Shelley again: Ode to the West Wind

Shelley, Ode to the West Wind. Text at the Poetry Foundation

Section V

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

 

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

 

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

 

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 

Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (d. 1883), now in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, attribution By Amelia Curran

Written while Shelley was travelling in Italy with his wife Mary in 1819, this poem was published in 1820. It has been seen as an expression of his feelings of helplessness and anger at the news of the political and social turmoil home in England, and in particular the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819. The poem is also his message of life and hope for the future.

It’s written in the terza rima form (with added couplets after four triplets or 3-line stanzas) used by Dante in The Divine Comedy – a poem with which Shelley was familiar.

In the first four sections the speaker expresses his feelings of wonder and admiration at the power of the autumn wind, blowing clouds and leaves fiercely along. In the fifth he turns his thoughts to the future: he addresses the wind directly, praying that it will transform his lifeless, decaying spirit (his own poetic powers or ‘leaves’ are falling, as those on the trees are) and use him as its ‘lyre’ – rather as Coleridge and other Romantic poets had written: poets express a desire to be metaphorical Aeolian harps, musical instruments which are ‘played’ by the natural forces of the wind strumming through their strings to make them resonate. That is, they become, literally, inspired – filled with the life-giving breath, animus or breeze of Nature.

He goes one step further in addressing the wind in the second triplet: ‘Be thou me’.

His argument develops organically from this thought to the desire that the wind should ‘drive’ his ‘dead thoughts’ worldwide, disseminating them and causing them to ‘quicken’ into life, out of their silent, sterile, lifeless current state.

Therefore this poem itself becomes its own ‘incantation’, a magic charm or prayer of fertility, causing the dying embers of his imagination’s or spirit’s ‘hearth’ to be scattered universally, ‘sparking’ revolutionary change into the lives of humanity, especially, presumably, those in oppressed England.

The image develops: by doing this, his poetic ‘voice’ will be as a rousing trumpet call, like the last trumpet perhaps, except it won’t signal Judgement Day in the biblical sense, but rather a revolution in England, a political awakening, not just a personal one for him.

This poem will then be, he concludes, an invocation and a ‘prophecy’ of change for the better. Hence the note of optimism at the end; though winter is inevitably anticipated in this autumn gale, spring will surely follow – as political change will inevitably follow if the spirit of the wind heed his plea to be used as its prophetic, vatic voice – and as Nature restores life to the frozen land in spring after the long death of winter.

I quoted in my previous post from Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in which he wrote:

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal [compare his image of sparks and embers in the poem] which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.

… Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man. [just as the wind in this poem is urged to restore life into humanity through the poet’s voice, as surely as Nature restores life to the earth in spring]

In ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Shelley puts this theory into practice. In doing so he also enacts the famous closing words of his Defence: that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ – that is, in poems like this, they are Nature’s instruments for effecting change. Unlike the despised Lake poets, radicals like Shelley reject the solitary, reclusive and reflective life they advocated and, largely, lived.

 

 

 

Shelley on poetry, reason and imagination

I’m still teaching the Romantics, and thus lack time for my own reading. I thought therefore I’d share something I found stimulating when working on Shelley. It’s taken from a fine website called Romanticism and Imagination, which focuses on Shelley and Coleridge and their differing views on poetry, imagination, reason, and related topics. The hyperlinks are from that site, and link either to passages from Coleridge – in particular his Biographia Literaria, in which he expounded, among other things, his views on these topics, or give explanatory notes in general terms. So here’s Shelley:

Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (d. 1883), now in the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons, attribution By Amelia Curran

‘According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, , the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.

Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; Imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and Imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.

Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be “the expression of the Imagination:” and Poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody…

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.

Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interluminations of life, and veiling them or in language or in form sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide– abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man.’