Temporal Dislocations and Visions of Interpretation in Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"
A quick examination of Percy Shelley's better-known critical works shows that Shelley is highly concerned with the reception of his poetry, and in fact conceives of poetry as having an explicit pedagogical and political function. The narrator of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," however, has a difficult time throughout most of the text of the poem gathering control over the poem's reception. During the course of the poem's exploration of the relationship of the poet to poetry and prophecy, Shelley's narrator discovers that this particular inspirational force -- the West Wind -- requires him to work within the traditional symbolic structure of the change of the seasons and the events associated with this change. The narrator's reliance on this symbolic structure, in turn, forces him to attune himself to the natural progression of the seasons in order to fully control the creative force that he invokes. Until this occurs -- comparatively late in the poem -- the poet-narrator remains most immediately concerned with his relationship to these forces, and the way that his poem will be received remains a secondary concern until that point.
Although the narrator of "Ode to the West Wind" can be read as a projection of Shelley, and although the poem is often presented this way in lower-division English classes, what is relevant to this discussion is simply the fact that the narrator is a poet. More specifically, a comparison of the statements made by the Ode's narrator with Shelley's expository prose on poets and poetry shows clearly that the narrator of "Ode to the West Wind" is a representation of Shelley's Ideal of the psychological structure and social function of poets.
For example, Shelley's explanation of his motive for writing The Revolt of Islam, in the preface to that book, is representative of his general beliefs about the function of poetry:
I would only awaken the feelings, so that the reader should see the beauty of true virtue, and be incited to those inquiries which have led to my moral and political creed, and that of some of the sublimest intellects in the world. (435)
This literal expression of his desire to develop and improve, through poetry, the intellectual and political thinking of his contemporaries has parallels (to be explored later) with the symbolic "ashes and sparks" and the "trumpet of a prophecy" at the end of the Ode. Shelley writes later in the preface to Revolt that "that more essential attribute of poetry" is "the power of awakening in others sensations like those which animate my own bosom" (439). This pedagogic function of poetry is developed into a plan of action at the end of the Ode's last canto.
The terminology in Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" also echoes the language used in "Ode to the West Wind" in its analysis of the essential characteristics of poetry and the nature of the poetic-creative personality. For example, Shelley writes, "[A poet's] thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time" ("Defence" 497). This comparison of the words of a poet with the fruit or seeds of flowers demonstrates that Shelley's concept of the poet's influence on the social structures in which the poet finds himself is an organic concept. Also notable is the iteration, in another form, of Shelley's often-repeated identification of creative thoughts with tiny, pointlike agents of change -- seeds in this case, symbolically equivalent to the "ashes and sparks" found in line 67 of the Ode.
Similar imagery occurs again later, in Shelley's discussion of Dante as an outstanding representative of the general structure of the poetic mind: "His very words are instinct with spirit; each is as a spark, a burning atom of inextinguishable thought; and many yet lie covered in the ashes of their birth." ("Defence" 513) Again, Shelley here links thought and speech with sparks and ashes, further clarifying the nature of the thoughts, and their significance, by making them "burning" and "inextinguishable."
Finally, at the conclusion of the "Defence," Shelley calls poets "the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration … the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire" (522). The parallelism in the imagery is again striking: the "trumpet of a prophecy" in line 69 of the Ode here finds its echo in a trumpet used by a priest of an archaic classical mystery-cult.
The observations above sketch a brief outline of the eventual role to be played by the poet-narrator in the Ode: scatterer of ashes, presiding celebrant over a mystery, ecstatic maker of music. At the beginning of the poem, however, the narrator finds himself in a very different position. For much of the poem, in fact, it is clear that the poet is not "the hierophant of an unapprehended inspiration," i.e. not the vehicle through which the prophetic West Wind works. Perhaps the most obvious indication of this is the invocatory nature of the first three cantos of the poem. (Tautologically, if the Wind were already working through the narrator, he would not need to ask it to do so.) As the following discussion will show, the poet's initial lack of contact with the inspirational force of the Wind is due to a lack of proper mental and spiritual readiness.
This problematized relationship between the poet-narrator and his inspirational force is due to a building dissonance between the poet's temporal connection with his inspirational force, on one hand, and the natural temporal progression of one season into another. A close examination of the seasonal and temporal imagery in Shelley's language demonstrates a basic principle that the narrator comes to appreciate only slowly: So long as he fails to conceptualize the West Wind's operational structure in the same temporal manner that it operates naturally, he is unable to relate to it in a (poetically-prophetically) productive manner.
The most basic symbolic elements associated with seasonal progression are similar throughout the Western world. Spring brings the growth of new life, then progresses into summer; summer brings the maturing of plant and animal life and passes into autumn; autumn brings the slowing down of life and preparation for and progress into the metaphoric sleep/death of winter; and winter turns back into spring, beginning a new year and beginning again the cycle of vegetable growth and decay. The temporal progress of the narrator's conception of his intended inspirational force, on the other hand, is much more complex than its natural model: the poem's narrative present is in the autumn of an (unspecified) year, but the narrator's thought ranges forward and backward in time with little regard to natural temporal order throughout most of the poem. The poem's beginning locates itself temporally in autumn: the poem is an address to the West Wind, which is the "breath of Autumn's being" ("Ode" line 1). This is also apparent from the image of the dead leaves driven by the wind (2-5). Shelley's imagery in the first five lines of the poem picks up and uses the traditional mythological association of death with winter and applies it to associate the fall of the autumn leaves with disease and approaching death: the narrator speaks of "leaves dead" (2), which he compares to "ghosts … fleeing" (3); the leaves are described as "hectic" (4), a word associated for Shelley's contemporaries with the flush of pestilence; he also describes the leaves as "pestilence-stricken multitudes" (5).
