Percy Bysshe Shelley Poetry: British Analysis
Percy Bysshe Shelley mutedly noted in his preface to Prometheus Unbound that he had “what a Scotch philosopher terms, ’a passion for reforming the world.’” One might think that this would have endeared his work at least to the reading public left of center and to later readers who value the reforming spirit in humankind. Yet Shelley was almost able to name his readers, they were so few, and today, of the six major poets who dominate the canon of British Romanticism—William Blake,William Wordsworth,Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron, Keats, and Shelley—it is still Shelley who remains the least popular. For one reason or another, and though Shelley will always have a cadre of eloquent apologists, dedicated scholars, and brilliant explicators, he is usually out of favor with a significant group of readers. He has been criticized for bad thinking, for bad writing, and for bad living. Devaluations of his thought and poetry have largely been overcome, but this last—especially when made by sensitive feminist readers who find his narcissistic theory of love stupidly, if not heartlessly, destructive to the women in his life—is difficult to refute, if one grants its relevance to his art.
Shelley’s theme of self-destructiveness leads to his poetry’s most brilliant moments, but perhaps the weakness in Shelley’s use of the antitype motif is that it fails to recognize even the possibility that the mate—the woman—exists in her own right, and that her likeness to the fiction of the poet’s imagination might not be the best or safest evidence of her worth. In Lord Byron’s Manfred (1817), the concept of the antitype is also used, but Byron is critical of the theme from the woman’s point of view—Manfred has destroyed his lover, Astarte, with this dangerously egotistical love and madly strives to win her forgiveness. Shelley seems incapable of such a critique of his most important theme; therein may lie the weakness in his work. Except in this respect, Shelley was not in the least simpleminded concerning the problem of reforming the world according to his standards. Shelley desired more than the world could ever offer; he knew it, but he could not stop trying to close the gap between the ideal and the real, the vision and the fact. So powerful is his honesty that tension pervades his poetry, idealism playing against skepticism, irony hedging assertion. He ardently believed that humans were perfectible, if they would only will it. At its most optimistic, his poetry seeks to arouse the reader’s will to strive for perfection; at its most pessimistic, it is the poet’s private struggle with the desire to escape through death.
Julian and Maddalo
One might take a poem of balanced opposites as a synecdochic introduction to Shelley’s thought and art. Julian and Maddalo presents the issues, the imagery that typically embodies them, and the quest to dissolve division in nature, society, and personal life. The conversants in this urbane, sophisticated debate are Julian, a thin disguise for Shelley, and Maddalo, or Lord Byron. Julian, the preface suggests, is the idealist, “passionately attached to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man over his own mind, and the immense improvements of which, by the extinction of certain moral superstitions, human society may be yet susceptible.” Maddalo is the card-carrying cynic, and the tragedy from Julian’s point of view is that Maddalo is one of the few who might be capable of changing the world, if he would only will it. It is Maddalo’s weakness to be proud; he does not think the world worth the effort. A maniac also enters the poem as a character who was destroyed through unrequited love. Finally, Maddalo’s little daughter is the ever-present, romantic image of humankind’s potential.
The poem opens with a vision of harmony. Julian and Maddalo have been riding along the Lido of Venice, a waste of a beach, at sundown, and Julian responds to the correspondence he senses between the inner and outer worlds:
I love all wasteAnd solitary places; where we tasteThe pleasure of believing what we seeIs boundless, as we wish our souls to be:And such was this wide ocean, and this shoreMore barren than its billows.
