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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

English Romantic poet who rebelled against English politics and conservative values. Shelley was considered with his friend Lord Byron a pariah for his life style. He drew no essential distinction between poetry and politics, and his work reflected the radical ideas and revolutionary optimism of the era. Like many poets of his day, Shelley employed mythological themes and figures from Greek poetry that gave an exalted tone for his visions. The spirit of revolution and the power of free thought were Percy Shelley's biggest passions in life. At school, Shelley became intrigued with the revolutionary political and philosophical ideas of Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Throughout his life, he emphatically expressed his political and religious views in a struggle against social injustice, often to the point where it got him into trouble or mired in controversy. Later, in Geneva with Byron, he would often write "democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist" in Greek after his signature in hotel ledgers. The speaker invokes the wild West Wind of autumn, which scatters the dead leaves and spreads seeds so that they may be nurtured by the spring, and asks that the wind, a destroyer and preserver, hear him. The speaker calls the wind the dirge / Of the dying year, and describes how it stirs up violent storms, and again implores it to hear him. The speaker says that the wind stirs the Mediterranean from his summer dreams, and cleaves the Atlantic into choppy chasms, making the sapless foliage of the ocean tremble, and asks for a third time that it hear him. The speaker says that if he were a dead leaf that the wind could bear, or a cloud it could carry, or a wave it could push, or even if he were, as a boy, the comrade of the winds wandering over heaven, then he would never have needed to pray to the wind and invoke its powers. He pleads with the wind to lift him as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!for though he is like the wind at heart, untamable and proudhe is now chained and bowed with the weight of his hours upon the earth. The speaker asks the wind to make me thy lyre, to be his own Spirit, and to drive his thoughts across the universe, like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth. He asks the wind, by the incantation of this verse, to scatter his words among mankind, to be the trumpet of a prophecy. Speaking both in regard to the season and in regard to the effect upon mankind that he hopes his words to have, the speaker asks: If winter comes, can spring be far behind? Commentary The wispy, fluid terza rima of Ode to the West Wind finds Shelley taking a long thematic leap beyond the scope of Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, and incorporating his own art into his meditation on beauty and the natural world. Shelley invokes the wind magically, describing its power and its role as both destroyer and preserver, and asks the wind to sweep him out of his torpor as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! In the fifth section, the poet then takes a remarkable turn, transforming the wind into a metaphor for his own art, the expressive capacity that drives dead thoughts like withered leaves over the universe, to quicken a new birththat is, to quicken the coming of the spring. Here the spring season is a metaphor for a spring of human consciousness, imagination, liberty, or moralityall the things Shelley hoped his art could help to bring about in the human mind. Shelley asks the wind to be his spirit, and in the same movement he makes it his metaphorical spirit, his poetic faculty, which will play him like a musical instrument, the way the wind strums the leaves of the trees. The thematic implication is significant: whereas the older generation of Romantic poets viewed nature as a source of truth and authentic experience, the younger generation largely viewed nature as a source of beauty and aesthetic experience. In this poem, Shelley explicitly links nature with art by finding powerful natural metaphors with which to express his ideas about the power, import, quality, and ultimate effect of aesthetic expression.

