SO LONG, PLANET EARTH!: An analysis of “Ode to the West Wind” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Bad news, humans! The Andromeda Galaxy is barreling toward the Milky Way, the sun of our solar system will explode, will extinguish itself, as all stars do, and, long before either of these things happen, most of the Planet Earth will become uninhabitably hot. All of the planets within our galaxy, with the exception of Earth, are unlivable, which means that the human species, if it is to survive at all, will have to trickle away the rest of its existence in spacecraft. Otherwise, we are hurtling toward our extinction and oblivion as if we were a suicide of lemmings.
Percy Bysshe Shelley saw all of this coming and wrote a poem about the destruction of our world, in the autumn of 1819, when the poet was twenty-seven, entitled “Ode to the West Wind.” It recalls an earlier poem by Albrecht von Haller entitled “Incomplete Poem on Eternity” (1736), which was quoted by Immanuel Kant in his youthful essay “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and of the Sublime” (1764). (It is not entirely certain whether Shelley read Kant, much less Haller. See Hugh Roberts’s article “Shelley among the Post-Kantians.”) Both poems—that of Shelley and that of Haller—are chillingly apocalyptic and yet also celebratory of the apocalypse, the coming of what Haller described as “the second nothingness” that will “bury” us all.
The ode is divided into five groups. Each group contains five stanzas. The first four stanzas in each group are three lines long; the last stanza of each group is a rhyming couplet. The entire poem is written in iambic pentameter: Each line has ten syllables; the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed. It begins thus:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: 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:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
The West Wind is like an invisible exorcist that expels leaves in the way that an exorcist expels ghosts. Thus far, the poem seems to be nothing more than the description of a natural phenomenon that uses a supernatural simile: A natural phenomenon (the West Wind) is likened to a supernatural force (the enchanter) that drives away another supernatural force (ghosts). Until we read of the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” who are escorted to their mass-death. “Multitudes” evokes human beings, not leaves—sick human beings, poor human beings.
When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, England was horribly impoverished. It was a time of famine, grave poverty, and deep unemployment. Thanks to the Corn Laws of 1815, the import of corn was blocked and the multitudes were starving.
At this point, one of the meanings generated by the poem is clear: This is an ode that welcomes the death of humanity (as it was in the early nineteenth century) and the birth of a new humanity. The poem suggests that the Apocalypse might not be such a bad idea, after all. It is not a misanthropic poem, however, since Shelley is not opposed to humanity as such; indeed, he (the paper Shelley) affirms the advent of a better humanity. I hesitate to use the word nihilistic, since the poem is not absent of value. Value-building is all that the poem does. There is a value presented in the poem, and it is the value of preservative destruction: The westerly wind is named a “Wild Spirit,” at the close of the first section, and both a “destroyer” and a “preserver.” It is the unseen presence that destroys the immiserated multitudes and the regal chariot that bears the seeds of a new humanity to their wintry sleep, to be awakened by the Spring Wind. The West Wind, then, has two functions: to destroy lost contemporary humanity and to plant the seeds for a stronger future humanity.
At the close of the first stanza, as at the close of the second and the third, the narrator sounds a clarion call, a plangent summons to the West Wind (which is apostrophized by the familiar “Thou”): “oh, hear!”
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!
The focus of the poem shifts from the ground to the sky. To be precise: The view of the poem moves from the leaves that are being dispersed, as rioters in a mob, to the clouds that are being dispelled by the aerial force of the West Wind. No longer does the poem look down upon the poverty-stricken multitudes; now, the poem looks up at the Castlereaghs and the Eldons. No love is shown for the upper classes, which are likened to a bacchante’s tresses.
It is important to place the poem in the age in which it was written. Shelley had already condemned the government of Lord Liverpool for butchering the British people at Peterloo, Manchester (16 August 1819), in a rage-incented and rage-incenting poem entitled “The Masque of Anarchy.” Shelley was no nihilistic, ennui-drowsy elitist wishing for the death of the poor and uneducated masses. The paper Shelley, at least, wishes for the West Wind to sweep away everyone and everything that currently exists, both low and high.
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!
The tyrannies of the world—the violently repressive British government among them—are overthrown by the annihilating gust. The great wind dreamed, and this is what it dreamed: The wind envisioned the “old palaces and towers” reflected in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. And these “old palaces and towers” were “all overgrown with azure moss and flowers.” Swathes of invasive vegetation colonize the city, which is transmuting into a jungle—an ever-growing, ever-flourishing, ever-blossoming jungle.
This is the last time that the prophet will summon the West Wind. Now, it is the prophet himself who will become the focus of the poem. I use the masculine pronoun because it is clear that the narrator is a he in the fourth section:
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
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.
The prophet, far from exempting himself from the wind’s sweepings, calls to the wind to carry him along as if he were a leaf, a cloud, or a wave. At first, it seems as if the prophet were calling for his own self-negation, but then notice how he quickly calls himself a “comrade” of the wind in Stanza Three and then identifies himself with the wind in the second line of the couplet: “[o]ne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.” One cannot escape the impression that the prophet sees himself as something more than a leaf, a cloud, or a wave. If anything, this is self-deification, the raising of the Self to the godhood. This is anthropotheism, similar to the anthropotheism that Feuerbach saw in Christianity: Christians attribute the best parts of themselves to God.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
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!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Translation: Let my leaves emerge from the nothingness that the wind will leave in its wake. Let me be revivified after the wind’s many destructions and annihilations. Let my poems revitalize the dead Earth. Like any good Romantic figure, Shelley’s prophet desires to unify himself with nature, but this does not mean that he would be swallowed up by nature–it means, rather, that he would swallow nature, engulf nature, interiorize nature, transform nature into the Self: “Be thou me.” This is, again, not self-obliteration; it is anthropotheism, the aggressive self-assertion of the human will. The poet’s song will outlast the wind.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript. German Romanticism (of the Jena period) is nostalgic for the reunification of subject and object, self and world. English Romanticism seems to want the same thing, except, in the English Romantic imagination, the Self dominates Nature. It wants Nature to capitulate to the Self.
Compare Shelley with Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?
Dr. Joseph Suglia