Percy Shelley and Ode to the West Wind

April 11, 2010 at 11:35 am Leave a comment

Shelley, like John Keats, was a “high romantic,” meaning one of the romantic poets in the generation following Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Like Keats, Shelley crafts himself into the artist who burns with his creative spirit, allowing his poetry to consume him. Shelley, more than any of the British romantics, desires art to consume him as much as he wishes to consume art. In many ways, Shelley represents everything you either love or hate about romanticism.

The Poet as a Prophet.

He is a master of lyricism, his poetry moving like passionate music that can become at times — for me, at least — overbearingly operatic. A consummate believer in the Self, he takes the poetry as a worship of selfhood to dizzying heights. The poet, for Shelley, is a visionary, one who does not just speak for the gods, but as a god. Accordingly, Shelley harbored a religious sense of the great artist as martyred for his vision. The great poet is destined to suffer and to die upon the pyre of his own creation. For Shelley, the great figure of mythology is Prometheus, chained to the side of a mountain by the gods as punishment for usurping godly power in his invention of fire. Shelley’s great poem is his epic Promethues Unbound, which you thankfully do not need to read for my class (although it is required reading for anyone who wishes to specialize in British romanticism).

“Ode to the West Wind.”

Whether you find Shelley’s poetry wonderful of sickening, “Ode to the West Wind” is a lyrical masterpiece, and encapsulates Shelley’s vision of himself as a poet and the creative process. Like so many romantics, Shelley suffers from the tragic attempt to reconcile being with nature. Part of the “romantic agony” involves the desire of the poet to not only represent nature in a poem, but to become nature itself. Like the epic struggle with time, the struggle to unite with nature becomes doomed to failure for the human. One hundred years later, Yeats would famously write of his desire to become one with the eternity of nature by freezing himself into a mosaic in “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats is one of the few famous heirs to the romantic tradition in the twentieth century, along with Wallace Stevens, who builds upon Walt Whitman and John Keats, and William Carlos Williams, who Paterson continues almost too facilely Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley imagines himself one of the infinite leaves blowing in the west wind of autumn that precedes the winter. The leaves of autumn that fall to the ground, mixing with the frozen dormancy of winter, grow to new life in the spring. Shelley yearns for his poetry to take part of the same natural cycle of death and life, life and resurrection. The image that runs through the poem is that his poetry is like the leaves blowing and falling upon the entire world, and growing into new creation that will summon mankind–like Christ’s resurrection–to see his vision. Hence, there are rampant religious analogies in the poem, yet Shelley uses them to reject a classic Christian vision for one that almost returns the poet to a pagan visionary. At the climax of the poem, line 54, Shelley cries out, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” The poet at the end may be spent after the act of poetry, as Shelley says to the wind, “Drive my dead thoughts ever the universe” (line 63), but his vision is “Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” Like the spring, his poetry will rise again, “And by the incantation of this verse” in order to become revelation for the world.

Sactter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!

The Image of “Leaves” and “Wind.”

Shelley structures the poem around crafty and various meanings of the words / images LEAVES and WIND. In renaissance sonnets, “leaves” refer to the pages of a book. Metonymically, “leaves” for Shakespeare, or Sidney, or Spencer, can come to mean books, or poetry, or writing itself. So the image of leaves blowing across the landscape in the autumn turns into a metaphor of the poet disseminating his work and his vision. WIND has an extremely interesting etymological history that Shelley uses to a great extent. The word “spirit” comes from the word “wind.” When the Hebrew Bible portrays God breathing into the dust to give life to humankind in Genesis, the Judaic tradition bestows upon wind an image of God’s eternal life. Therefore, “spirit” transforms into the mysterious force of the divine–we have come now to equate that which is spiritual as being holy, or filled with a religious sense, or sacred. Yet we also derive from spirit the notion of lively, or full of life, resembling the enlivening aspect of wind / God’s breath–such as filled with spirit, or describing a person as having a lively spirit.

So Shelley utilizes the ambiguity of WIND / SPIRIT to create both a religious and a secular connotation in his poem. Like the breath of God the breathes life into dust–like the west wind the blows the leaves of autumn which will eventually become spring–Shelley desire his “leaves” (his words, his poems, his vision) to circulate amongst the world and to bring revelation to mankind.

Not really my cup of tea, but I admire his lyrical density.

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Entry filed under: WEEK FOUR.

John Keats: High Romantic and Ode on a Grecian Urn The Victorian Era

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