"When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline" - P. B. Shelley
Shelley deals with the theme of inspiration in much of his work. However it is particularly apparent in Ode to the West Wind' where the wind is the source of his creativity. The cycles of death and rebirth are examined in an historical context with reference to The Bible. The word inspiration has several connotations that Shelley uses in this Ode'. Inspiration is literally taking in breath' and wind, breath, soul and inspiration are all identical or related in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. They are all closely related in Ode to a West Wind'.
Shelley's adaptation of Dante's work is evident throughout most of his writing. In Ode to the West Wind' it is quite apparent. He was writing this poem in a wood on the outskirts of Arno, near Florence, which is Dante's hometown. The use of the terza rima poem is
Shelley's most obvious adaptation of Dante and he relies upon Dantesque ideas to write his poetry. The image of the leaves being blown by the wind "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing"(l.3) depends on the Inferno in Paradiso for the image to have an effect on the reader.
The various cycles of death and rebirth are examined with reference to the Maenads who were fabled to have destroyed Orpheus's body and spread it around the world. This is the underlying theme to the poem with Shelley alluding to the breaking of Christ's body on the cross and how that was essential for humanity to reach salvation. The onslaught of Autumn is the Destroyer' in one sense but also the Preserver' as it forms an intricate part of the cycle of life and death. Without the death of Jesus Christ the world would not have been saved and so for life to exist so too must death.
Referred to as an "unseen presence"(l.2) the wind is naked to the human eye. However the physical manifestation of the wind can be felt and it's effect on nature cannot be ignored. The personification of the wind - "thou breath of Autumn's being"(l.1) - supports its spirituality. This is further illustrated when Shelley explicitly calls the West Wind "Spirit" and a "wild Spirit". Coupled with the elusiveness of the wind to the human eye the effect is that the wind is an "uncontrollable" power that cannot be contained. In the fifth stanza Shelley refers to "the incannot ation of this verse"(l.65) - this is of pagan origins and he is invoking the wind to work through him. As a magician the wind works it's magic throughout nature and it knows no bounds as the earth, water and air all feel it's power. The imagery associated with this suggests that Shelley expected his work to also spread over the universe, like the wind, and inspire others just as the wind was an inspiration to him. The "dead thoughts" he refers to could be the words he has written down that die as soon as they are recorded. Although not the source of his inspiration others could read them and experience what he felt in that wood that skirts the Arno. In the tradition of the sublime this description acts as a denial of sense perception and it is associated with an object of pure thought - an unknown power that animates all life. The wind is, therefore, seen as a spirit because of its lack of being. This spirit can only be known by it's effects and we see those in the first stanza as "the leaves dead / Are driven to their wintry bed"(ll. 2,3,6). The wind's role is to spread the dead leaves and this enables the seeds to spread and begin life anew. In this double role of "Destroyer and preserver"(l.14) the force and effect of the wind is experienced. As a creative force the wind inspires Shelley to write this Ode and the breath of the Autumn wind is also the breath that gives voice to words in the poem. The wind is the perfect element for Shelley to examine as it inspires life in nature and also expression through speech.
There is a consistent simile used throughout this poem and it is that of the leaves that are being controlled by the wind. In the first stanza it is the leaves of the trees that are driven' by the wind. This is followed by the same simile in the second and third stanzas when the effect of the wind is seen in the clouds, as they are shed "like Earth's decaying leaves" (l.16). This spirit then infiltrated the depths of the ocean and the underwater forest is despoiled. The "oozy woods"(l.39) cannot escape the touch of the West Wind and they also undergo a metamorphosis of change as the seaweed is thrown up on the shore. Shelley compares the clouds and the leaves in the process of shedding and the important point here is that the wind is the central catalyst for change in the different elements. Tying in with the theme that the wind's unseen presence is witnessed in the sea, air and land. Shelley identifies himself with the land, the sky and the sea to be swept up by the wind's power. A Wordsworthian recollection of his youth follows as he seems to regret his lost childhood and with that the opportunity to be one with the wind. This leads us to his idea of inspiration and how it, ultimately, fails Shelley.
The wind is Shelley's inspiration in writing the Ode but the conflict between inspiration and composition results in loss. By trying to capture the source of his inspiration, the wind, Shelley has reduced its value - "writing is thus by its very nature a process of loss" . Shelley was caught in a vicious catch 22 because the relationship between composition and inspiration is one of decline and loss. By attempting to emulate the wind it is impossible to recreate the beauty and power that originally inspired Shelley to write the poem. This can never be resolved as the essence of the wind is not captured by the poem and it only becomes a poor imitation. The process of writing about the wind also accentuates the distinction between Shelley and his inspiration. Intrinsic in the art of poetry is the underlying truth that nature's voices are distinct from man's writing and this is inescapable according to Shelley. By addressing the wind, "Wild Spirit hear, oh, hear!"(ll. 13,14), the source of his inspiration, he illustrates the chasm between the author and his subject. The poem alludes to the wind of nature as being his breath. However the breath that Shelley uses to speak cannot be identified with the wild spirit' if it has to beg it to listen. This is why Shelley is the most despairing of the Romantic poets as no matter how glorious his work is it still fares as a pale comparison to the original. The wind is his inspiration but his earthbound and human condition prevents him from ever experiencing that which a wave, a leaf, a cloud' can. His condition enables him to reflect on these possibilities but it's a double-edged sword as they also mean he can't transcend his own life.
The final stanza introduces the lyre and Shelley beckons the wind to play though him as if he were a lyre. The aeolian lyre's relationship with the wind is that of the player to the instrument, or of breath to sound and because of this it is separate but Shelley tries to make as a single entity. There is despondency in the poem, as Shelley cannot achieve this goal. By wishing to become a lyre Shelley is asking the wind to channel it's inspiration through his strings' as he is ready to be inspired. The passivity of the lyre is juxtaposed with the active trumpet that requires the wind to blow through it also but the effect is very different. The trumpet signals action and to this effect Shelley was most likely referring to the political turmoil that was rife in Europe at that time. The final line of the poem reasserts the cyclical nature of life. The question mark, however, lends ambivalence to the poem as Shelley refuses to explain to the reader his meaning and opens it up for greater critical analysis.
The theme of inspiration is one that Shelley deals with in an in-depth manner in Ode to a West Wind'. The wind is the source of his inspiration and he attempts to force a marriage between the wind and his own position in life. However, he is unable to reach that conclusion and the result is that by trying to imitate the power and inspiration of the wind in his poetry he reduces it's initial impact by doing so. This decline and loss that is associated with composition is a significannot part of Shelley's poetry and leads him to be one of the most despairing poets of his time.
Leighton, Angela Shelley and the Sublime, London, 1984
O'Neill, Michael Shelley, London, 1993
Ridenour, George Shelley, New Jersey, 1965
Solve, Melvin Shelley: His theory of Poetry, New York, 1964
Strong, Archibald Three Studies in Shelley, London, 1921