Not much later, Maddalo will offer a constricted image of the soul, but for now, Shelley allows his better half to continue. Disagreeing with earlier Romantic work of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which argued for the sufficiency of humankind’s relationship with nature, Julian/Shelley adds a companion to the landscape experience: “and yet more/ Than all, with a remembered friend I love/ To ride as then I rode.” The friends are in perfect accord with each other as well as with nature. As they gallop along the beach, the wind brings the “living spray” into their faces, the blue heavens open, “stripped to their depths,” and the waves send forth a “sound like delight . . ./ Harmonizing with solitude,” carrying into their hearts “aereal merriment.” The personal relationship is as perfect: “the swift thought,/ Winging itself with laughter, lingered not,/ But flew from brain to brain.” As they turn homeward, however, division slowly enters the poem, beginning with a discussion on “God, freewill and destiny:/ Of all that earth has been or yet may be.” Julian takes the brighter side, Maddalo, the darker. Shelley represents the argument metaphorically as two perceptions of landscape. Julian first offers a perception of the dissolution of the landscape’s natural boundaries created by the light of the setting sun; Maddalo then counters with a brilliant image of the constricted soul and the madding passions, the bell of the insane asylum.
Julian first calls attention to the division between East and West, earth and sky. The Alps are a “heaven-sustaining bulwark reared/ Between the East and West”; only “half the sky/ Was roofed with clouds of rich emblazonry”; the sun pauses in a “rent” between the clouds; the hills are separate like a “clump of peaked isles.” Then quite dramatically light begins to do its work of transformation:
as if the Earth and Sea had beenDissolved into one lake of fire were seenThose mountains towering as from waves of flameAround the vaporous sun, from where there cameThe inmost purple spirit of light, and madeTheir very peaks transparent.
This diffusion of water with fire, earth with air, air with fire, and water with earth, completed in the fleeting intensity of the Sun’s pause, becomes a vision of hope for human reconciliation through love. The Sun’s light is love and just as it can dissolve the perception of landscape boundaries so can the emotion dissolve boundaries in personal life and society. Nature teaches a lesson; even the city becomes a divine illusion, “Its temples and its palaces did seem/ Like fabrics of enchantment piled to Heaven.”
Maddalo, however, is not taken by the vision. He insists on observing the sunset from a “better station.” Between them and the Sun is now imagined the madhouse, “A windowless, deformed and dreary pile,” its bell tolling “In strong and black relief” for the maniacs to begin their evening prayers. Looking at his image of the bell and the asylum, Maddalo interprets:
And such . . . is our mortalityAnd this must be the emblem and the signOf what should be eternal and divine—And like that black and dreary bell, the soul,Hung in a heaven-illumined tower, must tollOur thoughts and our desires to meet belowRound the rent heart and pray—as madmen doFor what? they know not,—till the night of deathAs sunset that strange vision, severethOur memory from itself, and us from allWe sought and yet were baffled!
If Byron literally spoke these lines, they are among the best lines of poetry he ever composed. The soul is no beach stretching to the horizon; it is finite, and dreary, and obfuscating. It provokes the heart with its spirituality to strive for the infinite in complete bewilderment, till death closes the quest. There is nothing eternal and divine; it is simply mortality at odds with itself. In the twilight, the “black bell became invisible” and the enchanted city “huddled in gloom,” its ships, towers, palaces—emblems of commerce, church, and government—faded into the absurdity of night.
The following day, Julian argues that
it is our willThat . . . enchains us to permitted ill—We might be otherwise—we might be allWe dream of . . .Where is the love, beauty and truth we seekBut in our mind? and if we were not weakShould we be less in deed than in desire?
Maddalo counters that such human weakness is incurable, that no matter how strong an argument Julian can make to prove the perfectibility of humankind, empirical evidence and experience will undermine it. Maddalo adduces as evidence the case of a maniac, who was like Julian an idealist but has been destroyed by unrequited love. Their visit to the maniac’s cell in the asylum whose bell they had heard the preceding night reveals a man of rent heart, musing disjointedly and pathetically on his suffering. Still in love, he refuses to commit suicide because he does not want his former lover to feel responsible for his death. Julian feels that if he had the opportunity to befriend the man, he might save him, but the strength of Maddalo’s argument has been felt. After many years, Julian returns to Maddalo’s castle and learns from his grown daughter that the maniac’s lover returned and he recovered; then, however, they separated once more. At Julian’s entreaty, she reveals the whole story, but out of bitterness toward the world he refuses to disclose the resolution (as Shelley refuses to disclose it to his readers): “the cold world shall not know,” concludes the poem. The debate has not resolved the issue. The maniac’s recovery, although temporary, indicates that love is indeed the force that Julian has maintained, if one can sustain the will to love. Thus the poem returns to its starting point: Clearly one can will to love, or, at least, act as if one loved, but constancy is the problem, as the maniac’s lover indicates.
