Percy Shelley Poems
Depictions of Autumn in the Romantic Period
Much of the literary work that sprung out of the Romantic period centered around images of nature and the strong emotions that these evoked; the works of John Keats and of Percy Bysshe Shelley are no exception. Both written in 1819 and published in 1820, both Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and John Keats’ “To Autumn” offer elaborate and emotionally charged images of the fall through odes that center around the use of apostrophe. However, the similarities shared by these two poems are far outweighed by their differences; “Ode to the West Wind” and “To Autumn” differ vastly both in tone and in their overall message. Where Keats celebrates the coming of autumn, framing his presentation of the season with ideas of life and prosperity, Shelley laments it, viewing fall not as a beginning in itself, but as the bitter end to spring. In these poems, both of which describe autumn or aspects of it, fall is presented in two vastly different lights—in one, as a bringer of life, and in the other, as a symbol of death.
Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” which is addressed to a wind that is described in the poem’s opening line as being the “breath of Autumn’s being” (line 1), is characterized from beginning to end by a tone filled with darkness and negativity. The speaker begins the poem with a comparison between fall and death, thereby setting stage for the jarring morbidity with which the poem is infused throughout. The poem begins with a reference to the wind to which the title refers, “from whose unseen presence the leaves dead are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” (lines 2-3). Here, the image of ghosts fleeing conveys an immediate sense of chilling darkness, accompanying the direct reference to the idea of death with which the speaker so clearly associates fall. The image of dead, ghostly leaves serves as a tangible symbol for the more abstract concept of fall as a whole, which the poem insists upon depicting through the lens of death and sadness. Even the most seemingly positive remark the speaker makes about autumn is inherently negative, where he refers to “a deep autumnal tone, sweet though in sadness” (lines 60-61), a sadness that one can assume, having read the stanzas that lead up to this, is an acutely mournful one.
“Ode to the West Wind” becomes increasingly morbid as it continues. The speaker does not simply use the image of death as a method of signifying an ending; it is a symbol which he expands into an increasingly dark one as he goes on to offer details of sickness. For example, he describes the “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, / Pestilence-stricken multitudes” (lines 4-5). These references to pestilence and the hectic red of tuberculosis-induced fever contribute to an image of fall not only as a form of death, but as a contagious illness that is infecting the natural world until it is left “like a corpse within its grave” (line 8). It is lines such as these, as well as references to the autumn winds as a “dirge / Of the dying year” (lines 23-24), that go beyond the abstract concept of death to offer concrete details that leave the reader with an uneasy sense of darkness and morbidity. Together, these lines evoke in the reader an image of fall as a sort of funeral procession, mourning the “corpse” of the earth as it transitions into the even greater darkness of winter.
Keats’ poem, on the other hand, conveys a tone of positivity that is in stark contrast to Shelley’s portrayal of fall as a kind of disease-induced death. The poem’s three stanzas each contribute to the cheerful, pleasant tone that the speaker’s description of autumn takes. Where Shelley’s opening stanza offers an image of death, the opening stanza of Keats’ “To Autumn” is rooted in the idea of harvest. For example, the speaker declares that fall is “conspiring with [the sun] how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run” (lines 3-4), and goes on to reference a filling of “all fruit with ripeness to the core” (line 6). These lines are perhaps the antithesis of Shelley’s initial description of dead leaves fleeing like ghosts, invoking instead images of blessing and agricultural growth and abundance through the use of words such as “ripeness.” These image he offers of growing fruit are essentially depictions of fertility, implicating autumn as a source of life. The speaker furthers this emphasis on the connection between fall and harvest in the line, “while thy hook / Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers” (lines 17-18). These images of abundance and growth promote an image of autumn as a symbol of life.
Like Shelley’s, Keats’ work does make reference to spring; however, the way in which he does this differs widely from Shelley’s mourning over spring’s end. Keats’ poem almost seems to directly challenge Shelley’s notion of autumn as the death and funeral of spring in his remark, “Where are the songs of Spring? … / Think not of them, thou hast music too” (lines 23-24). Here, the speaker is challenging the need to compare the seasons and to see autumn’s beginning through the perspective of spring’s ending. This assertion that fall “hast thy music too” suggests the inherent value in autumn regardless of its relation to any other season. Here, it seems Keats is both acknowledging and opposing an evidently common notion of spring as being superior to autumn—a notion that has formed the very basis of Shelley’s work.
Despite a few similarities, Keats’ “To Autumn” and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” offer portrayals of autumn that are in vivid contrast to one another. Shelley’s ode goes to great lengths to invoke a sense of morbidity and sickness, stressing the speaker’s view of autumn as the death of spring. Keats’ ode, meanwhile, presents autumn as a symbol of life through images of harvest and abundance. Taken together, the juxtaposition of these two images highlights the duality of the season of as a time of both positive and negative change within the natural world. Shelley’s intensely pessimistic view of Autumn as the death of spring combined with Keats’ perception of fall as the bringer of life and harvest effectively conveys the cyclical nature of the natural world, in which each new change serves as both a beginning and an end.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poetry and the Individual
Working at the height of the Romantic Era, Percy Bysshe Shelley set the standard for literature of the period. Consistently using the conventional comparisons between humans and nature, Shelley in his poetry emphasizes man’s ability to remove himself from the commonplace and initiate change, and to produce new ideas through the power of imagination and creativity. Similarly in A Defense of Poetry, Shelley attempts to establish poetry’s place in a rapidly changing, industrialized world. He wrote his defense in response to Thomas Love Peacock’s The Four Ages of Poetry, which urged great minds to stop wasting their time with humanities, especially poetry, and put their intellectual efforts toward the newly emerging sciences. With that being said, A Defense of Poetry argues for poetry’s utilitarian function, claiming the use of language demonstrates human impulse to mimic the rhythmic and ordered that is instinctively incorporated into creative activities. Accordingly, Shelley’s poem “Mutability” employs that same structure, following traditional expectations of a lyric poem, in order to present life as ephemeral. A solemn, reflecting poem, “Mutability” explicates the ever-changing nature of humanity. In both poetry and prose, Shelley emphasizes the inevitability of change, poetry’s contribution to society, and individual insignificance.
By definition, ‘mutable’ refers to something inconstant and prone to change. Interestingly, in his poem “Mutability,” Shelley presents this change as the only reliable aspect of life. His final proclamation of “nought may endure but Mutability” highlights perpetual impermanence, the poem’s general theme (16). In addition, in A Defense of Poetry, Shelley writes: “All high poetry is infinite (…) a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence, which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds” (Defense xvii). Essentially, Shelley is suggesting a poem never results in a final, definite interpretation; instead, the meaning adapts to future generations. Similarly, in “Mutability,” Shelley emphasizes man’s continual struggle to deal with the ever-changing state of the universe.
Another example of Shelley reiterating the imminence of change involves his comparisons to an Aeolian lyre in both “Mutability” and A Defense of Poetry. In “Mutability,” Shelley depicts humans as “forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings/ Give various response to each varying blast, / To whose frail frame no second motion brings / One mood or modulation like the last” (5-8). With this materialistic imagery, Shelley presents the frailty of human mortality and how quickly humans, as well as their art, can be easily forgotten. Yet, the analogy between men and Aeolian harps suggests humans are capable of attaining melody as well as harmony. Implicitly, Shelley indicates mankind has the ability to build from one thought or experience (one note) and expand his thoughts (to a musical string of notes) in a way to bring about change that will lead to a more fulfilling existence (by developing musical harmony). Thus, in A Defense of Poetry, Shelley similarly claims “man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre” (Defense 2). It is only once Shelley reconciles with the inevitability of change that he is ably to maintain his belief that “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful which is distorted” (Defense 10).
