Monday, February 20, 2006

Week 04, Shelley

Notes on Percy Bysshe Shelley

A Defence of Poetry

Shelley writes as the Vishnu and Shiva of romantic theory—he both preserves (Vishnu’s role) and destroys (Shiva’s role); he writes exquisite poetry and prose in the “romantic optative mode”—you can find in his poetry strong statements about poetry’s power to transform the individual and the world, a very high estimation of imagination and expression, and the great claims for the poet-priest-prophet who imagines and expresses more fully than ordinary people. Like Blake (and unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Keats), Shelley is a poet of the apocalyptic strain. And again like Blake, whom he apparently never met, Shelley is a prophet of Old Testament dimensions—he doesn’t so much offer predictions of things to come as express “firm persuasions” about matters both public and private. But at the same time, Shelley’s poetry and prose betray honest doubt, even anxiety, about his most optimistic ideas. His is often a poetics of isolation, alienation, and dark thoughts about what may be the incommensurability of words, spirit, and the world. So by way of helping us read the poetry, I will offer some thoughts about Shelley’s theories of inspiration, expression, and poetic prophecy as a means of individual and social renewal.

Wind Harps, Ocean Tracks and Fading Coals: Inspiration and Expression. Like many romantic poets, Shelley uses the Aeolian lyre or wind harp as a metaphor of poetic inspiration. In “A Defence of Poetry,” he writes, 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 Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody, alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them (Norton 2A 7th ed. 790).

Lyres (and chimes) make lovely music, but it is a random effect. Of course, the randomness of such music is part of its charm (as in Coleridge’s “The Aolian Harp,” which I believe uses the lyre metaphor to refer to what STC calls “primary imagination”). But from sentient and particularly from self-conscious beings, we expect something more than this mechanical music. The imagination, explains Shelley, has the power to harmonize what is outside us with our mental and spiritual operations. So when the speaker of “Ode to the West Wind,” prays to the Wind (named Favonius in Roman mythology) to “make me thy lyre,” he asks not to be turned into an inanimate instrument over which the wind may play, but a living instrument that responds from within to what has been given from without. Shelley’s lyre metaphor amounts to philosophical idealism: whatever the nature of the external realm, the important thing is that we do something vital and creative with the sensations and impressions given to us: the mind makes not just melody, as it were, but harmony—something both beautiful and intelligible, something orderly and spiritual.

Perhaps this relation between the external realm of sensation and the inner world of imaginative process is all Shelley means to address with his metaphor. But at the same time, a metaphor that figures the mind as a living instrument over which the wind plays brings up the issue of spirit. As Shelley knew, wind has long been metaphor used to invoke the divine breath and actions of gods, not just “sensations from the external world.” So to bring up such a metaphor is to invoke the question of exactly what the ultimate source of poetic inspiration might be. Perhaps it’s best to suggest that Shelley—a man who once signed his name Atheos (godless or atheist)—leaves the question open-ended, especially if we consider his poetry and prose together. For example, I like Harold Bloom’s early borrowing from the theologian Martin Buber’s book I and Thou to explain “Ode to the West Wind”: Shelley, with his desire to become the Wind’s instrument, really wants an I/Thou relationship that implies reciprocity even as it acknowledges the necessity of death for the individual consciousness and its inspired expressions. Shelley’s poet-speaker does not want to become a mere “it,” a thing for the Wind to experience rather than relate to as a living being with his own “spiritus” (breath). When Shelley writes in “Defence” that “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man” (799 bottom), it would seem that by “the divinity in man” he means “that within us which is divine” and not “visitations of spiritual exaltation from some external source, call it God or what you will.” But we should remember that claiming “all deities reside in the human breast” (as the narrator does in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) risks collapse into solipsism or narcissism. And so our romantic authors—both in their poetry and their prose—are constantly generating strategies and language to image forth the workings of inner imaginative process, externalizing them as mythic figures, divine winds, and so forth, lest imagination itself become as a god and play the tyrant over us.