The same tensions that animate Julian and Maddalo inform Shelley’s first major poem, Alastor. The poet-persona of Alastor begins as a happy youth. He seeks knowledge and truth from philosophy, nature, history, and travel, and experiences moments of high inspiration, as when, standing amidst the ruins of the cradle of civilization, “meaning on his vacant mind/ Flashed like strong inspiration, and he saw/ The thrilling secrets of the birth of time.” On his quest, he has been cared for by an Arab maiden, who brings food to him from her own plate and watches him dream innocently throughout the night, till to her father’s tent she creeps “Wildered, and wan, and panting,” but he does not recognize her love for him. Then, one night after leaving her locale, he has “a dream of hopes that never yet/ Had flushed his cheek.” He dreams of his antitype, the perfect female of intellect, imagination, and sense to match his own. She speaks in low solemn tones of knowledge, truth, virtue, liberty; she next breathes the “permeating fire” of her pure mind in a song of passionate poetry; then, in the most erotic passage one will find in the Romantic canon, they join in sexual climax. She arises and the dreamer sees
by the warm light of their own lifeHer glowing limbs beneath the sinuous veilOf woven wind, her outspread arms now bare,Her dark locks floating in the breath of night,Her beamy bending eyes, her parted lipsOutstretched, and pale, and quivering eagerly.
He receives her, “yielding to the irresistible joy,/ With frantic gesture and short breathless cry,” folding his frame in “her dissolving arms.” At the moment of climax, “blackness veiled his dizzy eyes, and night/ Involved and swallowed up the vision; sleep,/ Like a dark flood suspended in its course,/ Rolled back its impulse on his vacant brain.”
One would wish to sleep forever to have such dreams, for how can such a dream be fulfilled? The world, which was once so beautiful to the poet, now appears vacant when he awakens. Cryptically, the narrator tells us that “The spirit of sweet human love has sent/ A vision to the sleep of him who spurned/ Her choicest gifts.” Was the Arab maiden one of those gifts, or was she merely the catalyst of an awakening sexuality? Regardless, he now “eagerly pursues/ Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade,” knowing that the realm beyond dream is most likely death. He moves madly through society and nature more to burn out than to seek a likeness of the veiled maid. When he tires or seeks infrequent nourishment, an image of the maid’s eyes forces him on. In a passage that underscores the narcissism of his quest, the reflection of his own eyes in a fountain where he drinks provokes her shadowy presence.
He moves on, following a stream to its unknown source, for he has dimly perceived an analogue between “What oozy cavern or what wandering cloud” contain its waters and what mysterious source his own thoughts and visions may have. He finally stops in a virginal nook above the perilous mountain landscape and prepares to die. He is “at peace, and faintly smiling” as the crescent moon sets on his life: “His last sight/ Was the great moon,” which as it declines finally shows only the tips of its crescent:
the alternate gaspOf his faint respiration scarce did stirThe stagnate night:—till the minutest rayWas quenched, the pulse yet lingered in his heart.It paused—it fluttered.
The moon sets, and he dies. Why does his heart pause and flutter? Is he duped by the moon’s tips appearing to be eyes, or does he smile faintly because he is aware of the irony? Or does he move from irony to the excitement of belief at the moment before final truth? The reader cannot know, but the poem’s narrator finds little hope for the world when “some surpassing Spirit,/ Whose light adorned the world around it” dies an untimely death not with “sobs or groans,/ The passionate tumult of a clinging hope;/ But pale despair and cold tranquillity.”