In A Defense of Poetry, Shelley claims “poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man” (Defense 12-13). In accordance with this line of thought, the tone of “Mutability” remains objective in regard to the changeable nature of the universe. Where science does not require one to explore personal moral judgment, the humanities allow for mental and emotional expansion. This idea extends to the narrative voice of “Mutability,” which belongs to an individual neither saddened nor elated by the ever-adapting state of the world. With either the choice to “laugh or weep,” or to experience “joy or sorrow,” the reader is allowed to “cast [their] cares away” (11-13). In short, Shelley does not manipulate his reader into a specific emotion, but instead leaves open-ended interpretation for one’s places within the universe. Intentionally, Shelley allows room for speculation within his poetry because “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause” (Defense 14).
A Defense of Poetry argues for man “to be greatly good, [he] must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own;” subsequently, it is important to consider how Shelley uses “Mutability” to educate his readers on society’s meaningless and insignificant nature (Defense 14). It can be argued that “Mutability” “lifts the veil” off human importance and exposes individual significance through imagery and extended metaphors. For example, humanity is metaphorically compared to a cloud in the first stanza: “We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon” (1). A result of mother nature, the cloud does not protect the moon but instead only serves to “veil” it. In addition, the lyre requires someone to play it and fulfill its purpose. Throughout the poem, Shelley’s comparisons between humans and nature highlight the interdependence between these two spheres of activity. In typical Romantic fashion, Shelley removes individual agency and places all power in the hands of nature. And in accordance with his Defense of Poetry, Shelley uses his poetry to “lif[t] the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and mak[e] familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (Defense 13).
Shelley uses both his poetry and prose to highlight the inevitability of change within the human realm. An analysis of both A Defense of Poetry and “Mutability” reveals Shelley’s deep concern with the benefits and advantages of poetry. Through intense imagery and ample metaphorical comparisons, Shelley models his poetry by his own standards. Believing poetry to be able incite moral good within a society, he leaves the interpretation of “Mutability” up for debate as time progresses. By emphasizing the insignificance of human existence, Shelley simultaneously highlights the need for literature within a society.
Shelley, Percy. A Defense of Poetry. Ed. Albert Cook. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1891. Print.
—. “Mutability.” The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Shelley. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. Oxford: Project Gutenberg, 2003. eBook.
“Ozymandias”: A Close Reading
Percy Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818) is, in many ways, an outlier in his oeuvre: it is short, adhering to the fourteen line length of most traditional sonnets; its precise language, filled with concrete nouns and active verbs, contrasts against the circuitous, abstract language of “O World! O Life! O Time!” (1824); and, most saliently, it does not seek to radicalize or shock, like the “The Necessity of Atheism” (1811) or The Cenci, his 1819 closet drama about incest and murder. Shelley’s often combative, politically-charged style makes “Ozymandias” seem tame in comparison to most of his other poems. That said, a close reading of the sonnet reveals its political and theological heart. Shelley’s core beliefs—like the importance of atheism, the impermanence of man-made societal structures, and the unpreventable certainty of oblivion—thematically buttress the foundation of “Ozymandias.” With uncharacteristic subtlety and nuance, Shelley uses the poem’s eponymous statue to evidence the ephemerality of power and civilization as a whole.
Structurally, “Ozymandias” does not adhere to one specific form, although it does contain elements of both the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet. It operates in a loose iambic pentameter, with every line consisting of ten syllables, except for the first and tenth, which have eleven. Lines three and twelve, meanwhile, open with trochees, ignoring the idea that a sonnet must solely consist of iambs. The rhyme scheme, too, is abnormal, conforming to no historically precedented pattern. Shelley’s frequent use of enjambment further obfuscates the rhymes and makes them less pronounced. Additionally, “Ozymandias” is not broken into an octave and a sestet. Instead, it is presented in one block of cohesive text. As a result, the poem has a tight, prose-like quality to it, reading smoothly and quickly. Shelley’s disregard for conventional forms reinforces the poem’s themes. He does not consider the Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet an immortal form, just like Ozymandias’s kingdom cannot possibly stand forever.
The sonnet’s litheness leaves no room for abstractions. Accordingly, Shelley’s language is precise and concrete, making the poem dense with specific imagery. Lines two and three—“‘two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desart’”—situate the reader geographically and establish the dilapidated state of Ozymandias’s statue. The two lines that immediately follow describe the statue’s partially obscured head, which is “Half sunk” in the sand. Ozymandias’s “frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” is the first instance of Shelley planting dramatic irony into the poem: Ozymandias’s facial features are frozen in a menacing expression of confidence and power, yet his kingdom has long since crumbled, and his statue is not even whole anymore. Shelley adds a subtle critique on Christianity to this argument in line ten by having Ozymandias declare himself the “King of Kings,” a moniker often assigned to Jesus. This conspicuously loaded word choice further reinforces the overarching project of “Ozymandias”: no one is immortal, and no civilization or construct can stand forever. Shelley is not simply content to display the intrinsically fleeting nature of power, he also wants to highlight the hubris of individuals who believe they can defy this inevitability. He accomplishes this through an obvious use of irony: the “colossal Wreck” of the deserted statue declares, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The irony, of course, lies in the fact that the statue is now surrounded only by nothing but “lone and level sands.” Going further, Shelley implies that the sculptor had subversive intentions when carving the “sneer of cold command,” knowing that the exaggerated expression would speak to Ozymandias’s misplaced pride, instead of his all-encompassing power. Shelley’s use of the word “mocked” when describing the sculptor’s technique functions as a double entendre: “mocked,” in this context, means both to copy and to deride. While Ozymandias saw his statue as an imposing manifestation of his power, the sculptor saw it as an example of his subject’s overwhelming hubris. This hubris is most obvious in the pedestal’s inscription in lines ten and eleven, which works on two levels: when the statue was erected, it was ostensibly part of a prominent kingdom, making the inscription read as a boast, an assertion that Ozymandias’s empire is unsurpassably vast and majestic; when the statue’s current state is taken into account, though, the inscription reads more like a warning, a declaration that even the mightiest kingdoms will eventually disintegrate.
The conceit of the poem—that the speaker “met a traveler from an antique land” who described the “shattered” statue of Ozymandias—conceptually evidences Shelley’s project: the speaker hears about the statue secondhand, which means the reader receives the information thirdhand, opening up the possibility that the details may have been distorted in the transmission process, as is often the case with orally communicated stories. In reality, the actual inscription on the statues reads, “I am Ozymandias, king of kings; if anyone wishes to know what I am and where I lie, let him surpass me in some of my exploits.” Admittedly, Shelley likely augmented the inscription so it could more easily fit the meter of the poem, but that does not trivialize the fact that Ozymandias’s authoritative words—which were deliberately chosen to exhibit his power—appear paraphrased in the body of the poem. This makes his declaration more of a distorted echo than a resounding assertion of power, undercutting his intended message. Likewise, and for the same reason, it is significant that the poem is called “Ozymandias”—and that the statue, and the emperor it is portraying, is referred to as Ozymandias—because it is a Greek transliteration of the name Ramses II. This is another example of Shelley showing the reader that Ozymandias’s power is gradually fading away.
Shelley denounces the hopeful—and widely held—idea that people, even a “King of Kings,” can become immortal through their accomplishments. In doing so, he is offering a critique of both church and state, showing that everything that is erected will eventually collapse, be it a physical statue or an abstract concept, like Christianity. Even though “Ozymandias” does not contain the radical language that Shelley is famous for, it addresses the same themes as his more overtly political poems.
