Ode to the West Wind

Topics: Poetry, Stanza, Wind Pages: 6 (2455 words) Published: August 22, 2010
"Ode to the West Wind," Shelley invokes Zephyrus, the west wind, to free his "dead thoughts" and words, "as from an unextinguished hearth / Ashes and sparks" (63, 66-67), in order to prophesy a renaissance among humanity, "to quicken a new birth" (64). This ode, one of a few personal lyrics published with his great verse drama, "Prometheus Unbound," identifies Shelley with his heroic, tormented Titan. By stealing fire from heaven, Prometheus enabled humanity to found civilization. In punishment, according to Hesiod's account, Zeus chained Prometheus on a mountain and gave him unending torment, as an eagle fed from his constantly restored liver. Shelley completed both his dramatic poem and "Ode to the West Wind" in autumn 1819 in Florence, home of the great Italian medieval poet, Dante. The autumn wind Shelley celebrates in this ode came on him, standing in the Arno forest near Florence, just as he was finishing "Prometheus Unbound." Dante's Divine Comedy had told an epic story of his ascent from Hell into Heaven to find his lost love Beatrice. Shelley's ode invokes a like ascent from death to life for his own spark-like, potentially firy thoughts and words. Like Prometheus, Shelley hopes that his fire, a free-thinking, reformist philosophy, will enlighten humanity and liberate it from intellectual and moral imprisonment. He writes about his hopes for the future. A revolutionary, Shelley believed that poets exercise the same creative mental powers that make civilization itself. The close of his "Defence of Poetry" underlies the thought of "Ode to the West Wind": Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, thetrumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World. The trumpeting poetic imagination, inspired by sources -- spirits -- unknown to the poet himself, actually reverses time. Poets prophesy, not by consciously extrapolating from past to present, and from present to future, with instrumental reason, but by capitulating to the mind's intuition, by freeing the imagination. Poets influence what the future will bring by unknowingly reflecting or "mirroring" future's "shadows" on the present. For Shelley, a living entity or spirit, not a mechanism, drives the world. By surrendering to the creative powers of the mind, the poet unites his spirit with the world's spirit across time. The west wind, Zephirus, represents that animate universe in Shelley's ode. Shelley implores the West Wind to make him its "lyre" (57), that is, its wind-harp. "The Defence of Poetry" begins with this same metaphor: Shelley writes that "Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody" (§7). This is not just a pretty figure of speech from nature. We now recognize that poetic inspiration itself arises from a "wild," "uncontrollable," and "tameless" source like the wind, buffeting the mind's unconscious. Long before cognitive psychology taught us this fact, Shelley clearly saw that no one could watch her or his own language process as it worked. Like all procedural memories, it is recalled only in the doing. We are unconscious of its workings, what contributes both content and form, semantics and syntax, to our utterances. He writes that "the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure" (§285). This epic metaphor goes beyond the action of the wind on the lyre, the...
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