As he moved like a phantom through the landscape, the poet of Alastor recognized that nature provided a condition like love for its animate and inanimate beings—swans floating in pairs, “Ivy clasp[ing]/ The fissured stones with its entwining arms”—but that he belonged outside the circle. Shelley could not maintain the romantic myth that, as Coleridge wrote in “This Limetree Bower My Prison,” “Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure,” or, as Wordsworth wrote in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” “In nature and the language of the sense,/ [is] the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,/ The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/ Of all my moral being.” Shelley did write in his essay “On Love” that one seeks correspondence with nature when one is denied human love; he paraphrased an unknown source to the effect that, if one were in a desert, “he would love some cypress.” As is evident in Julian and Maddalo and Alastor, Shelley preferred human companionship, because there is a force impelling the physical world that is antithetical to love. Shelley called this force Necessity, or physical determinism. Mont Blanc provides its principal image.
In what becomes a showdown of sorts between mind and matter, imagination and necessity, Shelley begins Mont Blanc by recognizing that mind shares with matter a significant feature. The sense impressions that flow through the mind’s stream of thought are impelled by a force as mysterious as that which drives the river from its home in the clouds down the mountain’s ravine. Is it the same force? Critics have struggled with this problem, for Shelley did not make the matter very clear, or perhaps it is as clear as possible without being reductive of a difficult metaphysical question. On one hand, Shelley imagines the Power as residing above the world of mutability, “Remote, serene, and inaccessible,” but not without profound effect on the world below. The Power’s image is the mountain’s summit, which none can see but which all can feel in the form of the forces it releases that destroy and preserve, its glaciers and its rivers. Its position is amoral, perfectly nonanthropomorphic. The glaciers wreak their havoc, “The dwelling-place/ Of insects, beasts, and birds” their spoil. “The race of man,” too, “flies far in dread; his work and dwelling/ Vanished, like smoke before the tempest’s stream.” On the other hand, majestic rivers, such as the Arve of Mont Blanc, derive from the same source and are “The breath and blood of distant lands.” Can the mind of humankind be a manifestation of such a power? This is the question to which the poem leads, but just as Shelley offers the answer in the final stanza, he undermines it.
Addressing the mountain he says, “The secret strength of things/ Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome/ of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!” While thought may be governed by a psychological determinism, Shelley seems to imply a distinction between causally determined thought and the products of imagination—poetry and value. He stresses that “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high,” above the vicissitudes of our world, where “In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,/ In the lone glare of day, the snows descend/ Upon that Mountain, none beholds them there,” and without fanfare he begins describing, valuing, and symbolizing what he has just indicated none behold:
Winds contendSilently there, and heap the snow with breathRapid and strong, but silently! Its homeThe voiceless lightning in these solitudesKeeps innocently, and like vapour broodsOver the snow.
The winds pile the snow for the coming glacier with the quality of “breath,” because, while the glacier will bring death, its next state of being as river will bring life—“The breath and blood of distant lands.” Likewise emphasizing the absent force of mind that now interprets and values the cold causality of the mountain’s secret summit is the acknowledgment that all this is happening “Silently . . ./. . . but silently!” No ears, no sound; no perceiver, no value. The poem concludes: “And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,/ If to the human mind’s imaginings/ Silence and solitude were vacancy?”
Something in the human mind renders value, recognizes or makes meaning for this universe, or decides there is no meaning. These are acts of ultimate power; the rest is a “dull round,” as the human mind itself may enact when it refuses to transcend the path of association with its power to create, to vision, and to will. Shelley does not make this case as forcefully as it is presented here, however; he concludes with a question, not the strong declarative the reader might wish. The imagining undermines the assertion of “The secret strength of things”; the surmise of the conclusion undermines the imagining. This ambivalence does not derive from some precious sense of caution, but from Shelley’s genuine uncertainty.
