The Endless Vitality of “Ode to the West Wind”
In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the poet's death, The Chained Muse is proud to present a month-long celebration of Percy Bysshe Shelley's life and works .
Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” endures through sheer vitality in the English language. Those verses are capacious yet offer great speed. His creation sports exuberance, while the formal control of its terza rima keeps the cataract of breathless euphoria from turning to a gushing waterfall. This ode still shows contemporary poets how to court magnitude of effect, without grandstanding. Poets could and should examine this ode to learn how to go full throttle into sublimity, without trivializing genuine rapture.
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, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!
The simile in line four imbues the wind with an enchanter’s magic, dead leaves “fleeing” straight into the second stanza. The wind’s breath brings life to winged seeds, which portend the poet’s rebirth into a higher consciousness. Commas, conjunctions, and line breaks simulate the whirling rush and settling of the leaves and seeds, as they sweep and sail along the metered fields and skies. Shelley moves with ease from the infinitesimal to “multitudes,” and from there opens quickly to the “dreaming earth” itself. Figuring each seed as a “corpse” to be reawakened lends this immortal poem an almost ghoulish vivacity. One cannot easily forget, tracking the spell of individual images, that Shelley consistently supplies grit and bite. For every “aëry” there is a “wintry.”
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!
In a critique of postmodernism’s insistence that everything is surface, Alan Liu, meditating on Wordsworth’s The Prelude alongside William Gibson’s Neuromancer, tries to find a critical idiom apt for mediation between the worldly and the otherworldly. He insists that “transcendence is recuperated within the banal-the denotative banal of commonplace experience.” That gives us hope that the ode, as a form, today allows us to examine the ordinary, but do more than regurgitate Neruda’s odes to his socks. Shelly shook the foundations of the ode as ceremonial when he composed his radical “Ode to the West Wind.” This poem of beauty is driven by a guerrilla spirit.
Shelley’s “angels of rain and lightning” feel equally as contemporary as figures from an animé or sci-fi movie, such as the sublime Princess Mononoke. His fierce Maenad, rather than merely another neoclassical reference to a non-existent yore, could easily be a girl one met at a rave. “Oh hear!” Shelley’s urgent idiom sounds less like a plea and more like “Hey! I’m talking to you!” Those who get hung up on the “thous” and the British spelling of “sepulchre,” fail to understand how, had the poet wanted, he could easily have crowded this ode with zombies and still not lost the ecstatic rhythm. Its shouts and cries disturb as much as they inspire.
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!
This is the verge of apocalypse, from which the wind, that enchanter, will pull us back after forcing us to look into its depths. High diction, high language, no slang, no slumming—yet each line sounds as fresh as street talk. He embraces the profane to make it sacred.
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!
Jump straight over the first half of this third sonnet, to appreciate how Shelley lulls us, before his revered wind awakens the entire sea, and suddenly his waves perform those acrobatics that require advanced calculus, to chart such erratic motion properly. And like a clever oceanographer, using exact, his intricate instruments: off-rhyme (wear/hear) and enjambment (below/The sea-blooms; wear/The sapless foliage) take the simultaneous measure of nature’s ruckus going on above and below. I mean no disrespect to this ode’s noble spirit when I observe that we are treated to the spectacle of aquatic plant life beshitting itself with fear—a surprising image, “despoiling,” vulgarity made into a modern-feeling beauty that even the Surrealists, those insistent paradigm-shredders, could scarcely match.
Oh hear! That repeated, ringing phrase reverberates beyond its function as apostrophe to the West Wind, to make a clarion call to us: the cocky moderns and post-moderns who think we invented irreverence.
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem'd a vision; I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer 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 chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
Mightest, thee, thy, thou, seem’d, ne’er, chain’d, bow’d—these outmoded linguistic conventions of Shelley’s day, misapprehended by contemporary readers as evidence of “poesy,” are insignificant in terms of truly appreciating how this ode rings true and relevant in the now. His ode needs no updating, in letter, mind, or spirit. It remains a sound model for poets who wish to scale the heights of the Sublime. There are all kinds of sublime—even the Grotesque Sublime. Nothing in Derrida or Georges Bataille or Michel Foucault has mooted this category of quasi-religious experience, of the disquieting otherness regarding the self, seeking itself.
Shelley is no naïf in pleading with the wind to make him its acolyte. He’s no tourist at Machu Picchu paying one hundred dollars to a fake shaman before he takes a draught of ayahuasca. He aspires, rather, to be “a wave to pant beneath thy [the West Wind’s] power.” He’s signing on to a strenuous risk. The speaker sets his conditions: to share its strength, to be only a little less free and reckless, anchored to the secure foothold of his boyhood in imagination. Then, in an image of throwing off shackles, we get the marvelous ending couplet to IV, in which the poet shows compassion, daring to compare his humble personal condition to that of one so mighty.
"A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud."
Let’s do this together! is his call to action. I need you and you need me. What I find endlessly appealing in this poem is Shelley’s frankness, his candor, his daring. As a suppliant, he doesn’t abase himself. Reading this is like hearing one side of a dialogue between the pioneering mountain scalers Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, when they set out to climb, successfully, Mont Blanc in 1786.
V 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 wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth! And, by the incantation of this verse, Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
“Make me thy lyre”: possibly the four most intrepid words ever set down in poetry. It’s what us self-respecting poets want, need, pray for, cry for, to be the vessel of—what? God, the Muse, the individual or collective unconscious, or the deconstructed self. Sacred, profane, or merely agnostic, and no matter how one disavows the integrated “I”, construing it as a “subject position,” or mirage of culture—it’s still what we crave. I may state without controversy that those four words still speak to many, albeit they don’t know yet how to get their lips to the trumpet of prophecy. A good start is to listen to Shelley’s borderline arrogant, yet deeply exciting, claim in the poem’s closing stanzas, as he lays his pitch before the wind. You’ve got harmony, I’ve got soul. What a duo we would make. Better even than Sam and Dave, or the Everly Brothers. I experience a thrill every time I read the fifth, ending sonnet of “Ode to the West Wind.”
"Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!"
This cry for renewal brims with confidence, even while spoken from a place of peril. It is here that Shelley teaches us, in phrases coming from the deepest source of his being, how to ask for the necessary strength to write our greatest work. To find the power to speak for ourselves, and if we’re lucky—to touch the hearts and minds of many.
Johnny Payne is Director MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles. He has published two previous volumes of poetry, as well as ten novels. In addition, he writes and direct plays in Los Angeles and elsewhere. His plays have been produced professionally and on university stages.