the broad cultural significance of vitalism debate, for example, she includes such colourful local detail as the dates and guests at various dinner parties (eg. 32, 91), information drawn from her impressive research into the letters and diaries of major figures, and a bit of juicy gossip, too: 'By a strange quirk of fate,' Ruston adds at one point, 'Terese Guiccioli, Byron’s former mistress, became Davy’s companion in his last illness and taught him Italian' (38). In these ways and others, Ruston proves the importance of the vitalism debate for the study of Romanticism and attracts new attention to an ever-growing field.

Michelle Faubert (University of Manitoba)

 

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