Shelley’s belief in the power of love was unequivocal, however, and Prometheus Unbound reveals on a mythic scale the transformation that will occur when love rather than fear and hatred binds relationships among nations and humankind. Prometheus Unbound is a psychological drama that, along with other works of the Romantic period, asserts the power of mind in transforming the world. The French Revolution having failed to rid France of despotism, British writers sought to fulfill by individual transformation the apocalyptic hopes it had aroused. The logic was simple: If the mind and heart of the reader could be changed, the world would be changed. Thus Wordsworth, the major poet of the period, writes at the height of his optimism: “Paradise, and groves/ Elysian, . . ./ . . . why should they be/ A history only of departed things” (Prospectus to The Recluse). The hope of the Romantics was not naïve, but rather a variation of an eternal hope to improve the world.
Shelley’s promise was that if humanity could just will to love, everything wonderful would follow. Thus, Prometheus, the mythic champion of humankind, chained to a rock in the Indian Caucasus for three thousand sleepless years, finds that he no longer hates the tyrant, Jupiter, and as a consequence, the universe swells with the love, the growth, and the energy of springtime.
Ironically, Prometheus’s transformation begins, not more than fifty-five lines into the first act, as he dwells on the satisfaction he will feel when Jupiter is dethroned and made to kiss “the blood/ From [Prometheus’s] pale feet,” which could then trample him, except that he would disdain Jupiter too much to do so. Then he says: “Disdain? Ah no! I pity thee,” for the suffering Jupiter will endure at his demise, and his pity leads to grief: “I speak in grief,/ Not exultation, for I hate no more,/ As then, ere misery made me wise.” There is a significant relationship between Jupiter’s power and Prometheus’s hatred, Jupiter’s demise and Prometheus’s love: Though he has been the hero of humankind, Prometheus has been responsible for the tyranny of the universe, because he empowered Jupiter with his hate—in fact, willed the inflictions of Jupiter on humankind. When he transcends his hatred to love, Jupiter inevitably falls. It is the dialectic of the master and the slave; the slave’s willed obeisance gives the master his power. Prometheus recalls his curse, which began the reign of Jupiter, and the reader begins to understand one half of the dialectic.
On a literal level, perhaps it appears foolish that the sufferer could hold power over the oppressor, as Prometheus claims, but, if one considers the action on the psychological level, where Shelley intended the battle to be fought and won, one can understand that a mind indulging in hatred blights the potential joy of life. At some level, Prometheus understands this, and retracts his curse, yet he must still undergo a test from the furies (perhaps representing his historical consciousness), which brings to his sight the truth of humankind’s condition. The Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, the rejection and murder of Christ, the general wave of personal violence and horror, are all summoned to reveal this darkest truth: “those who endure/ Deep wrongs for man, and scorn and chains, but heap/ Thousand-fold torment on themselves and him.” The plight of humankind is absurdly tragic: “The good want power, but to weep barren tears./ The powerful goodness want: worse need for them./ The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom;/ And all best things are thus confused to ill.”
Prometheus’s response to this futility is: “Thy words are like a cloud of winged snakes/ And yet, I pity those they torture not.” “Thou pitiest them?” the fury cries: “I speak no more,” and vanishes defeated. Prometheus’s love has endured. From this moment on, the action of the play moves forward, as if on its own pattern of necessity, to overthrow Jupiter and rejuvenate humankind. As love trickles down through the universe and the society of humankind, there are “thrones . . . kingless,” men walking together without fawning or trampling, all “Scepterless, free, uncircumscribed.” Though still subject to chance, death, and mutability, ruling over them like slaves, man is free, liberated consciousness, “The King/ Over himself.” The “mind-forg’d manacles,” to quote William Blake’s “London,” are sundered. The mind of man is now “an Ocean/ Of clear emotion/ A heaven of serene and mighty motion.”
Yet, as wildly joyous and supremely optimistic as Prometheus Unbound is, the reader is warned at the close that even this mythic bliss cannot remain unguarded. Should the world fall again into its tyranny, the morality that will reincarnate her beauty, freedom, and joy again must be this:
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night;To defy Power which seems Omnipotent;To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope createsFrom its own wreck the thing it contemplates;Neither to change nor falter nor repent:This . . . is to beGood, great and joyous, beautiful and free;This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory.