The Danger of Deranged Appetites: When Hunger Hijacks Existence
“And he has bought / With his sweet voice and eyes, from savage men, / His rest and food.” – Percy Shelley’s AlastorIn Shelley’s Alastor, the Poet is initially presented as an “early youth” relying upon his “sweet” words to obtain his nourishment. In an effort to satisfy his appetite for Nature’s “deep mysteries,” the Poet journeys through a vast wilderness and heartily indulges in the numerous beautiful scenes Nature has to offer. The Poet also partakes in his “bloodless food,” revealing a vegetarian diet that adds to his harmonious relationship with Nature (129). Guided by a healthy appetite for Nature’s innermost secrets, the Poet is able to be adequately nourished. However, this once normal sense of hunger becomes permanently deranged after a fascinating dream awakens in him an insatiable hunger for the impossible- a supernatural ideal. This dangerous corruption of hunger is what renders the Poet’s aesthetic abilities useless and draws out his final, passive surrender as an artist. Throughout Alastor, the Poet’s hunger operates deceptively to drain his energy, manipulating his life-long journey towards the hopeless pursuit of intellectual beauty until the final surrender to death. The first misdeeds of the Poet’s hunger are seen immediately after the visionary maiden is perceived- after his fleeting but euphoric touch with the supernatural, the Poet cannot possibly find an adequate replacement to match the joy experienced in the dream world. In yearning for “sweet human love,” the Poet eagerly contemplates suicide in order to achieve union with this ideal- “Does the dark gate of death conduct to thy mysterious paradise, O Sleep?” (211-213). After a few more passages detailing his sullen existence, the Poet then flirts with death a second time, crying out, “Vision and Love! I have beheld the path of thy departure. Sleep and death shall not divide us long!” (366-368). The constant state of misery experienced due to a never-ending dissatisfaction with the material world expedites the Poet’s acceptance of death as a favorable consequence- this reveals hunger as a drive that’s become seriously deranged in the Poet. Hunger, in the biological sense, is a basic survival mechanism. In this regard, hunger is an arousing force- it signals the body to seek out the source of nourishment essential for the organism’s survival. Yet the natural sense of hunger in the Poet changes for the worse- the Poet’s hunger becomes enormously defective, leading him not to a period of feeding that induces satiation, but rather towards an endless cycle of dissatisfaction. This hunger, now dysfunctional, does not serve him advantageously as it should. Instead of acting as the arousing force of survival, hunger in Alastor’s Poet acts as a malignant, degenerative force- his hungry gaze tricks him into viewing death as a viable solution for, “He sought in Nature’s dearest haunt, some bank, her cradle, and his sepulcher.” (429-430). Hunger has transformed into quite the treacherous force indeed.The result of his insatiable appetite for “sweet human love” is that the Poet becomes dissatisfied with the once beloved images of Nature; hunger squanders his potential as an artist, again acting to the detriment of the Poet. Willing to abandon everything in his unrealistic pursuit of ideal beauty, the Poet is in effect sacrificing his lifeblood- the ability to perceive and appreciate Nature’s aesthetics. After witnessing the flight of a swan, the poet reflects, “And what am I that I should linger here, / With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes, / Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned / To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers / In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven / That echoes not my thoughts?” (286-290). The Poet laments his existence in the earthly realm, which reflects not the irresistible visions of his dreams. Doomed to lifelong dissatisfaction with the physical beauty presented to him, the poet cannot help but feel dysfunctional as an artist. Whereas Shelley once describes early on in the poem how Nature’s “fountains of divine philosophy fled not his thirsting lips,” the Poet after the significant overturning of hunger, cannot seem to be satisfied on the same source of sustenance (71). Whereas once “every sight and sound from the vast earth and ambient air, sent to his heart its choicest impulses,” now nothing in the natural world can suffice (68-70). When he stumbles upon a bed of flowers, he has a sudden compulsion to “deck with their bright hues his withered hair,” (413-414). But once again, under the intense scrutiny of a newfound appetite, “on his heart its solitude returned, and he forbore,”- what was once satisfactory is now unworthy, and he resists the aesthetic value of the “yellow flowers,” (414-415). How can the artist (who once delighted in Nature so greatly) be able to turn down the sunny richness embodied in Shelley’s yellow flowers? The youthful, vibrant energy of the yellow flowers provides a striking counterpoint to the Poet’s withered state- the color is one of joy, stimulating the creative energies in an individual. All rationality and artistic drive is lost when possessed by a deranged hunger. The fact that the Poet is able to desist and “forbear” from the simple beauty set before him speaks to the iron-clad grip hunger has on his desires (414). All previous joyous experiences fall short- the Poet’s natural taste for aesthetic cues, once touched by dreams, becomes hopelessly deranged. Instead of prompting the Poet to assimilate the bounty of beautiful images found in his natural environment, the hunger for a beauty matching the ethereal forms in his dreams forces him to reject the more familiar beauties placed in front of him. Without his art to pursue and take joy in, the Poet no longer finds his diet sustainable. With his life’s primary source of aesthetic joy ruined, the Poet sinks further into solitude which enables hunger to effectively hijack his being into passivity and have him relinquish control over his life. With his earlier acknowledgement of death as the one solution to his burning desire for beauty, the Poet could have easily ended his aimless, miserable wandering. But the Poet, “obedient to the light that shone within his soul,” is convinced, or rather deceived, by his malevolent hunger to continue his fatal pursuit until he is sufficiently weakened (493-494). Just as a parasite must keep its host alive to sustain itself, the Poet’s hunger cannot immediately kill him off either. Hunger feeds off the Poet, “like restless serpents, clothed / In rainbow and in fire, these parasites,” (438-439). The Poet is lured in by the light; here, hunger is deceptively masquerading as the positive, shining “light” within his soul, when it is anything but. “At night the passion came,” and hunger is also described as “Like the fierce fiend of a distempered dream, which shook him from his rest, and led him forth / Into the darkness,” bestowing an almost-Satanic quality to the force of hunger present in the Poet (224-227). Moreover, the specific word choice “led” emphasizes that this walk into darkness (a metaphor foreshadowing death) is not an active choice made by the Poet- there is no free will, demonstrating the passivity of the Poet. Death is always the end destination it seems, as hunger seizes control of his system and ceases to let go- “the wanderer’s footsteps fell, he knew that death was on him. Yet a little, ere it fled, did he resign his high and holy soul to images of the majestic past, that paused within his passive being now,” (626-630). The extent to which his hunger has beguiled him is demonstrated by the fact that the Poet does not perceive death as unpleasant. Even as the Poet lies dying, “no mortal pain or fear marred his repose,” and the Poet enters a state of calm and tranquility, envisioning the heaven he will escape to (639-640).Alastor’s solitary Poet, although taking in bloodless food, wasted away through the inadequate consumption of his natural world, as he was fatally misled by a dysfunctional sense of hunger. Being unlike ordinary men (visionary artists are far and few between), it seems natural that he is pushed to isolation at the outset of the poem. Social inclusion tends to have a grounding effect on an individual, for civilization is a rational force. But since the Poet lives in solitude, he is more likely to follow the extreme, imaginative pursuits originating from a passion for his art; he lives without the voice of others to dissuade him from pursuing “Nature’s most secret steps.” In this context, insatiable hunger for such an ideal human form seems fitting punishment for the man unwilling to seek out society. But was supernatural enlightenment and the consequent lifelong misery chasing after unattainable forms effective punishment for an ego stemming perhaps from loneliness? If the Poet is able to die in peace, is a life of lonely misery and aimless wandering not a life well-lived? And did the Poet not achieve the highest possible form of mortal art? Because while Shelley titled the poem, “Alastor” (Greek for “avenging demons” or “evil genius,”) to describe the ills of living in solitude, it seems the Poet, while alone, achieves a truly noble task- dying without regret, pain or fear (Bean, 60). Although it is implied that the Poet is unremembered by his brethren, surely his life’s artistry is immortalized through the existence of this poem alone.Works CitedBean, John C., “The Poet Borne Darkly: The Dream-Voyage Allegory in Shelley’s Alastor”Keats-Shelley Journal , Vol. 23, (1974), pp. 60-76 . Keats-Shelley Association of America, Inc. 1974. 12 March 2012
The politics of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”
