All is grey skies here in New Jersey. It was like that for much of yesterday, too, and will be so, they say, for the weekend as well. I would complain about the clouds, but it wouldn't wish them away. Besides, my friends in the path of Hurricane Ike have far more to worry about than I.
Along with the clouds, we have a nice breeze here. Enough to be noticed, but not enough to become a bluster. Because it is starting to feel like Autumn, even if it is still warm enough to do without a jacket, I thought a fall poem might be a good choice. So I went looking for one, and instead, I found Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind". Sure, it looks like an autumn poem, but if you read this whole post, you'll see that things are not always precisely as they appear. I hope you'll read the full poem, for it is a thing of rare beauty, and I hope you'll stick around for the full post because it is one of my better ones (albeit long), if I do say so myself.
Ode to the West Wind
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
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 wingèd 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!
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 airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Mænad**, 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!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his crystàlline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ'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!
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.
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?
**Mænad: literally, "The raving ones"; in Greek mythology, a female worshipper of Dionysus (aka "Bacchus" in Roman myth)
***Baiæ: a resort in southwest Italy containing hot sulfur springs, the area has a history of volcanic activity (hence the pumice)
****skiey: also, "skyey". Were I to write it, I might even go with "sky-ey". It's a way of turning the noun "sky" into an adjective.
First came the poem, and now the discussion. The poem is composed in five sections. Although it is called an ode, it is a collection of five sonnet-length stanzas written in terza rima, used to tell a single story. Terza rima has the following rhyme pattern: ABA BCB CDC DED EE. Some of Shelley's rhymes are slant rhymes now; whether they were perfect rhymes at his time I cannot say for certain, although I suspect not. Some look like rhymes "wear, fear, hear" (stanza 3) or "mankind, Wind, behind" (stanza 5), but that using words that look like rhymes but weren't was pretty standard practice in his day (and, indeed, through Victorian times as well).
Speaking of cheating: In order to keep his verse in iambic pentameter, Shelley found that he had to explicitly torture the pronunciation of the word "crystalline" in section 3, where the emPHASis is on the wrong syllAble: "crystàlline". (The occasional accent symbol in early poetry is used to show that a usually unstressed syllable is stressed, or that a syllable is articulated, as in stanza one's "wingèd". To be truthful, I added that accent in to make it clearer for today's readers, most of whom would never think to say "wing-ed" instead of "wing'd". But Shelley uses contractions throughout to show where not to pronounce the "-ed" because in his time, they were always "-eds" unless shown to be otherwise. Got it?)
This poem is a poem of address. The writer speaks to the West Wind. The capitalization of West Wind is not a random thing, but a deliberate choice. The poet is referring to Zephyrus or Zephyr, the ancient Greek god of the west wind, something that Shelley, schooled in the classics, would have well known. Zephyr is usually associated with summer breezes, which makes some of Shelley's attributions a departure.
The basic structure of the poem is three paragraphs of set up, or, if you like, of sucking up, in which the poet talks to the Wind and enumerates its power over the elements (earth, wind, fire and water), followed by a turn in the fourth stanza to a more personal relationship with the wind (with the injection of the word "I" into the poem), and in five, a payoff that takes the relationship deeper, a sort of "make me thine instrument" appeal, urging the wind to spread the poet's word and/or fame across the earth. If you've still got a few minutes, we'll look at it more closely. Again, I'll put the discussion of the poem behind a cut. Trust me, if you have time, you want to keep reading.
Discussion of stanza I
The focus in this stanza is on the West Wind's effect on the earth, knocking dead leaves off trees and blowing them around to decay above the seeds that will sprout in spring. Notice that alliteration in the first line? All those lovely Ws, including the one implied at the end of the first word? "O wild West Wind" makes 4 Ws to the ear, even if only three are on the page. Do me a favor. Start to read the first line, but stop right after the "O" and really focus on what your mouth is doing. I'll bet you look something like the image to the left, only maybe less fluffy.
The final couplet calls the West Wind "destroyer and preserver", summing up the dual nature of its actions in the fall: it pulls dead leaves from trees and blows them around, where the pile up and decay, but in so doing, it preserves the nascent life below it.
Discussion of stanza II
This stanza talks about the West Wind's effect in the air, namely, that he blows the clouds around. Much of the poem is a description of clouds, including the scientific formation of them (hence the reference to Heaven and Ocean) and their appearance (wispy, like strands of hair billowing out from a Bacchanalian reveller). The West Wind makes noise, as well, hence the reference to a dirge. Darkness of night time is compared to a domed sepulchre (tomb), in which the earth is sealed, and the stanza closes with references to the weather that is to come: rain, lightning and hail. But he doesn't say lightning, he says fire. To be honest, I think he was at a loss how to address a full stanza to the West Wind's effect on the fourth primal element, fire, so he mixed fire and air in the same stanza. (The four elements being, of course, earth, water, air, and fire. Can you guess what's next?)
