Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ode to the West Wind

by Percy Bysshe Shelley
First published: 1820

The first time I (knowingly — which is to say that I could have previously leafed past it in a poetry anthology) encountered "Ode to the West Wind" was in the last year of high school.* In hindsight this is equally fitting and ironic. It is ironic on the one hand because any schoolchild who bothers to think about it will probably find it peculiar to read a poem that has distinctly counterestablishment and freespirited tendencies in an academic environment. On the other hand it is fitting because the poem is an anthem of youth, and more specifically of the youth which enters university firmly believing itself possessed of unprecedented insights, of unique talent, and of the duty to change the world.
*(N.B.: At roughly the same time I was introduced to "Ozymandias" and "Ode to a Skylark," and every now and then have come across biographical sketches of Shelley, but aside from that my knowledge of the poet has mostly and quickly been picked up from the internet during the writing of this post. Caveat lector.)

When Shelley wrote the ode he was twenty-seven and evidently hadn't outgrown this phase. Though he had come so far as entering and surviving Eton, he was kicked out of Oxford in 1811 for a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which episode bounded his formal education but certainly did not bound his enthusiastic espousal of objectionable sociopolitical ideas. After this point in life his family's visions of him as his father's successor as a Whig Member of Parliament became ever fainter, and even granting that the course set before a person by his parents is rarely calculated to realize a fully mature character, one might generally say that he never completed the natural progression into adulthood. He led an itinerant artistic existence, dabbling in society, earnestly provoking the ire of authorities and critics through his divers publications, and hobnobbing with the congenial Lord Byron. Despite a marriage, a (to put it bluntly) adulterous elopement eventually followed by another marriage, and children, he was evidently as far as ever from settling down by the time he died, still young, when his boat capsized off the Italian shore. (The circumstances of this drowning are still disputed but, though if homicide was the true cause it would be vexing that the perpetrators escaped with impunity, Shelley would probably have been pleased that he "departed this life" enwrapped in a romantic shroud of mystery.)

One advantage of such a Peter Pan existence is that Shelley's illusions and hopes about himself and the extent of his influence on an unfair and hostilely skeptical world probably remained intact. His arrogant proclamation that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" [N.B.: very unacknowledged indeed, and for good reason] set the bar of achievement rather too high; disappointment was inevitable. Besides he was doubtless happier off not knowing that, two hundred years later, he would principally and vaguely be remembered not as a dashing revolutionary artist, but as a stodgy "dead white male" poet whose most popular works are mainly and grudgingly read in schools.


("Krähen auf einem Baum," oil on canvas by Caspar David Friedrich, 1822)

The west wind, also known as Zephyr, is typically idealized as the wind of change, since it manifests itself when winter turns into spring — like a chinook in the North American prairies. The "Ode" itself therefore begins with a lyrical but peculiarly forceful nature-description, wherein Shelley departs from convention by envisioning the West Wind as a creature of autumn and not of spring, and one like Boreas in his potentially vicious destructive force. In addition Shelley's wind embodies not mere change, but liberty in all its facets: political, artistic, etc.

According to Shelley's note the ode was "conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began [. . .] at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions." (My mother and I once visited Florence and ascended a hill overlooking the Arno on whose crest there is a dense forest, in late October or November, and the scene did convey a peculiar sense of wilderness, but the weather was not windy.) And so the poem begins,
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave
— and here, finishing the line with the word "until" and then moving on, Shelley turns away from the autumnal Italian scene before him and paints a word-portrait of the gentler and earlier west wind, the "azure sister of the spring." Then he heightens the insistence with which he is addressing the West Wind by "calling" out: "Wild Spirit, which art moving every where; / Destroyer and preserver; hear, O, hear!"

The second canto broadens his scene-painting to an aerial view of the wind, which is necessarily ethereal in its imagery; and in the following extends the ocean-metaphor by tracing the wind to the Mediterranean shores. In both the poet indulges his tastes for Italy and Greece, classical and present, mythological and concrete. (These tastes are one way in which, like Keats, he is a link between — to exaggerate and generalize a little — the 18th-century and its love of antiquity and artificial nature with the 19th-century and its love of the medieval epoch and artistic nature.)

After that the poem briefly and weirdly resembles a hymn ("If I had the wings of a dove," or something like it) —
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee
— before the narrative voice recklessly steps over the divide between mortal and immortal being by entreating of the wind a share in its strength and itinerant self-sufficiency. (In Greek mythology such a daring request would likely lead the requester into the Aegean or a conflagration or some other sticky end.) Then Shelley, who is for all his atheism clearly not unwilling to take on Christian lore, flirts with outright blasphemy in a flamboyant bout of metaphor that sounds suspiciously Jesus-y particularly when it reaches this histrionic peak:
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
Then, like any good essay-writer, Shelley recapitulates the thesis of his work, gradually and yet with a consistently warm enthusiasm:
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 withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!
But — with a triumphant effect of culmination which even good essay-writers rarely achieve, he finishes on a sudden note of uncertainty:
O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
* * *

This poem came rather late for the French Revolution, although evidently not too late for the backlash against the Revolution. As Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote (in a preface to a collection of her husband's works) whenever he aired and publicly defended his radical politics her husband struggled against the "scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded" in the light of that upheaval. But the ode's language and sentiments not only effortlessly outlived the writer and the withering atmosphere of conservatism but also (presumably) remained a fresh expression of the prevailing spirit as long as the Romantic movement lasted. As others have noted, this movement is still not entirely past, and elements of the "Ode" like Shelley's visions of destruction that paves the way for a better world resonate with more recent ideologies such as Bolshevism. Even now — though its style and vocabulary may feel antiquated — the confident, crusading, and youthful mentality and feeling which animate the Ode are as true to life as ever; one could say that the very qualities that made Shelley immature are the ones that made him immortal.

From: Percy Bysshe Shelley: Selected Poetry and Prose (10th printing), Intr. by Kenneth Neill Cameron (USA: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966)


Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley []
Printed in 1914, but it includes two prefaces and more notes by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley from older collections.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Ode to the West Wind [RPO, University of Toronto online]
Annotated text of the ode.

A Defence of Poetry []
Shelley's essay defining the role and nature of poetry. It's the source of the "unacknowledged legislators" quotation, and from what I've skimmed of it you could say that it's the thesis of "Ode to the West Wind" in lengthy prose form.

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