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"Ode to the West Wind": A Manifesto of the Romantic Aesthetics.

Byline: Zahid Ali Shah


This paper focuses on Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" in the context of the three inspiring slogans of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Like other Romantics, Shelley was equally fascinated by these aesthetics as potentially capable of insinuating individual self-consciousness towards higher achievements. In the "historicist"2 vein, the strategy is to take the "Ode" back in time to the circumstances that initiated the movement towards the "Revolution" and ultimately substantiated it. Equally is it important to see how Shelley sees his situation similar to that of the common sentient Frenchman under the heavy toll of "containment" when individual freedom is stifled by a coercive regime. This fluidity of thematic connectivity enlarges the interpretative canvass of the "Ode" to any conceivable extension as there are no finalities in the world of literature.

Paul Hamilton puts it in these words: ... if we cannot see beyond current uses to new applications, our knowledge will have no future, will rot in the sand.... [there is] a metaphorical imagination at work, enlarging our susceptibility to previously 'unapprehended combinations of thought'. (8)

Keywords: Shelley; Ode to the West Wind; Romantic aesthetics


Shelley's conceptual ideals, though hurdled and frustrated by his contemporary regimens, ripened into fruition in the historical events of the "Chartists' Movement" of 1838, the "Reform Act" of 1832, and "Trade Union Act" of 1871. All these converged on one fundamental realization, and that was the emancipation of man from bondage to age long outmoded ideologies. Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" anticipates all these voices well ahead in time with a tragic reminder that geniuses have always been libelled wrongfully by the mediocrity of their times.

In the long history of ideological activism, Shelley's inspirational ideas contributed significantly to those achievements that were once declared dead and inoperational on the English soil.3 He links the past with the present and the present with the future by voicing those issues that are timeless in their nature. A lover of freedom, Shelley sent shockwaves into a predominantly conservative mentality by bringing into the mainstream debates those questions that had been avoided for reasons of either their subversive import or over-sensitivity to the prevailing codes of "modesty" and "decency".4

Though Shelley did not fit comfortably with his historical moment or inherited social identity, he was still a typical product of the English soil, with all its pluses and minuses (Hodgart 52). With extraordinary controversies and contradictions in his baggage, Shelley registered a stamp of exclusivity in the harshest circumstances of his literary career. His charisma lies not in conformity but in non-conformity to a set of values he declared ostensibly un-natural to his nature. In a way, he was a social out-cast, disowned and loathed not only by his aristocratic kith and kin but by the entire Establishment as a consequence of his radical ideas and formidable literary talent (Everest 311).

A solitary figure standing out amidst all the hostilities and antagonisms of a self- complacent orthodoxy, Shelley, equipped with the Enlightenment ideas of Godwin and French philosophers, represents the Miltonic figure of Satan with so many blasphemies to his credit (Curran 230). This is pure Romanticism: a single individual with unflinching perseverance standing against an enormous Establishment. This spirit of rebellion, of non-conformity, of dissent, Shelley inherited not only from turbulent times in England but with a more pronounced note from the French Revolution that was a watershed in European history. All these events could be internalized by the individual subject as addresses to 'citizens', and 'freeborn Britons' became ever more common, and discussions of the rights of man inspired by Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (1791-92) filled coffee houses and taverns.

John Barrell's "Coffee-House Politicians" discusses in detail the opinion making potential of these coffee house debates where the rank and status of the outside world were temporarily dashed in a democratic spirit to allow the inmates engage in conversations of all political issues. He puts it in these words: ... the coffee house was the place of a new form of sociability characterized by a new form of freedom of speech. In late Stuart London, the freedom with which politics was discussed in coffee houses, and by men with, as it were, no title to discuss public affairs, led to coffee houses being seen by the government as the breeding grounds of sedition and treason. (210)

In the new flux of awakening of individual possibilities of liberty, fraternity, and equality, society is seen, in a limited sense of the word, as subordinated to the individual worth and value. However, this does not connote or should not mean an oppositional stance of one against the other.

The French Revolution galvanized across the whole of Europe a sizeable segment of conscientious artists and writers into a revolutionary impetus. Nevertheless, prior to the French Revolution, English society was already in a turbulent flux of transformation.

Owing to the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions in England, the new emerging middle class, with its affluence and influence, was decentring, to an alarming extent, the aristocratic hegemony of social values and ethics. Society took a volte- face to the utter embarrassment of an erstwhile ruling class denigrating them to the status of underdogs. The flow of wealth and property into the hands of skilful artisans and middle class professionals developed a new class-culture that was ill- suited to the culture of centuries-old aristocracy thus initiating a ridiculous culture of imitations and mock social masquerading. Their pushing forward for a share of political power opened up a debate of radical ideas, which were to prove drastic in the long future to come (Dawson 52). In a situation like this, Shelley's radicalism was ironically and paradoxically exploited by the bourgeoisie in the service of their cause. As a backlash, Shelley's own class was made the prime target of his own revolutionary critique.

This is how interpretation plays havoc with the ideas of an unsuspecting idealist (Everest 326).

The initial enthusiasm for the French Revolution that had promised liberty, equality, and fraternity subsided in the wake of Napoleonic imperialistic designs, into a nationalistic sentiment in England whose freedom was at a greater threat at the hands of a man whom they had idealized as a liberator and messiah. The brutal finale and horrible blood-letting sent shocking waves, across the channel, to the English nation. Napoleon emerged, in the popular imagination, as a nightmarish figure and bogeyman that had turned into a lawless despot and saboteur of peace. The first generation's (Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey) disillusionment and apprehensions were fully justified. Even in the second generation (Shelley, Byron) the sentiments were not different but only with a degree of emphasis. For Shelley the French revolution was a moment of moments wasted away and missed by the whims of a single individual.

Although chastened and moderated in their enthusiasm by the ensuing events, the second generation still retained, with qualification, a love for an association with the ideals (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) that had inspired the French Revolution. In their contention, the ideals were noble and positive but their interpretation and execution by an individual were evil and negative. No matter with how much justification in their arsenal, any liking, idealism or favour for the French Revolution and its ideas was regarded by English Establishment as the highest treason against English Nationalism. This feeling generated the so-called preventive measures in the name of nationalism to counter any move, whatsoever, either in print or in speech that might be provocative or destabilizing. The censorship mechanism plunged writers like Shelley, with revolutionary zeal, into the hottest waters of containment (Curran 227-29).

Purposefully, in a situation like this, a poetic strategy was needed covertly to communicate the hidden intent, and avoid the displeasure of the Establishment. This could either be done through inter-texuality or indirect allusive coding. In the former, thematic similarities in the works of different authors in different times are incorporated for special effects; for instance, reading Keats' "Hyperion", in Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" or Milton's "Samson Agonistes" in Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound". The latter is an artistic tactfulness mostly relying on allegorical manoeuvring for communicating a more subtle agenda of any kind cloaked in an ordinary frame of presentation. In both situations, the reader is actively required to decipher the hidden coding and devise of his own for different implications (Curran 229).

Since "Ode to the West Wind" is predominantly a nature poem, it is pertinent here to clarify Shelley's concept of nature. Shelley here is using nature as a covering shield, under his poetic strategy, to avoid any possible suspicion about his controversial radical ideas. In the words of Thorslev, the mature Shelley shows no evidence of a faith in the transcendent idea broodingly present in nature as was the belief of his predecessors in the first generation of the Romantics, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge (93). The most relevant comments about Shelley's approach to nature can still be gleaned from Abercrombie, after many decades: "nature" the romantic poet sees and feels himself beautifully displayed - his desires and aspirations, his joys and his griefs. "Nature" is nothing but a symbolic development of his own individual life, and valued just because it is that. He looks abroad AND still finds himself the important thing. (130-31)