Discussion of stanza III
The West Wind's effect on water is what he's talking about here. He claims that the West Wind is what woke the Mediterranean, and that the Wind has seen old cities, buried under the sea. In fact, some sources say that Roman ruins are visible beneath the waters at Baiae, so it may be those ruins and not Atlantis to which the poem refers. Then again, perhaps the Wind only sees the reflection of actual old cities on the surface of the water, as some interpretations say. But I think not. The stanza closes with a reference to the West Wind's effects on the Atlantic Ocean, most likely in the form of massive storms, given the closing lines.
Discussion of stanza IV
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 . . .
Note the dramatic turn here. From three straight stanzas addressed to the West Wind and enumerating its power, the poem shifts its focus completely to the speaker, but in what I would argue is a wheedling sort of way. The poet says, in essence, "if only I could move around as the objects you move do," all the while asserting the greater, uncontrollable power of the West Wind. The speaker wishes he could be lighter (in the sense that he had fewer cares, as when he was a child), and then whinges a bit about how downtrodden he feels, noting that his address to the West Wind is, in fact, a prayer, and setting us up for the final stanza. (Bring it all home, now, Percy!)
Discussion of stanza V
Make me thy lyre sounds an awful lot like the opening of the famous prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, which reads, "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace," does it not? It's interesting to note that now the speaker is really coming to the point after all that buttering up and scraping and bowing. The speaker is making a demand. On the one hand, he's asking the West Wind to use him as an instrument, but at the end of the day, what the speaker is really seeking is clear channel broadcasting, because he paints himself as a prophet with a message that he really wants everyone to hear, thereby giving hope to the masses.
I have to say that on first read, I thought the lines "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!" were a request to clear his muddled thoughts to make room for new ideas, but repeat readings have made me realize that's not it at all. He's saying "spread my written words (aka "dead thoughts") over the universe the same way you do withered leaves, so that the people who read them will benefit from them." Cocky much? You betcha. He wants everyone everywhere to hear his words, believing that they hold prophecy. But he doesn't want everyone to hear just any of his words. He is specifically referring to this poem, as he makes clear in the final line of the third tercet: "by the incantation of this verse".
Okay, Percy, tell us: what's the prophecy? What's so important that you had to suck up to the West Wind in order to get broadcasting rights? What can you, writing this poem in 1819, have to share? And there it is, his message to the world, in the final line:
O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
What a lovely, resonant line, even if you don't know what was going on in 1819 and in the life of the poet at the time. And if you do, then you are free to speculate what he meant.
1. In June, 1819, Shelley's three-year old son William died of malaria in June of 1819 in Rome, throwing Mary Shelley into a deep depression.
2. In August, 1819, the Peterloo massacre occurred in Manchester, England. A cavalry brigade charged into a cloud made up of the "yeomenry", who had assembled peaceably in protest of the fact that Lancashire had only two MPs for over a million people, and seeking parliamentary reform. The crowd was extremely large, and is estimated to have been in excess of 60,000 people, including a large number of women who were active in reform groups. About a dozen or so people were killed, with several hundred injured (the exact number is unknown, since some of the injured hid their injuries for fear of further retribution from the authorities). Of 654 people known to be injured, 168 of them were women, some of whom later died from their injuries. The action was considered an outrage by the majority of the population, including those out of the country, as the Shelleys were. The government initially responded by imposing still further restrictions (the "Six Acts"), but eventually this event prompted many of the changes of its age.
Given that Shelley wrote verse specifically addressing his dismay over his son's death and over his wife's depression, and given that Shelley wrote politically oriented verses about his dismay over the Peterloo massacre, I am inclined to believe that this poem addresses, in fact, both events, and provides a beacon of hope to the speaker on a personal level, which he found so hopeful that he wanted to share it with the masses back in England, suffering in the aftermath of the massacre and under the additional impositions. His use of depressive imagery (like dead leaves) resonates in either case, and his choice of terms such as corpse, clarion, surge, comrade, cleave and trumpet as well as "the dying year, to which this closing night/Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,/Vaulted with all thy congregated might" and the plants in stanza three that "grow grey with fear,/And tremble and despoil themselves" all point to Peterloo, in my opinion, although the double meaning of the phrase "the dying year" could cut both ways. (In that "the dying year" could be a label for this year, in which people died, as well as a description of the coming of the year's end.)
Here endeth the lesson. (Egad, but I went on and on, did I not?)
In the end, this poem is an ode to the West Wind, bringer of spring breezes, after all. Clever, clever Percy.
Today's round up is hosted by Jennie, "Beltway Bandit, Counterfeit Librarian, and Femme Fatale Extraordinaire". Click the button to get to the full list: