“All the world know the beauty of the beautiful and in doing this they have [the idea of] what ugliness is ... so it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to [the idea of] the other." (from Legge's old version of ch. 2 of the author he called Lao Tzŭ)
As a metaphysical principle, of course, Lao Tzu's proposition may be tested against any phenomenon, but it has special relevance to the examination of literary texts. Literature has always excelled in dialectic. Often poetry arises in the tension between true and not true, between sweet and bitter. Metaphor always declares that the tenor both is and is not the vehicle (to use I. A. Richards’ terms). In a relatively recent restatement of this principle, Paul de Man identifies, as an essential characteristic of literature, “the self-reflecting mirror effect by means of which a work of fiction asserts, by its very existence, its separation from empirical reality.” Later, he suggests that even a critic structures his work “in terms of a series of dramatic events: reversals, repetitions, about-faces, and resolutions.”
These considerations illuminate a reading of Shelley in particularly useful ways — Shelley is, after all, a definitive type of the alienated self-conscious modern artist. His “Ode to the West Wind” is a programmatic statement and self-portrait, and both the program and the portrait are projected in antinomies so dynamic as to resemble an engine’s pulsing pistons, or, more accurately, the turning of a gyroscope.
One may begin to examine the oscillations with a common initial response to the poem’s tensions: the recognition of the wind as a quasi-divine animating pneuma which revivifies the poet and promises a future bloom of his faculties. To this system one may associate the suggestions of hymn-like entreaty (for the poet’s ego-driven desires), of revolution (for the fulfillment of society), and of apocalypse (for the collapse of dualities, a state beyond enlightenment).
Not far behind this reading, though, lurks its sinister counterpart: if spring is near, then a following winter is equally implied with every contrary discomfort and threat. Apart from the threats to the poet’s comfort from a winter of depression, suffering, repression, and ignorance (to follow the thematic registers noted above), the whole progression assumes a static cyclic quality against which the poet’s emotions, while poignant, are absurd. His descent is merely the low point on a psychic roll which, like the year and Sisyphus, will meaninglessly rise and fall. Similarly, in the Purana with which Zimmer begins his Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Indra, the old divine monarch, is humbled and taught detachment by the vision of universes coming and going, “an innumerable host,” out of every pore of the body of Vishnu. How then to assert the self?
One may step one stage further back (the poem itself rings all these changes) and regard the repetitive ups and downs as exemplifying the soul of vitality itself, its rhythm or heartbeat, hence rendering any intensely experienced moments on its course self-validating. Then, however, the reader recalls that the poem's starting point is negative and, while balance is apparently present, autumn and sorrow are more potently present than their contraries, destroyer is mentioned before preserver, the seablooms tremble, etc.
To take this dance only one step further, the sense of exalted energy is undeniable. The wind is wakening. Pleasure is seen as torpor. Indeed, the poem itself is evidence of Shelley's poetic vitality, the gift for which he was praying. Thus the victory is inherent in the words on the page. As we hear in Oedipus (l. 896) the dancing of the chorus is itself evidence that the land is well-regulated.
The rhyme scheme and stanzaic organization support this movement as each tercet contains its own successor and opposite, unstable, impelling progress, and yet each stanza is finished off by a couplet which suggests settled balance. One feels neither the forward linear movement of a wholly stichic form nor the rounded volumes of a stanza’s completion. By almost being sonnets, yet not quite, the parts of the poem tease the reader and resist definition.
On a smaller scale the same dialectical cunning is apparent. Note, for instance, the pairing of ashes and sparks as an image, or of chained and tameless. Note the provocative “if” in the last line.
Acoustic elements are likewise active in structuring Shelley's engine of contraries. Initial “w” is a key sound, announced in the title and the strident first lines. These “w”s embody the wind and increase through the poem (as a matter of fact, the tabulator of lines with w’s in each ten lines of text will discover the following pattern: 1, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5). Thus they first appear to represent a passage in time, a phenomenon with a distinct beginning and end, an entity free from the eternal recurrence. The words are carefully selected, though and strengthen the overall structure at the same time as they cast doubt on it. The next occurrences of the sound after the opening line are in “wintry” and “winged,” the first implying death and the second new life. The pair after these is “will” [“be a sepulcher”] and “waken,” again two wholly opposed aspects of the action of the wind.
The wind is the opposition, the tension, but in no harmonious sense. The dialectic is never resolved. Shelley experiences no place where the joy and pain of interpenetration cease; rather, by imagining such a place, he renders both joy and pain more acute. What might have been a lament on the conditions of human life or a panegyric to the cosmic design, becomes, though its beauty, a bit of magic warding off despair and psychic dissolution. The order of words, though only intensifying the agony of existence, strikes a redemptive pose. The tension of bipolar oppositions is at once foregrounded and ameliorated.