Prometheus Unbound is a difficult reading experience, a highly pitched lyric extended over four acts, without tonal relief, but it is essential reading for the student of Shelley and the Romantic period.
Part of Shelley’s vision in Prometheus Unbound is that man would be passionate, “yet free from guilt or pain/ Which were, for his will made, or suffered them,” and that women would be
gentle, radiant formsFrom custom’s evil taint exempt and pure;Speaking the wisdom once they could not think,Looking emotions once they feared to feelAnd changed to all which once they dared not be.
Many might find Shelley a prophet of modern morality, or immorality, depending on point of view, but it is certain that even the most liberal in the nineteenth century could not quite live this ideal, not even Shelley’s handpicked women. In Epipsychidion, however, he allows himself a pure fantasy of relational perfection that celebrates his discovery, at last, of his antitype. The chief skepticism of the poem is not that he might be excessive in his rapture, but rather that language is not capable of adequately expressing his rapture, its object being perfection. The poem opens with a rhapsodic invocation without parallel in English literature, and struggles throughout with its diction to aggregate images and symbols that might invoke a rhetoric of infinity. Shelley has found the veiled maid of Alastor: “I never thought before my death to see/ Youth’s vision thus made perfect. Emily,/ I love thee; . . . Ah me!/ I am not thine: I am a part of thee.”
This perfect woman was Teresa Viviani, the teenage daughter of the governor of Pisa, who had confined her in a nunnery. The Shelleys became interested in her plight and this lovely victim of paternal tyranny inflamed Shelley’s soul. He imagines how perfect it would be if Emily/Teresa could join him and Mary in a ménage à trois, for he has never been one of the “great sect,/ Whose doctrine is, that each one should select/ Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,/ And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend/ To cold oblivion,” though the moral code might demand such behavior. “True Love in this differs from gold and clay,/ That to divide is not to take away.” Thus, if Mary would be the Moon—“The cold chaste Moon . . ./ Who makes all beautiful on which she smiles,/ . . ./ And warms not but illumines”—Emily would be the Sun and together they would form those spheres of influence “who rule this passive Earth,/ This world of love, this me.” Finally, however, he and Emily both fly out of orbit, leaving the moon behind, to dwell in a paradisal isle.
Language cannot deal with the infinite limits of this vision: “The winged words on which my soul would pierce/ Into the height of love’s rare Universe,/ Are chains of lead around its flight of fire.—/ I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire!” Sympathetic readers of Shelley wince at these moments; his detractors triumph. Even Shelley was a bit embarrassed by the emotion of this poem, because the woman it celebrated finally married a boor. Shelley wrote to John Gisborne: “The ’Epipsychidion’ I cannot look at.” Mary Shelley also had a difficult time looking at it; Epipsychidion is the only poem in her excellent edition of Shelley’s poems on which she does not comment.
“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”
Shelley often wore his heart on his sleeve for daws to peck at, to paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Iago, especially in the great series of poems representing himself as the poète maudit, the suffering poet vainly striving to save those who reject him. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” “Ode to the West Wind,” and Adonais constitute the constellation and farthest reaches of this personal myth. Of course there is a great deal of vanity involved. One perceives that the world is not perfect; one attempts to save it and fails, thereby proving that the world really is bad, even worse than one thought. One then strives harder, becoming more assured that one is needed and that one’s work is essential, rejection feeding vanity in a wicked, self-defeating cycle. Throughout, one retains one’s heroic self-image.
