Among his contemporaries, Shelley was the most zealous in temperament and radical in attitude. He is the most purely visionary poet in English literature, with his far-sighted philosophy and futuristic ideals His fervent anticipation of a world devoid of malevolence and crammed with love, his high-ceilinged idealism and the prophetic ardour render him one of the most influential English poets. Shelley’s poetry is infused with his idealism. He thrived with a craving to unshackle mankind from the clutches of morbidity and lack of liberty. This lent to his poetry an elemental force, a vehemence as vigorous as that of the Wild West Wind. In spite of his pervading optimism, Personal Despondency is another recurrent aspect of this Romantic:
“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
ne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”
Ode to the West Wind is one of the unsurpassed poems of all time. The poem in terza rima was conjured up and written in a wood that skirts the Arno. It puts across Shelley’s spirit of liberty which is tempestuous and prevailing as the West Wind itself. The poet talks to the West Wind and beckons his spirit to descend upon him and act through\ his lips as the trumpet of a prophecy to the quiescent world. In “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley wrote that “the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.” The wind was asked to “fan” and “refreshen” the dying embers of his words. The poem echoes the same.
Shelley depicts the impact of the West wind on the dead leaves of autumn. They are driven by the West Wind as Ghosts fleeing from an enchanter. They are like pestilence-stricken multitudes-yellow, black, pale and hectic red. The wind forces them to their wintry bed where they will stay buried like a corpse till the clarion call of spring shall arouse them to a new life. Therefore, West Wind combines in him the role of the ‘Destroyer’ and the ‘Preserver.’ It destroys the old decaying leaves. It scatters the seeds and thus preserves life. Likewise, the poet looks forward that the stagnant conventions die and make way for regeneration. The clouds on the sky resemble leaves on a tangled bough of the sky and ocean. They too are scattered in the sky as leaves on the earth are. They are the seraphs of rain and lightening. Yet again the picture of the West Wind as Preserver and Destroyer is sustained here. Rain is emblematic of fertility, while lightening echoes devastation and death.
The agitated clouds are likened to the uplifted hair of some fierce Maenad in her frenzy of worshipping Bacchus. They are represented as locks of the approaching storm. When Shelley visited Florence, he set eyes on a relief sculpture of four maenads. These worshipers of the Roman god of wine and vegetation, Bacchus (in Greek mythology, Dionysus) were wild, dancing women with streaming hair. This image is revisited here. The West Wind wakes up the Mediterranean from its siesta. He was lulled to sleep by the coil of soft streams. In his sleep, he dreamt of quivering palaces and towers overgrown with azure moss and flowers. In 1818, Shelley had sailed past the Bay of Baiae, and in a December letter to Thomas Love Peacock, he recounts the “ruins of its antique grandeur standing like rocks in the transparent sea under our boat.” He poet demonstrates the consequences of the West Wind on the two-fold aspects of life here-the vegetative and the civilized. The Atlantic cleaves itself into chasms and makes way for the West wind. Just like a red carpet for a conspicuous guest. Here, logic is transformed into the language of poetry and science is mythified. The plants on the ocean bed detect the onset of the West Wind .They shed their leaves in apprehension. What happens in the sky and earth recurs here. Though the wind is reflective of damage and destruction, it is also the harbinger of change. Shelley wishes to infuse himself with its resilience just as a leaf, cloud and wave does. Though Shelley utilizes ‘Despondency’ in his poems, it is only to foreground the oncoming optimism. He wants the West Wind to lift him from his despondency. The poet requests the West Wind to treat him as its lyre and create soul-elevating music as it does when it blows through the forests. The metre and movement of lines in the poem echo the sweep of the West Wind. The soft-sounding words enhance the mellifluous lyricism of the poem and echo the sweep of the wind. The alliteration in “Wild West Wind” adds to the musicality of the poem. Here the music may be reflective of Shelley’s lyricism and poetry that will inspire revolution in readers, generations to come.
Shelley evokes an image of Christ in the lines: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d.” The vision of Christ suffering at the cross is reflected here. As in the last lines of Hopkins “The Windhover”, with the words- “fall”, “gall” and “gash”. Christ is yet again, a symbol of apocalyptic destruction and resurrection. Shelley, an atheist may allude to the mythification of the heroic qualities of Christ here, rather than the religious aspect that Hopkins foregrounds. Shelley discovers his own hopes descending like the autumnal leaves. The West Wind will sweep forth from him and the forest a deep autumnal tone. The tone is both poignant and charming. He requests the impetuous West Wind to permeate his spirit and to merge with him, to become HE. He requests it to blow away his dead thoughts as it does with the withered leaves. To initiate a new birth and scatter his words like seeds among mankind, like ashes and sparks from an extinguished hearth .Thereby to herald and salute Change. This forms the crux of his philosophy:”If winter comes/can spring be far behind?”
© Rukhaya MK 2010
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