To begin with, Shelley's "Ode" is a loaded lyrical document of his aspirations, inspirations, and frustrations. It progressively elaborates the poet's thoughtful and sensitive responses to his social, political, and religious surroundings that were in sharp conflict with his radicalism. He calls upon a natural agency (The West Wind) to voice a sense of despondency in the face of an all-prevailing opposition and also, at least, to register a note of disagreement with inexorable determination to an oppressive regime of whatever import. The first section relates an unceasing, essential process, both in the macrocosm and microcosm, of the degeneration and re-generation of an existing state of affairs. Nothing can remain static if it is to survive in the clash of civilizations, cultures, and ideologies. The gist of Oceanus' speech in Keats' "Hyperion" testifies to the fact (cited in Curran 229):

So on our heels a fresh perfection treads, A power more strong in beauty, born of us And fated to excel us, as we pass In glory that old Darkness. (II.212-15)

A vital power of regeneration, born of its own impetus, though seemingly chaotic and devastating and not properly conceived by the shallow minds of the commonality, will eventually replace all the smug phantoms created by the diseased minds in the name of exploitative superstitions, orthodoxy and numerous "isms" and "schisms". For Shelley, this ebb and flow of time, this destruction and regeneration, is but a steady progress towards a revolutionary synthesis in which the world will emerge into a reality, present to the senses and embodied in actually functioning institutions (Everest 326): ........................................O Thou, Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed The winged 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: (I.6-12)

Wistfully highlighting his own dilemma, Shelley contends that although momentarily beset with innumerable setbacks, his revolutionary ideals will resurrect into millennial promises in the future generations when minds will be equipped with enlightenment and open to all rational debates; that in an age of obscurantisms and benightedness liberal and free-thinkers are subjected, under flimsy pretexts, to the worst atrocities imaginable. Hodgart glosses over the idea in these words: The West Wind is both destroyer and preserver, and its strength is symbolic of the power that the poet must possess to carry out his gift of prophecy. Mutability is inevitable: the seasons must change but apparent death is only the prelude to 'a new birth'. Just as the clarion of spring awakens the earth, so the poet's dead thoughts may be revived by the wind of inspiration. (119)

A possible relevance of these lines can also be traced to "Song: England in 1819" that depicts a horrendous picture of England under George III. Notwithstanding the bleak political, religious, and social scenario, Shelley hopes for a cataclysmic change that would cleanse the English soil from "mud" and "muddy spring" instituted by the unworthy rulers of the time: Religion Christless, Godless-a book sealed; A senate, Time's worst statute, unrepealed - Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may Burst to illumine our tempestuous day. (11-14)5

The second section of the poem is cataclysmic in description, symptomatic of drastic revolutionary changes. With an acumen born of his situation, Shelley stiltedly suggests a lull before a violent storm. The gathering of the clouds into a concerted force, although airy and insubstantial, presages a violence and destruction engendered by an inherent dynamism of conflicting processes. Shelley seems to suggest that there are limits to any process, either in nature or in history, beyond which a natural collapse and disintegration ensue: Thou Dirge Of the dying year, to which this closing night Will be the dome of a vast sepulcher Vaulted with all thy congregated might. (II. 23-26)

A liberal humanist in his momentous conceptions and proponent of universal cosmopolitanism, Shelley is optimistic that a day would come when man would liberate himself not only from external oppression but from his own narrow prejudices in the name of racism and nationalism (Dawson 65). Another possible dimension of Shelley's proposition could be the fall of the Bastille as the opening gesture of the French Revolution when centuries old oppressive and suppressive regimes met their natural deaths giving way to the rule of the commonality; or in England the middle class bourgeoisie replacing a potent aristocracy. Actions are but the natural consequence of the accumulation of centuries long experiences executed in time and space; Angels of rains and lightening...................................................... The locks of the approaching storm .....................................................from whose solid atmosphere Black rain and fire and hail will burst: (II.18, 23, 27-28)

Commenting on this passage, Thorsleve says, "...there is no such thing as a stable and "essential" Man: in every aspect of ourselves we are time bound and historically determined" (85). Hegel puts the same idea in these words: "whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time" (cited. in Thorslev 85).