In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Shelley describes the dynamics of his dedication to poetry. While on a youthful search for truth, in much the manner of the poet of Alastor, he calls on the “poisonous names with which our youth is fed,” God, ghosts and heaven, without success; he sees nothing, he hears nothing that responds to his Metaphysical anxieties in a direct way. He experiences something, however, that profoundly moves him. As he muses deeply “on the lot/ Of life” within the context of nature’s springtime regeneration, “Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;/ I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy.” The shadow is that of the spirit of beauty, an inexpressible something that transiently brings value to life—life’s only value—by evoking in the receiver, its guest, a pulse of spiritual joy. If it could be a permanent experience, “Man were immortal, and omnipotent.” The poet says that his life has been dedicated to creating a medium for evoking this spiritual condition. He vows that he will dedicate his “powers/ To thee and thine—have I not kept the vow?” he asks the spirit. His hope has been that if others could be given the experience of spiritual ecstasy, the world would be reborn. The time he has spent in reading, thinking, writing—those hours know, he says, that joy never
illumed my browUnlinked with hope that thou wouldst freeThis world from its dark slavery,That thou—O awful Loveliness,Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.
In seeking to suggest this evanescent condition, Shelley creates several of the most alluring similes in English, such as, in the fourth stanza: “Thou—that to human thought art nourishment,/ Like darkness to a dying flame!” As the mind is a fading coal, so the darkness intensified makes thought appear brighter, thereby nourishing its waning condition so that it does not appear to be waning at all. The loveliness of verse makes the mind seem as full of beauty and intensity as the moment of inspiration had promised. The poem’s opening lines, however, are the ultimate of Shelleyan perfection: “The awful shadow of some unseen Power/ Floats though unseen amongst us!” It is “Like clouds in starlight widely spread,—/ Like memory of music fled,—/ Like aught that for its grace may be/ Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.” These lines are Shelley in his power, for no other poet has so effectively failed to express the inexpressible and thereby succeeded in his attempt to evoke it. While Shelley was curiously winning the battle of expression, however, he was losing the war.
“Ode to the West Wind”
Unlike the modern age, which conceded, in the words of W. H. Auden, that “poetry makes nothing happen,” the Romantic and Victorian periods permitted their artists to believe that they could and ought to be effectual. Several seemed to be: Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning had enormous moral influence. Shelley did not; in fact, Matthew Arnold, the great social and literary critic of Victorian England, likened Shelley to an “ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” In 1819, at the age of twenty-seven, Shelley wrote his most perfect poem on his ineffectuality. “Ode to the West Wind” is a prayer for power to further the vision of Prometheus Unbound in nineteenth century England and Europe, by a poet who has been battered with failure.
In its five terza rima sonnet stanzas, which describe the autumn of earth, sky, sea, and poet—the elements of earth, air, water, and fire—Shelley’s impassioned ode takes the literal cycle of the seasons through metaphorical transformations to approach an answer to the question: “If rebirth happens in nature, can it happen in society, with my verse, like the west wind, as the catalyst of the transition from near death to new life?” The first and last stanzas are illustrative of the metaphorical union the poet seeks with the regenerative wind. Stanza 1 presents the west wind in its dual function of destroying and preserving, driving dead leaves “like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,” and blowing seeds to “their dark wintry bed” where they will “lie cold and low,/ Each like a corpse within its grave, until/ [the wind of spring] shall blow/ Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth” to awaken the seeds to life. Of course, the dead leaves have the function of preserving the seed beds.
In the final stanza, the poet prays that his “dead thoughts” might be driven “over the universe/ Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” His seeds are his words, and because he is the equivalent of fire, his words are likened to ashes and sparks—some merely functional, some inspirational—that are now dormant in the waning hearth that is his life. Thus, if his verse could be sufficiently empowered by spirit, like a wind, he might produce a conflagration through the blowing about of ashes and sparks. As the spring of stanza 1 had her clarion, his verse will be “to unawakened Earth/ The trumpet of a prophecy.” “O Wind,” he closes, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Clearly, if those leaves of stanza 1—“Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,/ Pestilence-stricken multitudes”—which have been accurately interpreted as the suffering races of humankind, and those leaves of stanza 5—the poet’s “dead thoughts”—can both be set afire by the spark of the poet’s verse, both may rise from the ashes to new life. The final question, however, is threatening to the dream, for though it is certain that spring follows winter in nature, it is not at all certain that if total spiritual darkness covers humankind, a springtime of recovery will follow.