That Shelley is open to the dark side of his lyre metaphor is obvious from one of his finest early poems, “Mutability,” itself perhaps drawing upon Spencer’s pathos-filled Mutabilitie Cantos of The Faerie Queene. In “Mutability,” the lyre metaphor refers not to the glorious way we make music of the world but rather to the way that world tosses us about until we perish, ever unsatisfied and finding no stability: the second stanza describes human beings as “like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast, / To whose frail frame no second motion brings / One mood or modulation like the last.”

Let’s move on to the metaphor of the fading coal Shelley employs to discuss the difficulties of poetic composition, or the creative process. He writes, “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, ‘I will compose poetry.’ The greatest poet even cannot say it: for 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 color 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. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet. (798-99)

The central claim of this passage is that by the time the poet begins composing—which to the romantics usually means “in one’s head, before writing it down”—the inspiration has already begun to fade. The passage has a certain elegiac quality—it is not pleasant, I suppose, for a poet to admit that his original state of inspiration from within is “always already” in decline and that he can never, therefore, capture the inspiration in its entirety even for himself, much less convey it in full force to somebody else. As a theory of inspiration, this is a far cry from Plato’s Ion. In that dialogue, Socrates uses the metaphor of the magnetic Stone of Heraklea to suggest that poets receive their verses directly from the gods and then transmit their inspiration directly into listeners’ souls. This lack of directness in Shelley’s poetics is a troubling matter since, after all, any good romantic poet wants poetry to be as dangerous as Socrates considers Homer’s epics—the highest goal of romantic poetry is to transform the human spirit and, if possible, to change the way people relate to one another at the collective political and social level.

I don’t think Shelley would admit that his passage is an occasion for despair. He sometimes writes in a defiantly Satanic mode, and Milton’s Satan—if we misread him sympathetically enough—draws considerable strength from an assertion of personal autonomy and high aspirations even in the face of impossible constraint. One of Milton’s strongest descriptions of Satan in Paradise Lost may remind us of Shelley’s “fading coal” metaphor: “his form had yet not lost / All her Original brightness, nor appear’d / Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess / Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n / Looks through the Horizontal misty Air…” (1.591-95, 1667 edition). Perhaps we are to understand that the poet’s mind, at the point of composition, has something of its own “excess of glory obscured.” In any case, the “fading coal” passage retains some elegiac sadness. We are led to contemplate just how frail is the power of one poet’s best efforts in the face of the limitations on conceiving and transmitting inspired states. And these limitations, in turn, can’t help but remind us of the loss of purity entailed in Adam and Eve’s fall from grace—I think it is true that romantic poetics is haunted by the loss of understanding and expressive power entailed in the Christian theory of “fallen man.”

What is a Poet? Shelley’s third inspiration metaphor follows soon after the “fading coal” passage, and it transitions us to his definition of the poet and poetry:

It [poetry or poetic inspiration] is as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own; but its footsteps are like those of a wind over a sea, where the coming calm erases, and whose traces remain only as on the wrinkled sand which paves it. These and corresponding conditions of being are experienced principally by those of the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination; and the state of mind produced by them is at war with every base desire. (799)

This is an interesting statement since, as Shelley has already written, the power to which he refers arises from within. Here, the trace left behind by the working of inspiration is subtle, like the sand-patterns that result from the shifting currents of water in response to surface winds. These are hidden from the light of day and from analysis—as Shelley says, we cannot command ourselves to write poetry; inspiration comes when it will and art does not have its source in conscious thought. A poet is a person “with the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination.” But given the elegiac and otherwise complex metaphors Shelley has used to describe inspiration, we may wonder how certain he is that a poet’s words will be sufficiently inspiring to move others and change the world. This is something to keep in mind while you read his poetry—Shelley’s poetry (like that of other British romantics) is often about poetry and its effects; to use a theoretical term, it is “metapoetic.” In the early stages of human society, it seems, there was no such doubt about the importance of artists and their work. Here is one of Shelley’s main statements about the development of poetry:

In the youth of the world, men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order. . . . Those in whom . . . [the faculty of approximation to the beautiful] exists in excess are poets, in the most universal sense of the word; and the pleasure resulting from the manner in which they express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds, communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community. Their language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become through time signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse. . . . In the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression. Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem… (791-92).

