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Shelley: An Analysis of His Two Odes

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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

This article examines two of Shelley's odes, "Ode to the West Wind" and " To a Skylark."

This article examines two of Shelley's odes, "Ode to the West Wind" and " To a Skylark."

“Ode to the West Wind”

Poetic idiom reaches perfection when it communicates real experience in vivid language. In Percy Bysshe Shelley, one finds proximity between his ideas and the representation of those ideas in his verse through images and symbols. “Ode to the West Wind” is a poem, the idiom of which evokes the violent and unknown spirit of nature. The harshness of language is the inevitable and irreplaceable correlative of such aspects: “Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; / Destroyer and preserver; hear, o, hear! (13-14).”

The west wind symbolises a revolutionary change, destroying the old order and heralding a new one. This strikes a perfect chord with the revolutionary spirit of the poet himself. His intense force of Imagination leads to a rapid change of ideas, reflected through an abundance of images following one after another incessantly. This is testified elsewhere by the poet: “Less oft is peace in Shelley’s mind / Than calm in waters seen” (“To Jane: The Recollection”, 87-88).

Such unrestricted indulgence is quite prominent in his expression of weakness and pain in “Ode to The West Wind.” His entire poetic self is given over to the mutability of the present existence, recalling the past and encroaching upon the future:

If even
I were as in my boyhood
… I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need. (47-48, 51-52)

His recollections make him identify himself with the violent energy of the west wind. However, he feels chained down and earth-bound, like Prometheus, “by a heavy weight of hours” (55). His intense personal pain of dejection makes him cry out “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed” (54).

Despite being so personal, his agony reaches a universal level since this is the tragedy of every man, a punishment for the Promethean wish to equal the gods. This is an attempt to capture a purely personal vision, not a religious faith or dogma. Shelley’s poetry aspires towards the exploration of the elusive and the mystical. Consequently, his language becomes metaphoric and figurative.


The West Wind: An Agent of Transformation

This urge was the fundamental constituent of Shelley’s poetic vision, shared by most of his contemporaries. The Romantic poets believed in the power of Imagination as well as in the power of the individual self.

In rejecting the empiricist explanations put forward by Locke and Newton, they obeyed an inner call to explore the spiritual world within. Their imaginative explorations materialized through a discreet manifestation which appealed to a whole range of intellectual faculties and senses.

For a Romantic poet like Shelley, the visible world was the foundation which set his imagination to action. He could go beyond the perceptible into the imperceptible without conventional presuppositions. The “dead lea[ves]” are but dead spirits, driven by Nature to an eventual rebirth in spring (43). The poet wishes to participate in the vigorous action of the wind, which ushers in a final rejuvenation.

The structure of the poem is equally correlative to such a transformation. The decaying optimism of the poet towards the close of the fourth stanza, where he admits that he cannot equal the wind in its fierce energy anymore, changes to a renewed hope in the last stanza: “If winter comes can spring be far behind?” (88).

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“To A Skylark”: Beyond the Concrete and Tangible World

Through the working of the visible world, Shelley discovered the true order of things and gave his answer to Prospero’s nihilism. There is, indeed, a sensuous delight in his poetry, often full of adolescent optimism, that simultaneously matches a super-sensuous principle. This vertical tendency is perfectly brought out in “To a Skylark”, where the poet addresses a soaring skylark, beyond the reach of visibility.

The skylark in Shelley’s poem is not like Keats’s nightingale, which is hidden in the woods, or Wordsworth’s skylark which has a nest to care for. Shelley’s skylark is symbolic of the pilgrim soul of the prophetic poet. Its flight is automatically described better through abstract and vague imagery rather than concrete or visible images.

The rose resembling the bird’s song is “embower’d in its own green leaves”, the high-born maiden has her music concealed, the light showers of rain fall with an almost imperceptible sound (52). These images conceal the essential yet reveal themselves to the imagination of the poet. With his imagination, the poet can actually perceive the embowered rose and hear the maiden’s song and vernal showers.

To an ordinary level of perception, these might appear vague, but to the poet, inspired by Romantic imagination, these are concrete manifestations of the eternal order working through the bird’s song. Therefore, to Shelley, these images are so concrete that it would be unwise to accuse him of being vague since the greatest truths are “imageless” (“Prometheus Unbound,” Act II, 116).

Quite strikingly, “To A Skylark”, abounds in what Richard Fogle calls “synaesthetic perception”, where a single organic sensation leads to two or more different organic perceptions. The song of the skylark is like the “moon (which) rains out her beams, and the heaven is overflow’d”; and from its presence “showers a rain of melody” (30, 35). This further indicates that at a heightened state of awareness, all discreet sensations merge to create a single sensation of reality, far beyond the scope of individual images.

Poems of Escape?

It is this eternal reality that Shelley addresses and wishes to unite with. He blends his individuality quite as he did in “Ode to the West Wind” (“Make me thy lyre… Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit” [57, 61-61]). This is so very similar to what he appeals to the skylark: “Teach me half the gladness” (101).

Is this escapism? Perhaps, yes. After all, it has always been a Romantic impulse to escape what Wordsworth called “the fretful stir / Unprofitable” and Keats complained about “the weariness, the fever and the fret” (“Tintern Abbey”, 54-55, “Ode to a Nightengale”, 23). Shelley’s poetry, undoubtedly, communicates such an impulse rooted deep in his psyche.

On the other hand, escapism may also mean faith in a utopian ideal reality which is created by the mind of the poet. The poet may not necessarily negate reality in embracing this imaginative world but may emerge as the enlightened man (whom Plato would have called the Vates), to bear the lamp to the ignorant cave dwellers of darkness. Shelley is both a sufferer of dark anxiety as well as capable of promising a phoenix-like flight from his own dark demonic depths.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Monami


Monami (author) from India on February 26, 2020:

Thank you

Raja Zahid Yaseen on February 25, 2020:

"brevity is the soul of wit" a very coherent and concise analysis.

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