By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 16, 2010

10. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 257-289

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part III: Air, 3. The wind
At some point early in his career he adopted a motto: Sincerity and zeal -- "a stout Godwinian tag for a young man who knew he had truth to tell, and meant to tell it." But he had reason to doubt that the truth he told was reading an audience: "'I wonder why I write verses for nobody reads them,' he sighed to Peacock.... 'It is a kind of disorder.'" In the preface to The Revolt of Islam he proclaimed that his poems served "the cause of a liberal and comprehensive morality" and that he wanted to promote "a virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence not misrepresentation nor prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind."

He was often disturbed by the pain he felt in the world:
Hunt noticed how miserable Shelley became at the sight of worn grey faces in the Strand. The same hopeless sympathy seemed to cry out from a single line in The Mask of Anarchy, as he felt the poor of England shivering and starving or emerging, pale as ghosts, from the workhouse, the factory and the prison:
They are dying whilst I speak.

He saw himself and his fellow poets -- Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton -- as revolutionaries whose time was approaching but had not yet arrived. While he claimed he didn't care what the critics said, he was hurt by the reception of Adonais, which he considered "better than any thing that I have yet written." The Literary Gazette called it "contemptible, a mere collection of bloated words heaped on each other" like "the refuse of a schoolboy's commonplace book." But he rose from the funk it cast him into, proclaiming another motto that he wrote inside the cover of his notebook in 1821 or 1822:
the spring rebels not against
the winter but it succeeds it --
the dawn rebels not
against night but it
disperses it --
The revolutionary change he prophesied would come, and would "perhaps be as natural and irreversible as the change from winter to spring."

In 1812, when he was nineteen, he went to Ireland, choosing it "deliberately as the most oppressed and exploited corner of the kingdom," advocating "the repeal of the Act of Union with Britain and the emancipation of Catholics," but also the emancipation of something "infinitely wider, of Irish minds; and wider again, like a list in a schoolboy's textbook, 'the peace, the harmony, and the happiness of Ireland, England, Europe, the World.'" His methods were juvenile and quixotic, printing pamphlets and handing them out or tossing them from his balcony. He thought of it as "seeding minds."

In late October 1819 he was in the Cascine wood near Florence, when he was caught in a storm. "He knew this wind for a winter-bringer and also as the herald of spring: his own revolutionary rabble-rouser, blowing from the west.
There were always two West Winds in his life, even in his schoolbooks. One was Ovid's storm-bringer, or Homer's bullying blast that shoved the beaked ships of Odysseus over the darkening sea. The other was Virgil's Zephyrus, the gentle awakener and guardian of the olive groves.... One stripped the autumn trees and laid the Earth bare; the other ushered in the spring. The same principle indifferently brought death, or life. Shelley knew the wind in both guises and, through both, he sang of the harrowing and revival of the world.... While his body was in the Cascine, watching the leaves and the river, his mind was in England with the scenes he hoped might follow Petrloo: troops mobilising, the people rising, crown lands and chattels seized by the mob, "bloody struggle" and "great actions," while the West Wind roared. 
In "Ode to the West Wind," which he began writing that day, he addressed the wind as "Destroyer and Preserver." "At times this dualism might almost be his own: philanthropist and monster, bright and evil daemon, good and bad serpent writing through the world. Shelley too could tear down and build up again, Destroyer and Preserver, with the words he wrote." But he also saw the wind "as a force beyond him: a revolutionary agent, a force of history, Necessity itself." The poem "saluted the West Wind as a comrade and invoked him as a god."

Shelley's God was "the powers of Nature." In Pliny the Elder's Natural History, he had read that "it is clearly apparent that the powers of Nature are what we call God." And in his Essay on Christianity he quoted Lucan: "Has God any dwelling-place save earth and sea, the air, Heaven, and virtuous hearts? Why seek we further for deities?" In Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-politicus he read that "Spinoza, in the Hebrew, had found ... God was ruagh, dry violent wind, free of the heavy moisture of the incarnate state; God was courage, temper, soul, the four quarters of the world from which the winds came. God was prophecy. He blew through Daniel, Zachariah and the rest and they, though 'possessed of the mind of God,' had no idea what he made them say." But Shelley, who considered himself a prophet, thought of himself as freely choosing to become one, not in an act of "obedience, for he would never obey. It was complicity, freely embraced. His sails were 'given' to the tempest: Do what you will with me."
The exulting sweep and speed of his poetry, image chasing image, was the special sign of that spirit, and its sinking or slowing was proof of that power subsiding. When it withdrew, as he had told the West Wind, he fell again upon 'the thorns of life' and bled, like a man.
As for immortality, he was ambivalent.
As a rational man, he could not believe in a notion he could not prove. As a Poet, he was well aware that he could hardly put it into words. As far as evidence went, much of it still seemed to lie in the leaves that beat on the windows of his carriage or piled up in the woods. These were the Spirit's instruments and mediators; they had been in the cycle of life, and were now discarded. Death was unbinding and releasing their atoms, and those leaves would be gone for ever. That much he could be sure of.

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