In the passage above, Shelley transforms mimetic commentary of the sort we can find in Aristotle’s Poetics—as when the ancient philosopher says people learn their earliest lessons by imitating the sights, actions, and sounds around them—into an expressive theory of art. Poets “express the influence of society or nature upon their own minds” in a way that pleases their fellows. But above all, Shelley’s passage describes a cyclical tendency in human language to move from initial closeness to certain primal feelings and experiences towards ever greater abstraction. In sum, we become more comfortable with broad concepts than with the instability and dynamism that comes from being too close to things in the natural world or to primal consciousness. Shelley is by no means alone in formulating this kind of vitalistic conception of primitive language—it was common in the 19th century. Poets bring us back to this more vital kind of language—the kind that can “mark…the before unapprehended relations of things,” and they can reawaken us to the dangers of our fondness for abstraction. The process Shelley describes is necessary, but has unfortunate consequences at both the individual and collective levels.

We have seen this claim in Wordsworth and Coleridge, and now we see it in Shelley: the poet can “make it new.” The vitality of language, if we can recover at least some portion of it through imaginative acts, should prevent us from plastering over the continuous miracles of humanity and nature for the benefit of the power-hungry, the comfortable, and all who have no higher desire than to get by. This is no idle connection I am drawing from Shelley’s passage: there is a deep connection, much explored in the 20th century, between language and power—most particularly the abuse of power. Read Orwell’s 1984 for a distressing exploration of this problem: the express purpose of the Newspeak dictionary is to reduce the potential of language to express complex emotions and sophisticated, potentially subversive thoughts. What Orwell describes is different from the tendency towards abstract complexity Shelley and other romantics describe, but the result is similar: language becomes divorced from anything worthwhile in humanity, and becomes nothing more than an instrument. And if language is merely an instrument, so are the people who “use” it.

Shelley defines poetry, therefore,—at least in the infancy of human history—as a very broad phenomenon: primitive language is poetry; it involves an energetic thrust of the perceiving and feeling mind towards the world and other human beings. It is close to the vitality of nature and the human heart, to the deep bonds that tie human beings together and make them want to live together in a community. It is not as prone as our modern, sophisticated language is to alienate us from the truth we perceive. For early man, to be is to perceive, and to perceive is to feel and express. The early law-givers, the “founders of civil society,” etc.—these people all perceived the order of things and relations and were able directly to express this order, set it down, for the rest of their fellows. And when the setting down settles into stale codes perpetuating hierarchy and deadness to the world, it’s time for new artists, teachers, lawgivers. It is time for a new foundation.

But here we come to the problem. While the vitalistic conception of language I have described seems to be twinned with a cyclical conception of history—one that implies the perpetual availability of imaginative redemption—the modern artist is confronted with the linear march of bourgeois and industrial development. The romantics write near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and witness the ascendancy of the middle class to social dominance. (Political dominance will come a generation or so later during the Victorian period). The romantic poet’s dilemma shows in Shelley’s famous comparison of the poet to an isolated songbird in the woods: “A Poet is a Nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the ability of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why” (795). It’s true that in this passage the bird has listeners, and that the primary meaning of the passage is to say that poets compose first and foremost for themselves, simply because they are moved to lyric utterance. But we can draw the implication as well that so far as the bird is concerned, it is singing to itself and is not even aware of the effects it has upon others. Shelley probably was not familiar with the work of Friedrich Schelling, but I am reminded of a passage from On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature in which Schelling refers to “the bird that, intoxicated with music, transcends itself in soullike tones” (Hazard Adams, Critical Theory since Plato, revised ed. San Diego: Harcourt, 1992. 459).

The comparison between romantic poet and bird is irresistible and revealing—it is perhaps the finest possible expression of artistic alienation and isolation. What makes it so revealing and attractive is that it is, in the deepest sense, false, as Shelley, author of “To a Skylark,” certainly understands. Unlike Schelling’s unselfconscious songbirds that can “bring about innumerable results far more excellent than themselves,” a human poet or singer is painfully aware, painfully self-conscious, and this self-consciousness brings with it a sense of the disjunction between conception, expression, and meaning (either to oneself or to others). The poet strives for the pure, unselfconscious expressive power, the one-to-one correspondence between heart and word, spirit and language, that a songbird has achieved without even trying. Human beings cannot achieve this kind of purity! The intelligent self-awareness we have makes us ask questions about being and meaning, and it is in the very nature of such questions to call for anything but satisfying, comforting answers. As John Stuart Mill later says in analyzing his spiritual troubles, “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you cease to be so.” (The same might be said of expression and meaning.) Self-consciousness is a great gift because it allows us to appreciate nature in a way that nature cannot and need not appreciate itself, but it is also a terrible curse that dooms us to perpetual deferral of any correspondence between expression and desire, between self and other. Shelley says it a lot better in “To a Sky-lark”:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not—
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught—
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate and pride and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

Try listening to the beautiful music of a Nightingale or a Skylark—even in the pale form of an Internet audio clip (http://www.wildsong.demon.co.uk/LR/listening.html), and it is easy to agree with the pure romanticism of Shelley’s stanzas. Our poet-nightingale / skylark is a glorious failure in the human quest to transform the world with a song, and the inevitability of this failure prevents him from achieving even the initial goal of personal happiness. He must await the judgment of his peers, his fellow poets in times to come. This implies a paradox: the poet is isolated in his own time, but speaks for all humankind in all times. Wordsworth, you will recall, made somewhat gentler, but more immediate, claims about the universal and therapeutic value of poetry. Shelley, like Friedrich Schiller before him in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, has here admitted the problem that we shall find Matthew Arnold exploring later in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Namely, poetry, or culture more broadly, has great potential to improve and transform us, but when will it be able to do that? We can’t really say, and cynics will ask, “what good does it do to sing to yourself, or to perfect yourself, while the world suffers?” It’s always difficult to say, “don’t just do something, stand there.” That is a paradox that artists have struggled with at least since the end of the 18th century and on through the present. If you understand how deep this paradox is, you will find it everywhere in Shelley’s poetry.

790. The Aeolian lyre metaphor invokes the power of imagination. The power of harmonizing “external and internal impressions” comes from within. We are living instruments.

791. The language of the first poets is “vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things.” Shelley transforms the Aristotelian doctrine of art as imitation. Imitation itself becomes an expressive act—in a sense, Aristotle implied that, but Shelley makes it explicit. Poetic language cyclically revitalizes stale, abstract language.

792-93. Poets are broadly defined as the founders of civilization; they pattern the material realm after spiritual realization. The poet is beyond temporality and relativity.

793. Since the imagination produces language, language is the medium most free from material limitation. What about poetic meter? Well, it makes for “harmony” in which sound and sense are connected.

794-95. Narrative versus poetry. Poetry suits actions to universal human nature. It is not limited to individual expression—see page 795. Poetry un--distorts, overcomes time and fragmentation, the limits of ordinary language. (Compare to William Blake’s creative cauldrons of imagination.)

795. The poet is a Nightingale who sings to itself, but who also entrances human beings. We cannot judge a poet rashly—only time and peers should judge. Shelley acknowledges the difficult relation a poet has to his or her audience.

796-97. Poetry combines what seems to have been unconnected, lifts the veil of ordinariness from things, de-familiarizes and imaginatively re-creates and transforms what it represents. This is certainly no doctrine of imitation. Shelley believes in love and imagination as trans-subjective powers. He is not moralistic. (Refer to Thomas Carlyle’s clothing metaphor.)

797. Art offers the promise of the highest sustainable pleasure, and constitutes true utility—a term Shelley insistently redefines. But what is our melancholy “defect”—why is pleasure usually mixed?

798-99. Poetry “creates new materials of knowledge” and it aligns them with ideal beauty and goodness. Now more than ever we need its power to bring order and harmony. On poetic inspiration, contrast Shelley to Coleridge’s comments about secondary imagination. The metaphor of the fading coal implies that there is no direct communication of spiritual truth through words.

799. Poets are finely attuned, sensitive, and “delicate.” Poetry leaves a sand-trace of divinity from within. It is redemptive, and reminds us in successive waves of our own spiritual dimension.

800-01. Compare Shelley to Coleridge again—imagination unites otherwise “irreconcilable” things. I often use the reference to Wordsworth’s “Violet/star” comparison. A central statement: poetry strips away the film of familiarity, and does so whether it spreads its own curtain or removes the veil from the “scene of things.” Does that mean poetry gives us insight into ultimate reality? Poetry creates within us another being, and revives wonder at the universe as a continual miracle. (Thomas Carlyle later writes something similar in Sartor Resartus.)

“Ode to the West Wind”

Paragraph 1: The speaker personifies the wind and endows it with purpose. He prays to serve nature’s power and borrow from its permanence. The seasons (ancient vegetation myth) reveal a cycle beyond the individual and collective limits of humanity; winter prepares the way for spring, and sorrow prepares the way for joy, goes the assertion. The poem’s terza rima structure suits the impetuous subject matter and speaker. The point of this poem is to stir up and intensify passion, not so much to analyze a problem, although that happens, too.

Paragraph 2: The speaker links the landscape and the scyscape. The references to Bacchus drive home the speaker’s need to surrender his individual identity to the Wind’s power.

Paragraph 3: Earth, sky, sea, and fire—the elements sympathize with one another. Nature knows the Wind’s purpose and power, and “despoils itself.”

Paragraph 4: The speaker prays to become like the elements, and wants to act in harmony with the inspiriting wind. The poem, he admits, has been written from “sore need” and in a spirit of striving. He says he is too like the wind—why is that a problem?

Paragraph 5: The prayer works only if we see that the speaker wants to be a living instrument, that he prays for an “I/Thou” relationship with the wind. This relationship would be reciprocal, not passive and one-way. Inspiration and expression both carry death as their condition for effectiveness. The inspiration is always already fading, and the expression can’t equal even the inspiration. This is always the lurking reality in romantic authors’ use of the organic metaphor, and in fact even in its use by ancient authors: humans are born to die, or as Heidegger says, “Dasein” is constituted by “being towards death.” Prophets speak in hopes of spiritual regeneration for their people, but they speak only when their audience has become an abomination in the Lord’s sight. The optimism here isn’t, perhaps, owing to certainty that the message will get through in due time, but rather by the idea that the poet can at least be true to his own spiritual strivings, can become inspired and express these strivings. An interesting question: why will the sound in the forest become “Sweet though in sadness” (61)? The poem is so impetuous and oriented towards wildness that it’s surprising to see this elegiac note towards the end. Is this line analogous to Wordsworth’s and Arnold’s “still, sad music of humanity” that only the philosopher or poet can hear? Finally, the line “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” deserves attention: the poet is asserting his optimism for renewal in the bitter breath of late autumn. It is in fact going to be quite a while until spring follows autumn and then winter. There will be much death and destruction before the thaw.

Shelley’s poet strives to become one with the Wind. But we know that nature works on a vast scale of time, to which our “threescore and ten” is nothing. Wordsworth’s “correspondent breeze” implies a gentle kind of inspiration from nature. But Shelley’s source of inspiration is much less comforting—consider his references to the Wind and to the seasons. The spring can’t be far behind, but complicating this season-motif is its relation to the simultaneous “preserving” and “destroying” power of the gods Shiva and Vishnu. The Wind is both inspiriting and destructive—perhaps inseparably so. Moreover, Shelley “strives” with the West Wind in his sore need; he prays that the Wind will make him its lyre, and then even prays that it will become him. If you take on the power of the Wind as a poet, wouldn’t that mean you borrow the same dual power of preserver and destroyer in matters of the spirit and language? Poetic utterance is a troubled bearer of spirit. Shelley’s “dead-leaves” metaphor (like his “fading coal” and “sand-track” metaphors in the Defence) is at best ambivalent regarding the potential for transmitting one’s inspired feelings and thoughts to a reader or listener. Words, be they written or spoken, are only the markers of an absence—the decaying, crumbling material remains of something spiritual and whole. Yet, this medium is the only way to pass along inspiration from one soul to the next. Death is the condition of rebirth, both in organic nature and in the realm of poetic meaning and inspiration. Poetry bears the great burden of prophetic, revolutionary promise. The verses Shelley speaks are incantations—ritualized, sacred utterances meant to effect something magic in the human spirit. And yet they are ashes, sparks. They are the trumpet of a prophecy, not the prophecy itself—an image that only reintroduces the whole question of the relationship between message and medium. On Hindu mythology: “The triad of the great Hindu gods which proceeded from the world-egg deposited by the supreme First Cause: Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, [male also] the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer…. The third deity of the Hindu triad of great gods, the Trimurti. Shiva is called the Destroyer, but has also the aspect of regeneration. As destroyer he is dark and terrible, appearing as a naked ascetic accompanied by a train of hideous demons, encircled with serpents and necklaces of skulls. As auspicious and reproductive power, he is worshipped in the form of the Linga, or phallus. / Shiva is depicted as white, with a dark-blue throat, with several arms and three eyes. He carries a trident and rides a white bull. His consort is Parvati (Devi).”(www.pantheon.org/articles/s/shiva.html)

“To a Skylark”

Stanzas 1-6: The bird and its song are described as pure spirit. The song is direct, untroubled expression. The bird soars above sight into the blue empyrean (azure, in Shelley, is often a term implying “clarity” or “translucence”). It soars beyond the eye’s passive-making tyranny. We remember Wordsworth’s call for “an eye made quiet by the deep power of joy” so that we can “see into the life of things.” The bird seems to be a perfect union of body and soul; as such, it is a miracle in ordinary, a little bit of natural supernaturalism. When its song overflows heaven, this is the same thing that happens when, as Blake says, “one thought fills immensity” or the Highland Lass’s song in Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” overflows the deep vale, provoking us to our own flights of imagination and bringing home to us that the imagination can go well beyond the limits of materiality.

Stanzas 7-12. So this series of similes (the romantic-era “like”) are bound to fail in describing the sky-lark. They are too much like analysis, which can only murder to dissect, or word-painting that puts up graven images in place of ineffable Jehovah. The bird exceeds the power of language (even “poetic language”) to define it, so metaphor and simile must fail. At best, they amount to something like “negative theology,” where the point is to know God better by enumerating a great many things He is not. But imagination shouldn’t try to tame the excess or mystery of the natural world. As the Blake character says, “How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way is a world of delight closed to your senses five”? We can’t account for the bird’s effects on us. Refer to the poet-as-Nightingale simile in “A Defence of Poetry.” In lines 59-60, the bird’s clarity and joy sum up and exceed that of all nature; its song is the ultimate romantic music. As Walter Pater will say more than half a century later, “all art is constantly aspiring to the condition of music.” The birdsong’s beauty is not marred by any resistance from a material medium like wood or stone, or, for that matter, even the human burden placed on speech. Here art really has transcended itself and become more, even, than philosophy. One can only imagine what Hegel would say to that proposition!

Stanzas 13-20. Now the bird is asked to teach us the secret of its joy. What it unselfconsciously possesses is better than any human song or wisdom or institution (weddings, martial glory, poetic genres, etc.) So what is the source of this song? Well, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And since you’re human, you have no choice but to make a question of it. As J.S. Mill later writes, “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you cease to be so.” The bird’s song doesn’t come from sad necessity (“sore need”), from self-consciousness, from “experience” in the human sense. Friedrich Schelling writes in “On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature” that the bird brings forth something more excellent that it knows, and I would add in romantic fashion, it brings forth something more excellent than it needs to know. Schelling’s point is mostly that humanity is higher than “bird-consciousness” because a human mind is needed to appreciate the beauty and excellence of the bird’s music. The self-positing human being (“I” see a tree – even such a simple act of perception requires us to posit a self that perceives, over against the thing or being that is perceived.) But even if we take Shelley’s poem as optimistic, I don’t think Schelling would carry him along on this point of elevating humanity above nature—at least not in the context of this particular poem. The emphasis seems rather to be on the fact that humanity is by its very nature riven with deep contradictions (self/other, self/self, desire/realization of desire, etc.), and that we are, as the Greek gods call us, merely brotoi, they who die. So hope, in this context, seems like the obverse of elegy—it does not stand on its own or in all its purity. The bird is its own source of divine inspiration, and it need not prophesy, call for social renewal, or anything of that human sort. Our intelligence and self-awareness drive us to ask questions the very asking of which dooms us to failure. But the poem’s stubborn optimism remains; the poet can listen to the bird and find a correspondence between his own spirit and the bird’s song. We have to go with our desires because that’s all we have. And it’s fair to say that half of infinity yields infinity—as in “Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know.” Remaining just as stubbornly alongside the optimism, however, is the fact that the poet’s song flows from and (indirectly) speaks to a human world of need and pain. Can the poet’s song transmit his inspiration to us? The bird has no need of the poet’s fall/recovery, limitation/transcendence game—perceived rightly, its limitation is itself transcendence. But can we, as human beings, ever transcend our condition? Or does the fact that we are complex enough to need to transcend it mean that we will never be able to do so?

Again, the theme is failure, though tinged with optimism. Optative poetics. Shelley is not the skylark, but the poem competes with the bird’s song. The bird is unconscious, not painfully self-conscious as we thinking creatures are—it does not “look before and after and pine for what is not.” It does not experience desire for that from which it has become alienated. The bird is the summation of mystery in nature through its clarity and joy. Nature is the model of inspiration and pure expression—the bird is not “imitating” anything with its unpremeditated art. (Milton’s “unpremeditated verse” is something altogether different….)

The bird is a natural musician--in a piece of music, all you have is a pleasing succession of notes that don’t point to anything in the real world, that don’t imitate an object in nature. That’s why music comes to be a favorite trope for C19 artists—Pater says that “all art aspires to the condition of music.” That’s because music, being immaterial and purely formal, is in such a view less captive to the material world than other kinds of art associated with earlier stages of civilization—the jagged symbolic striving of primitive art forms, which shows the alienation between spirit and matter, and the classical perfection of Greek sculpture, which finds an adequate way to embody spirit. As Georg Hegel will put it in his Lectures on Fine Art (post-1818), in romantic art, which he identifies with music, the point is that “art seeks to transcend itself through itself.”

So if we borrow loosely from this Hegelian formulation and replace Hegel’s imperative towards the march of self-consciousness with Shelley’s agonized treatment of self-consciousness—for him it’s as much a curse as a blessing—the bird is a better musician—a purer expressivist and the creator of something more formally beautiful—than even the finest human composer. I think it was Schelling who said that a nightingale “brings forth something more excellent than it is itself aware of having produced.” The bird’s mating call, we are to suppose, is completely “ignorant of pain,” unburdened by human-like “being towards death.” This is truly an impossible standard of purity and joy—as far from us as heaven from this material earth. Human language could never give us access to such perfection and joy because, the idea goes, it doesn’t come from there in the first place….Perhaps, the hope runs, it can at least point towards this infinitely higher realm of happiness and perfection, by kindling the emotive and imaginative powers that alone can make us strive for such things.

So the poem recognizes the present failure of the human voice, of speaking and writing (a medium which makes obvious the loss of control implicit but elided in speech), but still conveys a tone of excitement and optimism. The poet has been inspired by the unseen bird to write the poem we are reading. He reads the bird as possessor of a kind of harmony and simplicity lost to humankind. The romantics tend to reject the theological trappings of “original sin,” but it turns out that they generally work with the idea that we are somehow “fallen” from what we ought to be. The optimism is put in terms of a conditional sentence: if the bird will agree to teach the poet its secrets, the world will then be as enraptured at his song as the poet is by the bird’s. So the question is, what does this poem claim for the poetic word? Can it help us overcome the effects of the fall? Unite us?

Two major themes: hope invested in poetic language; romantic revolutionism. The flip side of these themes is tendency to dwell upon failure of imagination and poetic language, withdrawal, in some cases, into the self and from political commitment in the wake of the French Revolution. But all these themes must be questioned constantly. The English romantics are gloriously inconsistent.

“Ozymandias”

The poem sees are as an attempt at rebellion, in this case not a successful one. How much good did the sculptor’s attempt at mockery do? Rebellion usually remains tied to what it opposes, and ends up repeating the very structures it means to destroy. Prometheus Unbound explores that problem well, as Prometheus makes no progress until he recalls his own curse against the tyrant Jupiter. This is a poem about ruins, fragments that remind us of the whole. But here that “whole” or historical context reminds us that tyranny is always a threat, in any age. Destruction and cruelty are always in the offing. Pharaoh is dead; long live pharaoh.

The halted traveler or witness reports his observation as something to be wondered at, considered in its mysteriousness and persistence. I saw this human fact—what do you make of it? What Sphinx- riddle does the head of Ramses II hold for us? The riddle of human cruelty, mastery, pride, power inequalities, political and spiritual oppression. The sculptor rebelled, mocked Ramses 3000 years ago, and the Hebrew God defeated Ramses, hardened his heart, etc. But the cruel expression and “sneer of cold command” outlived all of this, and here it is confronting us again in a work of art. So has Ramses won after all? Still, the statue does not mean quite what Ramses wanted it to mean. We do not despair because he built a monument to himself; that material thing is not important. His cruelty and oppressiveness, his hardness of heart, are still around, however—that is the problem, the reason for our despair. Why does blank Nature recede? It is blank and pitiless, gives no answer. The traveler thinks he has brought home to us something exotic, a little picturesque fragment from an ancient time, But he has brought us home to the same old passions, the same political and spiritual riddle of human nature—which of course Shelley would have no trouble discussing in terms of England during the repressive time of the poem’s composition. How much good or evil can the artist do? How much control do artists have over the meaning of their expressions? If art—or perhaps more broadly not just poems and statuary but the imaginative powers they testify to and elicit from us—can change anything, what would be the time frame for change to happen? In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley’s poet wanted to be like the Wind—but we know also that nature works on a vast scale of time, to which our little “threescore and ten” is nothing.

“Mont Blanc”

The speaker asserts correspondent processes – nature’s creative power and human creative power. Nature talks to or communes with itself, and the mind has its own sublimity and wildness. The poem begins as imitative of natural processes, mimetic description of landscape. But the poet’s spirit leads to a different emphasis—his soul moves and operates like nature – wild and unsourceable. From lines 78-83 the speaker isn’t sure whether nature and mind are commensurate or not. Towards the poem’s end, the glaciers overrun human endeavor and even createv—only to destroy—a simulacrum of human structures; the glaciers’ time frame swallows us up. As usual, sublimity isn’t comforting. The speaker concludes with an idealist question – what is nature without mind? No answer is given (although the Lucretian line 95, “Power dwells apart in its tranquility,” is suggestive.), and it’s reasonable to suppose that the question isn’t merely rhetorical: what if the speaker actually wants to know the answer, and doesn’t know what it is?

“Mutability”

The poem is almost “eastern” in its admission that self-certainty isn’t to be found. It eludes us whether we turn to reason or to passion. Change is the only constant, but it is an abstraction, not a substantial reality or a fixed ground. Expression—at least in the context of this poem—doesn’t result in a stable identity. But what is western enough about the poem is its pathos over what is felt as a loss or absence. Eastern philosophy isn’t elegiac about self-annihilation, though perhaps the notion of instability is more complex there. This poem might be said to echo Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos in The Faerie Queene—Spenser laments that everything in nature must pass away, even the most beautiful things.

The mind or spirit wanders as it will, to borrow from the language of the bible. We would have to compare this early poem to the concept of Necessity that develops in Shelley’s later work, most notably in Prometheus Unbound and the fragment “The Triumph of Life.” Shelley isn’t a determinist, but he’s also not a promoter of the power of human consciousness to effect change by a simple act of will. Freedom isn’t freedom from a “necessity” or causal chain we can’t control. Shelley apparently came, somewhat like Blake, to consider “evil” a kind of mental distortion or error that leads us to set up material dragons outside ourselves and slay them, futilely enough. He wants to invoke powers beyond simple constructs like human will or mind, but doesn’t want to invoke the same old Gods that have always stood for this power beyond the self. While this early poem can be appreciated in its isolation as a wistful statement of life’s transitoriness and of how all our plans blow hither and thither aimlessly, Shelley’s later poetry wrestles with the deep problem of how we can or cannot come to understand why we live and relate the way we do, and whether, and how, the current unhappy state of affairs might change. The kind of change Shelley is dealing with in “Mutability” isn’t something we can do much about—life triumphs over us from within.

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