In his impassioned paean “Ode to the West Wind”, Percy Bysshe Shelley focuses on nature’s power and cyclical processes and, through the conceit of the wind and the social and political revolution prompted by the Peterloo massacre of August 1819, examines the poet’s role therein. Although these ideas seem, on the surface, to be distinct from one another, Shelley intertwines them all by the poem’s conclusion. The poet divides the ode into five stanzas, each appearing to be a sonnet. The opening two stanzas are focused on the wind and its interaction with the leaves and the clouds, while the third moves on to waves. These are then brought together in stanza IV as the poet’s argument, like the storm, has gathers momentum. The opening sees the “wild west wind”; here, the alliteration echoes the wind’s sound in almost onomatopoeic melodrama, acting out nature’s cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, which is then contrasted with and complemented by the softer and breathier inspiration of the “breath of Autumn’s being.” This duality in the opening prefigures the wind’s description as both “destroyer and preserver” and establishes the idea that is maintained throughout the poem. The wind drives the dead leaves, now redundant clutter, away to be replaced by the “winged seeds”, whose brio and vitality bring the promise of fresh life to come. Stanza II compares the “loose clouds” to the “decaying leaves”, widening the depiction of the wind’s power, which is further emphasised by the comparison of the storm to “the bright hair uplifted from the head of some fierce Maenad” and the sheer scale of the storm, which reaches “even from the dim verge of the horizon to the zenith’s height”. Its power is restated in Stanza III where its course, gathering force, is detailed from the “blue Mediterranean” and “the Atlantic”, whose “level powers cleave themselves into chasms.” The two ‘c’ words here are deliberately linked and emphasised by alliteration as examples of the epic size and frightening power of the wind. This is the kind of power that the poet is aspiring to embody. The “tameless…and proud” revolutionary seeks to rejuvenate his powers of art and socio-political commentary by harnessing the varied potential of Nature’s force. Shelley also decorates his descriptions, writing that the storm is notable not only for its strength and size but also for its colours, such as “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red” leaves and “black rain, and fire”, and its motion, reiterated by verbs such as “burst” and “shook”. Shelley’s reaction to the storm is an experience of the sublime, similar to the awe-inspiring sight of Mont Blanc in its grandeur and potential danger, as well as in the enlightening effect it has upon the poet. Thus we are presented with a storm both beautiful and dangerous in its actions – much like the process of revolution. With the undertones of revolution, the poet’s choice of form and setting seem apt. The ode was a traditionally lofty form used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to praise the elite statesmen and emperors. Shelley inverts this tradition by using it to write anti-establishment, pro-revolution poetry that is intended for the masses – not for the rich and powerful. Therefore, the relevance of its setting in Baiae is evident. In ancient times, emperors and their aristocratic friends would holiday there, none more famous than Julius Caesar and later Nero, who famously murdered his own mother in that very location. Thus the setting, which recalls images of plenitude and excess on behalf of the aristocracy, prompts us to look at the monarch under which this was being written, George III, who received an annual grant from parliament of £700,000, while the poor were being massacred and beaten for peacefully protesting the ever-increasing food prices which would bring starvation to them and their families. Shelley was disgusted by the Peterloo massacre and was further anguished by reminders of his own mortality and imminent death: he writes that his “leaves are falling” like the forest’s – a reference to his greying hair. How painful it must have been for him to be in exile and ever-conscious of his total disempowerment and transitoriness. By using terza rima Shelley not only aligns himself with greats such as Dante and Chaucer, but its rhythm of “two steps forward, one step back…and seamless blend of forward motion and backward glance” reflects the energy and motion of the wind. The rhyme scheme seems to ripple like the wind, with rhymes coming to the fore then remaining in the background throughout the poem. This energetic rhyme scheme twinned with the controlled form of the sonnet for each of the stanzas reflects the vigour of revolution, but also underscores how it has to be, according to Shelley, controlled, not anarchistic.The situation in the poem is presented like an apocalypse with the unwanted, dead leaves being “driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” and the seeds lying buried “each like a corpse within its grave” – it is fitting, then, that when the west wind of autumn’s “azure sister of the spring” arrives to fill the earth with “living hues and odours plain and hill,” she announces her arrival with a “clarion” – a war trumpet – like that in Revelations 7 and 8. The effect is not necessarily negative, as these images recall both Judgement Day and the Resurrection. The suggestion is thus that death and decay are simply a part of life and rebirth. It is she, the feminine equivalent of autumn’s west wind, who is the “preserver”, while he is the “destroyer”. They are presented as working together as a higher power or, as Shelley calls it, an “unseen presence”. This sense of a greater power appears dangerous in its power and connection with death, but also reassuring in its capacity to preserve the natural order. This “spirit” which is “moving everywhere” is not the pantheistic Christian God whom Wordsworth is concerned with in works such as “Tintern Abbey”. In fact, in their dual roles as “destroyer and preserver” respectively, Richard Harter Fogle suggests they appear more like Shiva and Vishnu, two parts of the Hindu trinity who share the associations of death as necessary for change and the balance required to maintain life and order, or dharma, as it is called in Hindu doctrine. In Fogle’s essay, however, Brahma, the creator, is not present to complete the trinity. In his place, I believe we have the poet, the original creator, whose role is presented as not existing in nature, but rather in revolution to complete the triad. In the final two stanzas the focus switches to the poet who, like the wind, gradually gains force and becomes more and more unified with the power of the wind. He begs to be lifted “as a wave, a leaf, a cloud” by the wind, recalling the subjects of the first three stanzas, as a passive companion, and then, like a passive accomplice, asks to be made his “lyre” – a great Romantic image of mutability and the beauty of sound, and inherently related to nature and the wind. The power comes with the cohesion of poet and wind, first in terms of spirit, and then in terms of a transcendence and metamorphosis of identity:”Be thou, spirit fierce, my spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!” Empowered by this unification of forces, the poet demands that the wind drive his “dead thoughts”, which through the power of nature can now become the “winged seeds” of the first stanza, “over the universe like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” Shelley, the creator, can provide the “sparks” for this revolution by “the incantation of this verse” – and perhaps others such as the radical “England in 1819”, which condemned the current monarch, George III. This explains why the tone of Shelley’s cry to “unawakened earth” for revolution is “sweet though in sadness”, as this revolution must come without violence and anarchy, which harmed the government but also the populace. Indeed, the populace features here as “pestilence-stricken multitudes” plagued by poverty and famine due to their “old, mad and…leech-like” King, who left the country with a huge war debt following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Indeed, in invoking the wind in an almost prayer-like way, with the repetition of “oh” that is typical of such a medium, Shelley attempts to position the wind as similar to the publisher he could never find. That is to say, one who could spread his word throughout the masses, but was also untouchable by law. Leigh Hunt published as much as he could of Shelley’s work, but feared prosecution if he published anything criticising the current monarchy. By the end of 1819, Shelley had thus resigned himself to not seeing his more political works, such as “England in 1819”, in print. Just as Shelley was witness to the west wind ushering in a new season with her clarion, it is the poet now who comes armed with “the trumpet of prophecy”, the hope of a new spring for England, and the hope that his poems and essays can bring about a new age. The rational thinking brought about through his friendship with William Godwin, who envisaged a utopian society governed entirely by reason,” is evident in the poem’s closing question:”If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” A question, although lacking in the decisiveness one may expect from a radical political revolutionary, full of hope and faith in the preservation of a natural order and the belief that through his promotion of imagination, those in power may be able to sympathise with the common man, who in turn will not stand for further oppression. As Shelley wrote of poetic inspiration in his Defense of Poetry, “The mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.” He hopes in his “Ode to the West Wind” that his poetic “sparks” and this wind can enlighten the world.
Romantic Poetry and Transcendentalism
Allegorical literature is employed by many great philosophers to explain the basic tenets of their philosophies. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato used the famous cave allegory to explain how the human mind interprets the ideal material world. The teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible are metaphorical representations of God’s will. Likewise, philosophical representations are found in romantic poetry. In “Tintern Abbey”, William Wordsworth depicts his relationship to nature as rather transcendentalist, whereas Percy Bysshe Shelley’s outlook on reality in “Mont Blanc” is existential. The two poets show these philosophical preferences by creating nature imagery and describing their reactions to it.