In "Ode to the West Wind," Percy Bysshe Shelley tries to gaintranscendence, for he shows that his thoughts, like the "winged seeds" (7) aretrapped. The West Wind acts as a driving force for change and rejuvenation in
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the human and natural world. Shelley views winter not just as last phase ofvegetation but as the last phase of life in the individual, the imagination,civilization and religion. Being set in Autumn, Shelley observes the changingof the weather and its effects on the internal and external environment. Byexamining this poem, the reader will see that Shelley can only reach hissublime by having the wind carry his "dead thoughts" (63) which through anapocalyptic destruction, will lead to a rejuvenation of the imagination, the individual and the natural world. Shelley begins his poem by addressing the "Wild West Wind" (1). Hequickly introduces the theme of death and compares the dead leaves to "ghosts"(3). The imagery of "Pestilence-stricken multitudes" makes the reader awarethat Shelley is addressing more than a pile of leaves. His claustrophobic mood becomes evident when he talks of the "wintry bed" (6) and "The winged seeds,where they lie cold and low/ Each like a corpse within its grave, until/ Thineazure sister of the Spring shall blow" (7-9). In the first line, Shelley usethe phrase "winged seeds" which presents images of flying and freedom. The only problem is that they lay "cold and low" or unnourished or not elevated.He likens this with a feeling of being trapped. The important word is "seeds"for it shows that even in death, new life will grow out of the "grave." Thephrase "winged seeds" also brings images of religions, angels, and/or soulsthat continue to create new life. Heavenly images are confirmed by his use ofthe word "azure" which besides meaning sky blue, also is defined, in Webster'sDictionary, as an "unclouded vault of heaven." The word "azure," coupled withthe word "Spring," helps show Shelley's view of rejuvenation. The word"Spring" besides being a literary metaphor for rebirth also means to rise up. Inline 9, Shelley uses soft sounding phrases to communicate the blowing of thewind. This tercet acts as an introduction and a foreshadow of what is to come later. Shelley goes on to talk of the wind as a "Destroyer and Preserver" whichbrings to mind religious overtones of different cultures such as Hinduism andNative Indian beliefs. The poem now sees a shift of the clouds which warns ofan upcoming storm. This helps Shelley begin to work towards a final climax. He then writes of the mourning song "Of the dying year, to which this closingnight/ Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre/ Vaulted with all they congregatedmight" (23-25). Again, the reader feels somewhat claustrophobic. The "closingnight" feels as if it is surrounding the author as he writes and the reader as he or she reads. The "closing night" is used also to mean the final night. Shelley shows how he cannot have a transcendence even in an open sky for eventhe sky is a "dome." The "sepulchre" is a tomb made out of rock and hisimagination and the natural world will be locked and "Vaulted" tight. But infollowing lines Shelley writes how this "sepulchre" will "burst" (28). In that sense, "Vaulted" takes on the meaning of a great leap and even a spring. Shelley uses the phrase "congregated might" not just to mean a collaborativeeffort, but to represent all types of religion. Shelley seems to use obtusephrasing to frighten the reader and to show the long breath of the wind.Shelley wants the reader to visualize the "dome" as having a presence like avolcano. And when the "dome" does "burst," it will act as a "Destroyer andPreserver" and creator. The use of the words "Black rain and fire and hail..."(28) also helps the reader prepare for the apocalyptic climax which Shelley intended. As the rising action continues, Shelley talks of the "Mediterranean"(31) and its "summer dreams" (30). In the dream, the reader finds the sealaying "Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay/ And saw in sleep old palaces andtowers/ Quivering within the wave's intenser day" (32-34). Shelley implantsthe idea of a volcano with the word "pumice." The "old palaces and towers" stirvivid images of ancient Rome and Greece in the readers mind. Shelley also usesthese images in the sea's dream to show that the natural world and the human social and political world are parallel. Again, he uses soft sounding words,but this time it is used to lull the reader into the same dream-like state ofthe Mediterranean. The "pumice" shows destruction and creation for when the volcano erupts it destroys. But it also creates more new land. The "pumice" isprobably Shelley's best example of rebirth and rejuvenation. The word"Quivering" is not just used to describe the reflection of images in the water.It is also used to show a sense of fear which seems to be the most common mood and emotion in this poem. Is Shelley perhaps making a comment that at the rootof people's faith is fear of vengeful god? Maybe, but the main focus of thispoem is not just religion, but what religion stands for which is death andrebirth. Could line 34, also be a comment on Shelley himself? In the final stanzas, Shelley has the wind transforming from the naturalworld toward human suffering. Shelley pleads with the wind: "Oh! lift me as awave, a leaf, a cloud!" (54). He seeks transcendence from the wind and says:"I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed" (55). Shelley shows Christ not as areligion, but as a hero of sacrifice and suffering, like the poet himself. He again pleads for the wind: "Drive my dead thought over
