This is the first of a series of essays meant to engage non-specialists, indeed, non-English majors, with the work of important poets. In spite of my own inclination toward the abstruse I mean to limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography. I vow to avoid tempting byways and to include no footnotes whatsoever.
Shelley was a poetic bad boy, sharing something of the notoriety of latter day rock and rollers. Denounced, often with good grounds, for subversive and irreligious opinions and for practicing an immoral lifestyle to match, Shelley was a counter-cultural campaigner since his youthful expulsion from Oxford for his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. He attacked monarchy, meat-eating, and pollution, and his active support for Irish independence brought him to the attention of royal investigators. He called for sexual freedom and acted on his convictions. Yet in his work this hostility toward much of what the world believes is overwhelmed by the enthusiastic afflatus of his neo-Platonism, capable of carrying readers aloft to dizzying heights. When he is not ecstatic, however, he can be subject to self-pity as in the exclamation “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” Such language set an influential pattern for histrionic poetry whose continuing sway is evident in coffee house readings yet today.
Still “Ode to the West Wind,” the poem in which these lines appear, is powerful indeed, addressing the wind as a deity, both “Destroyer and Preserver.” Rather than viewing the autumn foliage as merely picturesque, like “leaf-peepers” who peer out the windows of New England tour buses, Shelley sees instead “pestilence-stricken multitudes.” As the lines tumble over each other in expert terza rima, he welcomes the tumultuous change of season as a Romantic visionary, not with fear or an unrealistic desire to halt time, but with exhilarated exultation, as a dazzling display of energy, awesome as a cataract, grand as a rugged peak, inspiring uneasy awe.
He then enlarges his view from the leaves themselves to storms, violent yet surpassingly beautiful, “angels of rain and lightning, “bright hair uplifted from the head/Of some fierce Mænad.” The past year is being most grandly buried in a “vaulted” and “vast sepulcher,” which inspires the poet’s awe. He imagines the wind sweeping over the ancient resort of Baiæ where with the almost neurasthenic sensibility he cultivated, he says the flowers are ”so sweet, the sense faints picturing them.” (One might imagine the secondary school scenes the young poet endured in which -- while gaining an excellent classical education -- he suffered the brutality of the British public school system with corporal punishment from the faculty and “fagging” by older students, in his case intensified into daily bullying his school-mates called “Shelley-bashing.”)
Identifying with the wind as one inherently “tameless, and swift, and proud,” the poet feels “chain'd and bow'd” by “a heavy weight of hours” to the point that he can only envy the uncontained force of nature. His neo-Platonic impetus toward the ideal abstract, toward a sort of ill-defined yet numinous impersonal divinity is marked by his use of that ugly word he so favored “skiey.” Like an ancient invocation, the poem ends with his prayer to the wind to be his spirit as well. Magical incantation as well as prayer, serving not only a mystical longing but poetic ambition as well, he asks that his words be the cause of “a new birth,” prophetic “ashes and sparks” “to quicken” the world in the continuing cosmic cycle.
Shelley’s radicalism is foregrounded in “England in 1819,” surely one of the fiercest sonnets ever composed. What can be said after the unforgettable first line: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King”? George III, by this time in his eighties and eight years into the regency of his reasonably sane yet irresponsible son, serves as an excellent, if cruel, image for the superannuated feudal system. To Shelley aristocrats are parasites, “leeches” as the poem says, consuming the people’s blood. Yet the poem ends, as does the Ode to the West Wind” with a prophetic expectation of an apocalypse to come, bringing out of “graves” a new and more enlightened order of society. Ferment was certainly in the air. Eighteen-nineteen was the year of the Peterloo Massacre in which the cavalry charged a demonstration of sixty to eighty thousand citizens who had gathered in Manchester to demand some reform in the direction of universal suffrage. The current assumption that most poets, artists, and intellectuals are likely to take a radical position dates from the period of Romantics like Shelley and, indeed, to my mind, there is far too contemporary a sound to his denunciation of the ruling class. The leaders are out of touch; the people are betrayed and suffer from want; the army is an instrument of oppression; the church itself “Christless, Godless.” Blake had expressed a similar protest in his “London” in 1794.
“Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni” is a rather grand articulation of Shelley’s views on nature, poetry, and the divine. With Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads clearly in mind, he described the poem as having come to him “under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe: and as an undisciplined Overflowing of the soul, rests its claim to approbation on an attempt to imitate the untamable wildness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feelings sprang." To the poet the river Arve which begins mysteriously deep in the high peaks and then rolls ever stronger downward resembles his own ever-changing consciousness through which flows “the everlasting universe of things.”
In conscious contrast to Coleridge whose "Hymn before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni” in which the same view inspires “prayer” and “worship of “the Invisible alone,” and which concludes "Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God,” to Shelley the spectacle is unsettling. He uses adjectives like “wandering,” “unfathomable,” “hideous,” “rude,” and “awful.” It is populated by predators like wolves and eagles, yet it induces a “trance sublime and strange.” The closest approach to resolution is his claim that “Poesy” is a “witch” who seeks in these “wild thoughts” some “ghost” of truth.
Human senses mediate reality such that even direct experience can provide only a phantasmagoria of phenomena, “many-colored, many-voicéd” (the reader recalls the characterization in “Adonais” of life as “a dome of many-coloured glass,/ [which] Stains the white radiance of Eternity). The glacier and the river suggest some grand Truth. Magnificent though they are, their significance arrives only with the engaged human eye of the observer.
The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
Shelley shaped generations of poetry since his day with his philosophic flights to the sublime, his passion for social justice, and his self-dramatizing poses. In his influential “Defence of Poetry” he elaborates on Aristotle with his claim that the poet records “actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the Creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.” If Shelley lacks the sweet concreteness of Keats, the plain language of Wordsworth, and the wit of Byron, he provides instead ample passion, verbal dexterity and lofty themes to engage virtually all readers.