After creating a picture of Tintern Abbey in the reader’s mind, Wordsworth describes how the scenery evokes sublime feelings of his oneness with nature. First, he describes how the emotions he experiences at the Abbey make him feel enlightened, as though he has entered into a state of meditation: “that blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery, / In which the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world / Is lightened” (38-42). Through his description of “this unintelligible world” (41), Wordsworth implies that at Tintern he understands a divine truth that is usually latent in reality. He then goes on to state that when we recognize this aspect of nature, “we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul” (46-7). Wordsworth explains that during his sublime, meditative connection with nature, he becomes one with it; a part of the “soul” that exists in all things. It is through this connection between the soul and the outside world, which is understood through the divine qualities in man and nature, that Wordsworth delivers his philosophical theme. The theme of nature’s universal presence is revisited later in the poem when Wordsworth writes, “While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things” (48-50). By investing nature with an aspect of liveliness, he relates nature to the lives of men.
The philosophy that there is a fundamental bond between the self and the world that Wordsworth voices in “Tintern Abbey” parallels the later teachings of transcendentalist philosophers. In fact, the popular American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled to Europe to meet his heroes, Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth, who no doubt reinforced his beliefs. In his book “American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition” Russell Goodman observes that:
Emerson is a direct link between American philosophy and European Romanticism….In Emerson’s writings, the ideas and projects of the European Romantics – “the feeling intellect,” the “marriage of self and world,” the human mind as a shaper of experience…and the naturalization and the humanization of the divine – developed in a philosophically distinctive way on American soil (34-5).
The theme created by the images in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” do indeed coincide with Goodman’s assertions. Wordsworth’s observation of “the unintelligible world” (41) resembles Emerson’s “feeling intellect”; and Wordsworth’s sensation of the “living soul” (47) corresponds with Emerson’s “marriage of self and world.” Belief in the divinity of nature and man is also found in both Wordsworth’s poetry and transcendentalist philosophy. Wordsworth claims that through his emotions -when he is in “that blessed mood” (42) – he can identify a divine quality in nature. Similarly, Emerson’s writings reveal the belief that humankind and nature are divine unto themselves; he does not defer to a divine God as the Christians do.
While Wordsworth’s transcendentalist poetry focuses on the kinship between man and nature, the philosophical ideas presented in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” are based on man’s individual interpretation of the world around him. For Shelley, the human intellect, senses, and experience of reality are key. His description of the scene at Mont Blanc projects these philosophical ideals: “and when I gaze on thee / I seem as in a trance sublime and strange / To muse on my own separate phantasy” (34-6). Here, Shelley’s “own separate phantasy” places importance on his personal experience of the world, as if it were a dream only visible to him. Shelley’s poem extends this theme by creating an image of the world as a continuously changing background for a play in which Shelley is the star. He writes: “My own, my human mind, which passively / Now renders and received fast influencings, / Holding an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around” (37-40). In this manner, he emphasizes the fact that his own mind, centered on intellect and the senses, plays a major role in how the universe exists: a sharply individualistic view of life. The image of the world as a dream is reappears later in the poem, when Shelley asks, “do I lie / In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep / Spread far around and inaccessibly / Its circles?” (54-7). This metaphor reinforces the notion that the universe and reality, like dreams, are created by the individual, for the individual. The combination of the theme created by these images with the absence of any reference to a deity or divinity implies that Shelley’s philosophy on reality is based on the individual.
Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, therefore, reflects the tenets of existentialism, a philosophy that gained popularity in the early twentieth century. A central feature of existentialism is the belief that “man makes himself.” This implies that everyone has the ability to interpret the world as they wish, and change the world if they decide to do so. Shelley’s references to his life and experiences at Mont Blanc as his “own separate phantasy” (36) reflects this existentialist concept. Furthermore, according to Marjorie Grene in “Introduction to Existentialism”, “existentialism is the philosophy which declares as its first principle that existence is prior to essence” (2). An examination of existentialism’s inverse, that essence precedes existence, can help clarify the meaning of existence prior to essence. Augustinians in the thirteenth century believed that man’s apprehension of the idea of God as infinite proves his existence. Existentialism, in turn, holds that the “necessity of starting with the givens of our sensuous experience and proceeding by induction and abstraction to the ultimate intuitive awareness of essences and eternal truths” (Grene 3). It is with this logic and the motif of dreamlike reality that Shelley defines his experience at Mont Blanc. In order to dream, one must first exist. Only then is it possible to feel the essences and fleeting objects experienced in a dream.
Wordsworth’s philosophical ideas are based on emotion, while Shelley’s are founded on individual existence. The romantics were considered revolutionaries for their psychological introspection, curiosity about the unknown, and focus on emotion. Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s philosophical ideas were truly revolutionary. The ideas found in transcendentalism and existentialism, philosophies solidified almost one hundred years after the time of the romantics, can be traced back to Wordsworth and Shelley; they were ahead of their time.
Critical Comparison: Emily Dickinson’s ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To A Skylark’
Emily Dickinson’s ‘A Bird came Down the Walk’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ both utilise the bird as a symbol of nature, with Dickinson’s poem being a violent and abrupt view of the natural world, and Shelley’s poem being more lethargic and the bird representing some lofty plain which human experiences cannot compare to. Both poems comment on man’s relationship with nature, but moreso than that, especially in regards to Romantic Poetry, nature can often be a metaphor for purity and for the sublime; for God. Fabienne Moine states in her essay that in Romantic poetry, the speaker identifying with the bird is in “itself a metaphor for artistic freedom, creativity or spiritual attainment”1, and ‘To a Skylark’ can in this light be interpreted as Shelley’s (or the poem’s speaker) desire to transcend from the earthly into something more idealised, and the melancholy that stems from the realisation that one might be unable to. Contrastingly, Dickinson’s poem comments on the violence present in the natural world, how he “bit an Angleworm in halves”2 which contradicts the depiction of nature present in Romantic poetry, and then the poem further describes the intrusion which humans bring to the natural world.
Indeed there is somewhat of an ironic reversal in Emily Dickinson’s poem; the human silent and still, observing the bird as it devours the worm, then when the human moves it becomes a chaotic force and it is the bird that flies off gracefully, “softer home”3. Consider the violence depicted in the line “he ate the fellow raw”, as was the worm, so is the text, raw. Here the bird is unfettered by the moral constrains of human society, and it devouring the worm is just a part of the natural order, or so one could say. Yet there’s also an element of humanisation here, especially when the bird hops “sideways to the Wall to let a Beetle pass”, the way the line is written suggests a sort of politeness, as if the natural world being observed in the poem is a parallel to our human society. It evinces the pathetic fallacy and the theory of ascribing human traits onto the natural world, which both Dickinson and Shelley’s poem do. Ryan S. Bayless further elaborates upon this:
‘In the third stanza, the persona continues to project her own humanness onto the bird, but these attempts are now attached to an apprehensiveness and fear of the potential danger she subconsciously perceives in nature’4.
Those fears that the poetic persona bestows onto the bird are not unfounded, as they have just witnessed the bird eat a worm whole, yet the persona does not seem to pick up on the duality of nature and man in how it eats the worm, yet lets the beetle pass, realistically the bird would be thinking solely of its own need for survival, the bird is merely a tool to comment on our own human fears, and the chaotic nature of existence, perhaps how life is precarious. It’s common in poetry to utilise the pathetic fallacy, and Shelley does the same in his poem as the speaker ruminates on this unseen Skylark, commenting on the nature of its existence and whether it has “love of its own kind”5.
“The symbolic significance of much of Shelley’s descriptive verse has been traced to Shelley’s haunting sense of an ideal beauty”6 so says E.W. Marajum in his essay ‘The Symbolism of Shelley’s To A Skylark’, he reinforces the idea of romantic poetry having this ideal to “transcend common experience”7. It could be said that To A Skylark depicts man’s frustration with their environment, considering the lines “Thou of death must deem/things more true and deep/than we mortals dream”8 which not only elevates the Skylark to some omniscient position, but could be read as a plea or cry against the world in general, the poet despondent that he is unable to live up to his lofty preconceptions of what art should be, indeed he beckons the bird to “teach us”, and again using religious allegory, says “bird or sprite”9 further indicating this ethereal nature to the animal. On a technical level, the harmonious nature of this ode gives credence to the otherworldly aspect of the Skylark, as it flows musically, as if it’s in sync with this mythical bird’s song. The main contrast between the two poems appears to be the way in which nature is described; nature in Skylark is romanticised, a land with “golden lightning” and “rainbow cloud”10 while Dickinson’s view of nature is one of uncertainty and violence, the language in the third stanza reinforces this; the “rapid eyes”11, it is not a tranquil depiction and perhaps this is an extension of human insecurities, both poems display the human need to bestow our emotions onto other things, be them living or inanimate.
The rhyme scheme and meter interestingly also play into the aforementioned idea of humans disturbing the natural order, consider how in the first two stanzas the rhyme scheme is calm, the quatrain using a xaxa rhyme scheme, “saw/raw”. The dash in the third stanza is when the bird becomes aware of the human presence, and thus the rhyme scheme becomes discordant, echoing the chaos and fear humans cause to the bird, and by extension, the natural realm as a whole. The final images of the poem “produce a deeper, intuitive seeing that utterly breaks down the human egocentric tendency to impose itself upon that which is being observed”12, it also indicates how the bird is untamed and untainted by mankind, it resists the observer’s offering and flies away maintaining its elegance, its body “too silver for a seam” preserving that poetic, godly description of nature’s beauty.
Emily Dickson’s ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’ and Percy Shelley’s ‘To A Skylark’ both analyse similar issues of the human condition through the use of metaphor, pathetic fallacy and personification, but the manner in which such objects are tackled differ, and the underlying tone is different too. Shelley adheres to the traditional Romantic sense of the beauty of the natural world being tinged with melancholy, and Emily Dickinson depicting the violence of the natural world as an extension of the human one, while also commenting on man’s interference with nature, and how the natural world can be simultaneously violence and graceful. Percy Shelley’s poem is a traditional ode to nature, keeping in line with poetic tradition and the themes of the poem; the Skylark as the idealised creation and as an earthly representation of the divine. Dickinson’s poem subverts structure by having the poetic structure echo the themes of the poem, by becoming more chaotic upon the human intrusion. Yet the bird flying away might also be a visual metaphor for the inability of the observer to find “nature”, or the divine, which would make it tonally and thematically closer to Shelley’s poem than at first glance, despite the contrast between violent nature and a peaceful one that the poems espouse. Man reaches out to join in the ritual of the natural world, but ultimately cannot grasp it, just as the observer in Skylark is unable to witness the Skylark, yet contemplates and addresses it anyway, in this light the birds in both poems would be more abstract, despite ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’ having a bird that is physically present and witnessed by the observer. Both poems comment on the melancholy paradox between the reality and the ideal, and E.W. Marajum meta-observation on the aspirations of poetry in itself. Poetry being the “art originally intended to make glad the heart of man”13.
Bayless, Ryan S., ‘The Breakdown of the Pathetic Fallacy in Emily Dickinson’s A BIRD, CAME DOWN THE WALK’, The Explicator, 69 (2011), 68–71
Marjarum, E. Wayne, ‘The Symbolism of Shelley’s “to a Skylark”’,PMLA, 52 (1937), 911
Moine, Fabienne, Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry (United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing, 2015)
Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th Edition (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996)
Pound, Ezra, and Michael Dirda, ABC of Reading(New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 2011)
1Fabienne Moore, Women Poets in the Victorian Era: Cultural Practices and Nature Poetry
2Emily Dickinson, ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th ed)
4Ryan S. Bayless, The Breakdown of the Pathetic Fallacy in Emily Dickson’s A BIRD CAME DOWN THE WALK, Texas State University
5 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To A Skylark’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed)
6E.W. Marajum, ‘The Symbolism of Shelley’s To A Skylark’, Modern Language Association, 1937
8 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To A Skylark’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed)
11Emily Dickinson, ‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’, Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th ed)
12Ryan S. Bayless, The Breakdown of the Pathetic Fallacy in Emily Dickson’s A BIRD CAME DOWN THE WALK, Texas State University
13Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, New Directions, 2011 ed
The Creative Function of Ekphrasis in the Work of Shelley, Keats, and Wordsworth
Aesthetic critics and writers of the 18th century wrestled with a number of questions regarding beauty, nature, mimesis, art, and the sublime and how they all related to one another. One of these queries concerned mind and matter – that is, whether beauty is a property of the object itself, or a projection of the viewer. This seems a question that Eliot posits by separating the two potential sources of beauty, suggesting, by ‘let us love […] too’, that beauty is found both within the ‘formed’ object and within the ‘human sympathy’ and should be treated with equal reverence and appreciation. However, this very linguistic separation exposes a frustrating kind of estrangement between the subject and the viewed object, something perhaps encompassed in the sublime poetry of the romantics, in which greatness lies beyond reach and full apprehension of the poet. However, it is ekphrasis, a form described plainly by Gotthold Lessing as a ‘verbal description of a visual artefact’ that strives to close perceived ‘gaps’ between the subject and the object, as the poet attempts to make their words achieve an affinity with the visual object described; melding together the ‘divine beauty of form’ and the human perception, judgement, or ‘sympathy’ towards or of it. As James A.W Hefferman suggests, ‘ekphrastic poetry turns the work of art into a story that expresses the mind of the speaker’, indeed pointing out the merging of mind and matter, yet importantly illuminating the fatal flaws in the aim of the ekphrastic poem. The visual object can never be described in a totally ‘pure’, un-objective way by the words, which are both naturally loaded with the opinions of the poet, and also exist in ‘time’, as Lessing explains, whilst art exists in ‘space.’ What thus arises in the canonical ekphrastic poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats is a strong sense of frustration that the sense or visual presence of the object can never quite be understood or reached through their words. However, it is in the nature of this obstruction, where the poems flux between nearness to the object, and frustration that it cannot be fully reached, that a new ‘form’ is produced and animated by the poem. What arises is a revision that arises to substitute the original object, borne of both the beauty of form and the viewer’s judgement.
One of the primary tensions working throughout Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Shelley’s ‘On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery, and Wordsworth’s ‘Elegaic Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, In a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont’ is that between stasis and movement. In Keats’ ‘Ode’ particularly, there is an intense frustration with the inert nature of the urn:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,/Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time[.]
The sibilance of ‘still’, ‘silence’, and ‘slow time’, are indicative of a tonal anger at the urn’s seeming unwillingness to yield anything to Keats, whose desire is to ‘ravish’ the urn and spill its secrets and mysteries. This is a frustration of the visual object; it has no language other than image, and thus words are at odds in trying to depict them. Shelley has a similar problem in his depiction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Medusa, which is doubly indolent, in being piece still in itself, but also representative of a figure whom turned anyone who looked at her into stone:
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie/Loveliness like a shadow, from which shine,/Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,/The agonies of anguish and death.’
The animations of the statue here are vague, as what Shelley sees only ‘seems’ to be, and the ‘agonies’ he perceives ‘struggle underneath’ what he sees as an only partially penetrable layer of indifferent stillness. For Keats and Shelley, these works of art are indeed beautiful in form, but their poems suggest that their motionlessness is somehow hindering of this beauty. For example, Keat’s choice of ‘foster-child of silence and slow time’ carries connotations of wrongfulness and misplacement, as though the urn has become the child of silence and slow time though was never meant to be. On this matter, Frederick Burwick suggests that ‘although [Keats] deliberately insists upon [the urn’s] stasis as necessary condition to its permanence as art, the poet nevertheless posits the very temporal movement he pretends to deny’. Indeed, Keats poses frenzied questions about the urn’s inaccessibility, yet in the act of doing so, creates dynamism and movement in the object he is trying to depict:
What men or gods are there? What maidens loth/What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?/What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy? [8-10]
Keats points diexically to the urn with ‘there’, and in spite of his assertion that it is silent and unyielding, the image he goes on to present is of ‘mad pursuit’, ‘escape’, and ‘ecstasy’. Similarly in Shelley’s ‘medusa’, the figure apparently lying with a fixed gaze has hair that actively grows as Shelley describes:
And from its head as from one body grow,/As […] grass out of a watery rock,/Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow/And their long tangles in each other lock,/And with unending involutions show/ Their mailed radiance [17-21]
The ‘growth’ here is all happening in the present, as the hairs ‘curl and flow’ then ‘lock’ in tangles. The image here of the grass growing out of a ‘watery rock’ also seems particularly illuminating in wider terms of Shelley and Keats’ ekphrastic methods. Both perceive a visual, solid image, and grasp at it in words by labeling in their titles the object which they are focused on, natural linguistic signs, ‘urn’, ‘medusa’ , that point directly to the. As Murray Krieger indicates in his writing on ekphrastic poetry, that it is the ‘romantic quest to realize the nostalgic dream of an original, pre-fallen language of corporeal presence’, a language that ‘in spite of its limits, [can] recover the immediacy of a sightless vision built into our habit of perceptual desire since Plato.’ Both writers find that this quest nears on impossible however, and though they can evoke the visual artefact in part, they find themselves forced to grow and expand outwards from the solid ‘rock’-like artefact. Their inability to present the visual artefact with spacial immediacy in words creates a new, temporal, dynamic image, which David Kennedy suggests ‘asks to be judged and evaluated as a work of art in [its] own right’.
In the case of Wordsworth’s ‘Peele Castle’, the struggle between stasis and movement is in the inverse, but the principle of creating a new artefact remains the same. For Wordsworth, Beaumont’s depiction of the castle seems all wrong – Wordsworth knew it as a place surrounded by ‘calm’ and ‘quiet’, yet perceives in the painting a ‘lightning, […] fierce wind, and trampling waves’. He feels mournful in the face of the painting, as he cannot connect his own mental image of the place with it:
Not for a moment could I now behold/A smiling sea, and be what I have been:/The feeling of my loss will we’er be old;/This, which I know, I speak with mind serene. [37-40]
Wordsworth ascertains that the artefact has stumped him – it has surpassed his own imagination and image of the castle. However, by this point in the poem it is too late; he has already created his own ‘work of art’ before the reader has even encountered a real glimpse of Beaumont’s painting :
Ah! then, if mine had been the Painter’s hand […] I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile/Amid a world how different from this [17-18][…] Thou shouldst have seemed a treasure-house divine 
The final lines of Shelley’s poem could easily be viewed as ekphrastic on their own:
A woman’s countenance, with serpent-locks,/Gazing in death on Heaven from those wet rocks. [39-40]
In fact, these lines in isolation read almost like an evocative imagist poem – a movement to appear years after Shelley’s death. This raises questions about the aims of the ekphrastic poem, if an artifact can be drawn up in so few words. As I have discussed, the frustrating inaccessibility of the visual artifacts in these poems produces a new visual, based on the temporal perceptions the poet makes upon viewing and reflection, whether these are seemingly generated on the spot (Shelley), or drawn from existing knowledge (Wordsworth). I would also argue that these ekphrastic poems allow a space in which Shelley, Wordsworth, and Keats are able to prove the match of their ‘human sympathies’ to the beauty of the form they cannot reach; in other words, they pose that their frustration is not a defeat but a natural property of the object. Keats for instance, closes his poem with the famous lines:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. [49-50]
Though these lines have been interpreted broadly, in at least one sense here Keats is expressing that his frustrations are not unique, and in fact perhaps the ability to divulge something more than simple ‘beauty’ from the urn is not necessary. In Shelley’s case, any obscurity is answered with his nudges towards the sublime:
the midnight sky/Flares, a light more dread than obscurity./’Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror’ [31-33]
His inability to fully capture the artefact in words is ‘justified’ in a sense by his evocation of the sublime with ‘loveliness of terror’ – the fullness of the artefact is unreachable, but this again is a property of the thing itself.
The ekphrastic poems do not, then, serve to simply and purely attempt to replicate the visual in words, but instead, as Hefferman states, ‘the verbal version of a work of visual art remakes the original’. They are a project to draw closer together the form and the subject, where in doing so, Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley’s frustrated reflections on their inability to apprehend and reflect the object create it anew, an object imbued with themselves and their subjective judgments of the original. The poems could even be perceived, as Kennedy posits, as a ‘critical discussion of visual representation’, animating a story and life behind the seemingly static and unyielding artifact.
“Nought may endure but Mutability:” Examining Shelley’s Opinions on Change
Throughout several of his poems, Percy Bysshe Shelley celebrates mutability and takes comfort in the fact that change is inevitable. In “Mutability,” Shelley suggests that constant change is positive because it means that no ill feeling can ever last too long. While one cannot be certain about most things, one can depend on the inevitability of change and hope that the change will bring good. In “Ozymandias” and “England 1918,” Shelley takes comfort in the fact that change is unavoidable because it ensures that tyrants cannot hold onto their power forever. It does not matter how horrible they are — all tyrants eventually fall into the annals of history. However, while Shelley appears to accept that change is inevitable, he rejects those who change their opinions. In “To Wordsworth,” Shelley suggests that because Wordsworth changes his character and his values, he ceases to exist. Ironically, even though Shelley claims to know that change is inevitable, when it comes to changing one’s beliefs or opinions, he considers that person to no longer exist. Furthermore, while Shelley takes comfort in change, he is not prepared to actively create it. In “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley advocates for a passive resistance, essentially telling the people to allow tyrants to trample them. However, this approach feels far to passive to actually generate change. While Shelley appears to celebrate mutability, several of his works suggests that he unwilling to actively create change, and rejects change when it comes to one’s opinions and beliefs.
In “Mutability,” Shelley celebrates the inevitability of change. The first two similes of the poem align change with the wind, comparing human existence with clouds and lyres, both of which are at the mercy of the mind. Wind is unpredictable and uncontrollable, as well as inevitable. The speaker discusses the various shifts in the clouds’ existence, as one moment they “speed, and gleam, and quiver,/Streaking the darkness radiantly! — yet soon/Night closes round, and they are lost for ever” (Shelley 2-4). The clouds are controlled by the wind, which is uncontrollable itself, and inevitably they are blown away. Similarly, “forgotten lyres,” or harps that are no longer played are left alone for the wind to control (5). The changes are always constant, whether taking away the clouds or streaking them across the sky, playing pleasing melodies or not. Just as one cannot stop or control the wind, one cannot stop or control change. Furthermore, the lyres “give various response to each varying blast,” (6) and to this “frail frame no second motion brings/One mood or modulation like the last” (7-8). Each gust of wind creates something new, just as each change will bring something different. The speaker encourages one to “embrace fond woe, or cast [one’s] cares away,” because “it is the same! —For be it joy or sorrow,/The path of its departure still is free” (12-14). The speaker argues that whether good or bad, it will all unavoidably pass eventually, so one should embrace change as it comes. The speaker takes comfort in mutability and in the fact that nothing lasts forever. There is solace in the constancy of change, as “man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but Mutability” (15-16). There is a lot of hope and reassurance in that one must only endure something for so long, before inevitably a change will come. Mutability is very important for Shelley; it gives him hope that change will come and nothing can stay that bad for too long. Shelley evidently not only recognizes the inevitability of change, but also celebrates it and takes comfort in it.
Ironically, even though Shelley knows change is unavoidable, he rejects Wordsworth’s change in character completely. “To Wordsworth” not only laments change, but suggests that Wordsworth ceases to exist because of his change. Shelley suggests that change is celebrated, but is against changes in character, stressing his belief of how it is important to stay true to oneself. However, Shelley mourns Wordsworth as though he “shouldst cease to be,” essentially rejecting the change instead of just lamenting it (14). While Shelley is “much disappointed” in the “growing political and religious conservatism of William Wordsworth” (92 note 1), to claim he is dead while he is still alive rejects the change in Wordsworth’s beliefs. It is ironic that Shelley knows change is inevitable, yet feels he has been left “to grieve/Thus having been,” rejecting the changed, still living version of Wordsworth (13-14). While earlier, Shelley encourages people to embrace change, good or bad, “To Wordsworth” presents a contradictory message that rejecting changes and proclaiming someone dead when they are not is also an acceptable way to cope with change.