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the universe...toquicken a new birth!" (63-64). He asks the wind to "Scatter, as from anunextinguished hearth/ Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!/ Be through my lips to unawakened Earth" (66-68). The words "unextinguished hearth"represent the poets undying passion. The "hearth" is also at the centre of theearth which helps make the connection between humanity and nature. Both areconstantly trying to reinvent themselves. When one scatters "ashes" it's at one's death and that person becomes one with the earth. When one scatters"sparks" it is these sparks that create new fires of creation and destruction. These new "sparks" arise when the "dome" explodes and abandons old ways. Canone ever escape the roots of creation? Shelley has many Blakean overtones ofcreation and destruction in the final tercet of this poem. Shelley's says thathis lips are the "trumpet of prophecy" (69). And many say that Wordsworth is egotistical? Again, he uses biblical sounding words to add drama and importanceto his prophetic vision. And it definitely helps achieve Shelley's intendedclimax when he asks with hope: "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?(70).This sentence could be rewritten substituting the word death, for the word"Winter," and the word rebirth, could take the place of "spring." Shelley, like all of the Romantic poets, constantly tries to achieve atranscendence to sublime. In "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley uses the wind asa power of change that flow through history, civilization, religions and humanlife itself. Does the wind help Shelley achieve his transcendence? It seemsit has in some sense, but Shelley never achieves his full sublime. In poemssuch as "Stanzas written in Dejection Near Naples" Shelley uses images of"lightning" (15) and "flashing" (16) which help demonstrate that he can onlyattain a partial sublime unlike a poet like William Wordsworth. Perhaps that'swhy he tries to give rebirth to his individual imagination. One can neverrestart totally new. Even the trees that will grow from "the winged seeds" arenot totally new, but that is the point Shelley is trying to make. He feelshimself to be part of a continuing cycle. Since Shelley is an atheist the onlyway his soul can live on is through the "incantation" of his words. So, if histranscendence is to live on in eternity and create inspiration and change inothers like the West Wind, then he has achieved something greater than he couldhave imagined. But whether he grasped a complete transcendence for himselfwhile he was alive remains to be answered. It seems that it is only in his death that the "Wild Spirit" (13) could be lifted "as a wave, a leaf, a cloud" to blow free in the "Wild West Wind" (1).

Shelleys poetry The central thematic concerns of Shelleys poetry are largely the same themes that defined Romanticism, especially among the younger English poets of Shelleys era: beauty, the passions, nature, political liberty, creativity, and the sanctity of the imagination. What makes Shelleys treatment of these themes unique is his philosophical relationship to his subject matterwhich was better developed and articulated than that of any other Romantic poet with the possible exception of Wordsworthand his temperament, which was extraordinarily sensitive and responsive even for a Romantic poet, and which possessed an extraordinary capacity for joy, love, and hope. Shelley fervently believed in the possibility of realizing an ideal of human happiness as based on beauty, and his moments of darkness and despair (he had many, particularly in book-length poems such as the monumental Queen Mab) almost always stem from his disappointment at seeing that ideal sacrificed to human weakness. Shelleys intense feelings about beauty and expression are documented in poems such as Ode to the West Wind and To a Skylark, in which he invokes metaphors from nature to characterize his relationship to his art. The center of his aesthetic philosophy can be found in his important essay A Defence of Poetry, in which he argues that poetry brings about moral good. Poetry, Shelley argues, exercises and expands the imagination, and the imagination is the source of sympathy, compassion, and love, which rest on the ability to project oneself into the position of another person. He writes, A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry
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administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. No other English poet of the early nineteenth century so emphasized the connection between beauty and goodness, or believed so avidly in the power of arts sensual pleasures to improve society. Byrons pose was one of amoral sensuousness, or of controversial rebelliousness; Keats believed in beauty and aesthetics for their own sake. But Shelley was able to believe that poetry makes people and society better; his poetry is suffused with this kind of inspired moral optimism, which he hoped would affect his readers sensuously, spiritually, and morally, all at the same time.

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