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Poetry Sundays (October 23)

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This week I read Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind:


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, O 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: O hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

Lulled by the coil of his chrystalline 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 grey with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves: O 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 seemed 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 chained and bowed

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 unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?


It's hard to read this poem in the 21st century with a mind free of irony. I didn't love this poem. I was a little bored by Shelley's raptures. Section V stood out though. The idea of the wind playing on objects or people as if they are instruments is cliche now. Maybe it was old then, too. I don't know. But I enjoyed this development of that idea and Shelley's taking it beyond that to the point where the narrator implores the west wind to blow through his mouth, sending his words into the world. That's a different image.

The first four sections of the poem I have difficulty reading without wincing some. That may be because of the poets that came after Shelley (and Byron and Keats) who, following in their literary footsteps, went on rapturous flights over every damn thing they came across. Their legacy has come down to us in cartoons and other spoofs.

When I read in this poem about "bright hair uplifted from the head of some Maenad;" or night as "the dome of a vast sepulcher;" or, weirdly, "the sapless foliage of the ocean" that grow "gray with fear" and "tremble and despoil themselves" when the wind blows the waves above them, I can't help but think things like, did he really mean (see the last example) that the "ocean plants, crapped their pants"?

The thee's and thou's, the drama, the phrases or images or styles that have been overused sound silly now. To really appreciate the poetry of this time period I guess we have to try very hard to let go of all that's been written since then and also let go of the current mode of having an ironic twist to our thoughts every minute of the day.

Still, it could be that some of this poetry won't stand the test of time. Maybe it only spoke to the people of that time and a few decades after but not very far into the 20th century. New words and ways to order language began to emerge leaving these older words and ways behind.

There aren't a huge number of older texts that still get read often and most of what has been published or read or sung during the last century and this one will pass into oblivion long before the sun decays or the earth becomes lifeless for other reasons. One of the interesting things about reading the works of writers long dead though is that it lets you look into the past and try to put yourself there and feel what was being felt at the time by the writer. That's a good exercise even if you don't love what you're reading.

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