Shelley takes comfort in mutability as it gives him hope that things can and will change. Shelley’s political stance was anti-monarchical, proclaiming himself a democrat. King George the III reigned for the entirety of Shelley’s lifetime, and at the time held the longest ruling of the country in history. The political climate of the times inspired many of Shelley’s poems, and his hope for the end of tyranny was the inevitability of change. A popular example of this is “Ozymandias,” which is the Greek name for Ramses II, Pharaoh of Egypt during the Exodus. The totalitarian rule of Pharaoh can be compared to that of King George the III, as the speaker notes that the “passions read…yet survive” (6-7). On the sculpture of Ramses, there is an inscription that reads: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,/Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (10-11). The speaker mocks Ozymandias by juxtaposing this inscription with the reality that:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away” (12-14).
The sands of time have literally wiped away the work of Ramses II, no matter how great and powerful he was in his time. Shelley reiterates the impermanence of power in “England in 1918,” which is a clearer statement of his current political situation. The speaker expresses their dissatisfaction with the “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King” (1) and the current situation of “a people starved and stabbed in th’untilled field” (7). The speaker turns to time, and hopes that “a glorious Phantom may/Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day” (13-14). The inevitability that things will change despite how long they may last for or how great they may be in their time comforts Shelley. Mutability consoles his frustration with the tyranny of his own time.
However, even though Shelley takes comfort in mutability, he is not willing to actively generate it. In “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley advocates for a passive resistance against the oppressors:
“Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphere less stars
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.
Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war” (315-322).
The speaker tells the people to allow themselves to be literally slaughtered while they stand there with their arms crossed. They are suggesting that if one does not give in to the fighting of the tyrants, there is no war to be won, and therefore no war to be had at all. The speaker argues that if one “look[s] upon them as they slay/Till their rage has died away…Then they will return with shame” (346-348). This approach seems far too optimistic; the idea that tyrants will stop if they are not pushed back can have tragic consequences. While one would hope that Shelley was right and that it would end the cycle of violence, the speaker’s controversial advice to just allow oneself to be slaughtered feels too passive to create change. As a result, Shelley’s celebration of change appears to be at odds with his willingness to actively create change. While he may believe that passive resistance will cause change, it feels more like an easy way to relinquish one’s responsibility to make change and instead, leave it up to time and mutability.
Shelley’s poems about mutability originally appear to celebrate and take comfort in the inevitability of change. However, upon closer inspection it appears that he rejects change when it comes to changes in character, and is not necessarily willing to actively create change. A lot of Shelley’s writing is about the necessity of staying true to oneself, and he himself was known for doing this. Despite being unpopular in his own day because of his extreme view for the time, he did not retract any of his sentiments. For example, at Oxford Shelley “was hauled before a disciplinary committee where he refused to deny he had written another essay “proving” God did not exist, and was expelled” (Furness). As a result, one can understand why he had so much trouble with Wordsworth’s change of beliefs and spoke of him as though he were dead. Shelley is evidently trying to break the cycle of violence. However, as an advocate for change, it is still surprising that he would suggest an entirely passive approach.
Hymns and Habits: Examining Defamiliarization in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”
Percy Shelley uses defamiliarization in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” as a tool to dismantle religious belief systems. Defamiliarization is a literary technique used to make that which is known and familiar appear different and new. Viktor Shklovsky argues that one’s perceptions became habitual, and it is this habitualization that prevents one from sensing the object. Rather, people go on unconsciously interacting with life without ever actually engaging in it or interacting with it. Jean Cocteau argues that one’s interactions with the objects prohibit the image, and one no longer sees it anymore. In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Shelley strips the Spirit of Beauty of the associations people assign to it so that one is able to see it purely for what it is. He denounces the use of religious terms to describe the Spirit, making the Spirit unfamiliar as most people would engage with it in religious terms. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” is an ironic twist on the traditional hymn, and instead of praising religion and God, it removes the mask of habit that religion places on the Spirit of Beauty.
Defamiliarization is a literary technique that reveals the hidden beauty of things by making them unfamiliar. The technique accomplishes this by presenting the thing and making it appear strange so that one’s perception of it changes. The term was coined by Viktor Shklovsky, who believed that “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived, and not as they are known” (Shklovsky). The literary devices used by artists are different from everyday language, which expose the objects and present them in a new light. In this new light, one’s perception of the object shifts, and its sensation is recovered. Shklovsky argues that “the general laws of perception [indicate that] perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic…[and] ultimately even the essence of what it was is forgotten.” Defamiliarization restores this essence and “takes off the veil,” revealing “the amazing things which surround us and which our senses usually register mechanically” (Cocteau). Perception becomes automatic when one engages with the object habitually, as Jean Cocteau explains:
“Suddenly, as if in a flash, we see the dog, the coach, the house for the first time. Shortly afterwards habit erases again this potent image. We pet the dog, we call the coach, we live in a house; we do not see them anymore.”
Cocteau argues that when one engages with the objects and associates habit with them, one ceases to see the essence of the object. Shklovsky states: “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it.” Once the object is automatized, it loses its beauty and newness, and just becomes another thing in one’s everyday life. The perception and sensation of the object is lost.
In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” the speaker suggests that in a way, religion habitualizes the perception of the Spirit of Beauty. Religion is a way of engaging with and rationalizing the unknown and sublime parts of life. In “Hymn before Sun-rise, in the Vale of Chamouni,” Coleridge attributes the sublime beauty of Mont Blanc to God and heaven, as “the dilating Soul, enrapt, transfused,/Into the mighty vision passing—there/As in her natural form, swelled vast to Heaven! (Coleridge 21-23). The speaker in this poem makes sense of the sublime mountains of Mont Blanc by crediting them to God, the ultimate creator capable of creating such beauty. The speaker asks for all to “join [the] Hymn,” and to praise God and the heavens for the beauty of the natural world (28). This rationalization of beauty can be compared to the habituation and automatization of objects in familiarization. The speaker in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” suggests that labelling this sublime interaction with the nonmaterial Intellectual beauty with “the name of God and ghosts and Heaven/Remain the records of their [sage and poet] vain endeavour” (Shelley 27-28). The speaker suggests that trying to name the Spirit of Beauty is futile because it does not capture the essence of the Spirit. The Spirit cannot be familiarized, because it cannot be named. The speaker constantly calls this “shadow of some unseen Power” (1) by different names, such as “Beauty” (13), “Loveliness” (71), and “Spirit” (83). This invisible power cannot have one name because even that would begin the process of habitualizing it. This power is in and of itself “beauty,” because its very essence is the act of defamiliarizing and unveiling objects that are fatigued by perception of habit. The poem defamiliarizes the feeling of powerful ecstasy one feels at a nonmaterial beauty that is too often familiarized with God and heaven. It reveals the beauty of this “unseen Power” and removes the mask of religion as a way of making sense of something and normalizing it. This Spirit is not meant to be normalized or incorporated into habit — at its core the very fact that it is not habit, “visiting/This various world with as inconstant wing/As summer winds that creep from flower to flower” is what makes it so tremendously sublime (3-4). To familiarize it with religion is to taint and even strip this transcendence of its fundamental quality.
The irony that “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” criticizes the function of religion in explaining the speaker’s feeling of ecstasy is that it is called a “Hymn.” Hymns are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a song of praise to God,” and so it appears that Shelley also defamiliarizes the Hymn genre, changing the perception by using it in a new way. In doing so, the poem suggests that one re-evaluate if the feeling of ecstasy is owed to any higher being, or if it is just to be appreciated and embraced as its own independent being. The poem calls itself a Hymn as an ironic example of praising this intangible beauty instead of praising God. The Hymn defamiliarizes the Spirit by stripping it of its religious associations of habit. It unveils the essence of the Spirit as something that if it was habituated, would no longer be the Spirit.
Cocteau, Jean. Le rappel à l’ordre. Stock, 1926.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Hymn before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni.” www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43988. Accessed 22 Mar. 2017.
“hymn, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 23 March 2017.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, edited by Donald H Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Second ed., W. W. Norton & Company Inc., New York, NY, 2002, pp. 92–96.
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as technique.” Literary theory: An anthology (1917): 15-21.