In stanza 4 of “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley represents himself as praying to the wind “in my sore need”: “Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!/ I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!/ A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed/ One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.” He finally shed the weight of hours to join, not the wind, for that is to be bound still in the world of process, change, and dying hopes, but a poet of his generation who preceded him into the realm “where the eternal are.” His elegy for John Keats, Adonais, signaled the final shift of his quest from social and personal visions of resurrected worlds and discovered antitypes to transcendence of human life and care.
Shelley believed that Keats had been mortally wounded by a scurrilous review of his early work, Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818). “The savage criticism,” he says in his Preface to Adonais, “produced the most violent effect on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs; a rapid consumption ensued, and the succeeding acknowledgments . . . of the true greatness of his powers, were ineffectual to heal the wound thus wantonly inflicted.” This is not casebook medicine, but it does say something about the doctor who provides such an empathic diagnosis. Shelley self-consciously identified with Keats’s early rejection and sought as well to identify with his early death.
Through the first thirty-seven stanzas of the poem, Shelley’s narrator mourns Adonais’s untimely death, culminating with the fancy of Shelley’s image visiting the tomb in homage to a dead fellow poet. The group of mourning poets stands aside to smile “through their tears” at this maudlin creature “Who in another’s fate now wept his own.” The muse, Urania, among the mourners for one of her most gifted, asks him his name; his response is to make “bare his branded and ensanguined brow,/ Which was like Cain’s or Christ’s.” Then, in a moment of intense self-consciousness, Shelley disrupts this indulgent self-projection to criticize with truth—“Oh! that it should be so!” He is no important, mythical sufferer; though it has been his dream to be one, the comparison will not hold. Shortly, the poem moves to the second phase of its development, the realization that the living must not mourn for Adonais, who has “awakened from the dream of life,” but for themselves: “We decay/ Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief/ Convulse us and consume us day by day,/ And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.”
The second movement concludes with a pivotal question: “What Adonais is, why fear we to become?” The poem’s third movement, stanzas 52-55, becomes darkly suicidal, but triumphant in its grasping of a new direction, a new vision. Life is imaged as a “dome of many-coloured glass” which “Stains the white radiance of Eternity,/ Until Death tramples it to fragments.” Beyond Life is the Platonic “One,” the blinding light of truth which humankind knows only from its shadows manifested in material form. “Die,” the poet challenges, “If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!” The beauties of natural, human, and aesthetic forms are “weak/ The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.” The challenge then becomes personalized as the poet addresses his heart, the image of his mortality and emotional life: “Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart?” Its hopes are gone, its love is gone, “what still is dear/ Attracts to crush, repels to make thee wither.” The sky smiles, the wind whispers the invitation of Adonais: “oh, hasten thither,/ No more let Life divide what Death can join together.” He feels the source of the fire he has represented as a poet, beaming, “Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.” Finally, the poem’s concluding stanza aggregates the principal imagery of Shelley’s major poetry to illustrate that throughout his work an undercurrent has been moving to this moment of poetic self-annihilation: The West Wind descends to blow; as in Alastor, the “spirit’s bark is driven,/ . . . far from the trembling throng/ Whose sails were never to the tempest given”; the earth and skies, in contrast with the vision of Julian and Maddalo, are “riven” to accept the poet, rather than fused to involve him with a romantic vision of earth; he is now “borne darkly, fearfully, afar:/ Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,/ The soul of Adonais, like a star,/ Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.” The vision was sortly to descend to fact with Shelley’s death by drowning.
Shelley admitted to a “passion for reforming the world.” He sought an aesthetic medium that would inspire the will of man to close the gap between vision and reality. Shelley’s art and thought are unique in the extremes that they bring to English literature; indeed, their fragile loveliness represents the hope and despondency possible only in an age that fervently believed in the infinite potential of man. He was a child of his age, and succeeding generations and imaginations will always need to be challenged by his visions.