With an exceptional class and calibre in his social and intellectual backgrounds, having studied at Eton and Oxford, being well versed in the philosophies of Kant, Hume, and Descartes, and belonging to an aristocratic family, Shelley was no ordinary stuff to be easily put down. He is to be seen and assessed not in the limited context of his individual sphere, but in much larger cultural developments in which he came to have a representative role. According to Kelvin Everest: ...Shelley virtually stands for an oppositional Idealism, social, political and sexual which [could never fit] to mediate in constructive social terms...Arnold's view of Shelley as 'an ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous Wings in vain' provides the model for nineteenth- century representations of the socially alienated idealist. (319)

He could not compromise his artistic and intellectual integrity with his social and familial affinities. That would have been the death of the artist in him; and he suffered a heavy toll for his impudent dissent. Deserted and disowned, Shelley voices in the following lines the bruised sensibility of one misunderstood and misinterpreted by the shallow minds of his times: 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. (IV.53-56)

Exhausted of his youthful vitality and humbled by his circumstances, Shelley invokes the spirit of the West Wind to revive his failing energies for the noble purpose of infusing a sense of an all-embracing humanism conceived on the grand values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. What Shelley valued the most in his approach to a universal brotherhood was his belief in the possibility of human benevolence and social sympathy, disdaining all religious dogmas based on mutual suspicion. His had no confessed religion; he was a self-professed atheist. He attacked God as a "prototype of human misrule" (cited in Dawson 56). In his democratic spirit, he declared himself a "lover of mankind." He flouted in unequivocal terms all the founding conventions and norms of his times (Everest 311).

Preaching the gospels of love, sympathy, and association, Shelley aspires to a boundless dimension in order to enfold the whole of the human race into a single community. Though bereft of his former glory by the ravages of time he, nevertheless, like Milton's Samson Agonistes, yearns for a penultimate encounter: Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like withered 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! (V.63-67)

In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley evinces a similar idea by comparing the creative mind to a 'fading coal' blazed to brightness by an internal commotion born of a compelling necessity (504).

To sum up, Shelley's image in the preceding discussion may appear as a diehard extremist bent upon a possible subversion of an established order. The truth is he could not afford a hypocritical subjugation to a paralyzing and benumbing social, political, and religious order exacting a heavy price for social acceptability. In his self-representation, he was honest and truthful to what he was, caring the least what the "unctuous lackeys" wrote and spoke of him (Curran 228). He loved and respected a selfless humanity based on egalitarianism and mutual respect rather than on race, religion, geography, and so many other flimsy grounds.


1 Thomas Hutchinson, ed. Shelley: Poetical Works (London: Oxford University Press, 1968). All subsequent references to the "Ode" are to this edition and are parenthetically incorporated into the text of this paper with stanza and line number(s).

2 James Chandler in his book, England in 1819, discursively deliberates over the question of a text's relation to and effects on its relative contemporaneity.

3 All those historical transformations towards social, political, and religious freedom England is proud of today.

4 Shelley's open debates on sexual freedom were a nuisance for the "too gentle and too decent" people of his times.

5 Shelley's Poetry and Prose (ed.), Reiman H., Donald and Sharon B. Powers.


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Barrel, J. (2004). "Coffee-House Politicians." Journal of British Studies 43. 206-232

Curran, S. (ed.). (1993). The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Curran, S. (1993). "Romantic Poetry: why and wherefore?" In Curran, S. (ed.) Dawson, P.M.S. (1993). "Poetry in an age of revolution." In Curran, S. (ed.). Everest, K. (1994). "Shelley." The Penguin History of Literature: The Romantic Period. Ed. David B. Pirei. 5th edition. London: Penguin.

Fowler, R. (ed.).(1993). A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hamilton, P. (2000). Percy Bysshe Shelley. Devon: Northcote House Publishers. Hodgart, P. A Preface to Shelley. Essex: Longman, 1985.

Hutchinson, T. (ed.) Shelley Poetical Works. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Reiman H., Donald and Sharon B. Powers. Ed. Shelley's Poetry and prose. New York. London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1977.

Thorslev, P. "German Romantic Idealism." In Curran, S. (ed.).

Zahid Ali Shah

Islamia University College, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Peshawar, Pakistan

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Publication:The Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 31, 2010
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