The narrator quickly shifts the temporal focus of his thought to winter in line six, where he describes the wind as carrying "wingèd seeds" (7) to "their dark wintry bed" (6). Here winter is explicitly and unequivocally associated with death: these "wingèd seeds" are, Shelley says, "[each] like a corpse within its grave" (8).
The temporal focus of the poet-narrator's thoughts shifts again, this time to the spring, in line 9. Spring is described as a reawakening of life: the narrator tells us that the spring wind shall fill "plain and hill" of "the dreaming earth" (10) with "living hues and odours" (12). After describing the effects of spring's "clarion" (10) on the earth, the focus of the narrator's thought snaps back to the poetic present in the last two lines of the poem's first canto, and he explicitly invokes the autumn wind, asking it to "hear, oh, hear!" (14). His thought during the first canto, then, ranges in time through most of the seasonal cycle of the year, then returns to the present in a discontinuous jump.
Shelley's narrator's thought fluctuates between winter-as-death and winter-as-sleep in the first canto. He first explicitly associates winter with death, as described above, and then describes spring as a reawakening, not a resurrection -- the spring wind's trumpet affects "the dreaming earth" in line 10, not a "dead earth." This dual metaphoric nature is maintained throughout the poem -- for instance, Shelley both refers to the coming winter as "night" (implying sleep) and the "dying year" (implying death) in line 24; he refers to ashes (dead sparks, and metonymically associated with death) in line 67 and to an "unawakened earth" (implying sleep) in line 68. This seeming discrepancy between sleep and death is not in fact a dual system of metaphor: not only are both adequate traditional metaphors for the state of the earth in winter, but the two are repeatedly treated as rough symbolic equivalents throughout the history of English literature. For another, the cyclical concept of time inherent in the traditional vegetative view of seasonal change sees death and rebirth as cyclical processes occurring annually. Autumn is described both with allusions to the oncoming sleep of winter (for instance, in the "night" of line 24) and with allusions to the oncoming death of winter (for instance, in the "pestilence" of line 5).
After the quickly moving temporal changes of the first canto, Shelley continues the autumnal theme of the first canto's last two lines throughout the second. All of the seasonal references in this canto are to autumn: most obvious is the reference to "decaying leaves" in line 16. Also notable are the "dying [not 'dead'] year" of line 24, the claim in line 25 that the year will (but does not yet) have a "sepulchre,"and the autumnal characteristics in the description of the storm mentioned in lines 18 through 23. Moreover, the present tense of all of the verbs that are used to describe the present moment (rather than predict a future situation) continually brings the reader back to autumn, the poem's basic narrative present.
Shelley maintains the autumnal theme in the second canto after snapping back to it at the end of the first, but this shift in the temporal locale of the poet's thought from spring (9-12) to autumn (13-28) at the end of the first canto is significant. This seasonal shift is non-sequential -- in fact, it is counter-natural -- in two ways: it is a reversal of the natural passing of one season into another (spring is expected to flow forward into summer, not backward into autumn), and it is discontinuous (spring passes into autumn without passing through either summer or winter, the seasons which normally separate spring and autumn from each other). This unnatural temporal shift fails to parallel the natural passage of seasons, and this failure to make a parallel in thought with the natural passage of time is repeated in the transition from autumn (the poem's present) to summer (the poem's past) between the second and third cantos.
Examining the narrator's language in the third canto shows that all seasonal indications here refer to summer: the "summer dreams" of line 29 and the calm ("lulled") Mediterranean of line 31 demonstrate this. That summer is the poem's past is apparent from the past-tense verbs used in the main clauses of Shelley's constructions throughout most of the canto: the "didst" of line 29, the "lay" of line 30, and the "saw" of line 33. Those main verbs not in the past tense in the third canto indicate an action that is still occurring and can be expected to have been occurring during the poetic past, as well -- the cleaving of the sea by the wind of lines 36-38 and the knowing of the seasons by the sea-vegetation in lines 39-41 provide good examples of this. The few remaining verbs in the third canto that are not in the present tense and that do not indicate a still-occurring action occur in the last two lines of the canto ("grow," "tremble," "despoil"). These verbs serve an important function: they anticipate the coming autumn and provide the first example in the poem of a properly directed seasonal change.
By anticipating the coming autumn, Shelley's narrator finally corrects the problematic, unnatural relationship that his thoughts have so far had to the seasonal progression of time. He describes a poetic past of a tranquil summer, provides a bridge to the poetic present of the autumn (by describing the seasonal change in lines 39-42), and then moves into the poetic present in the fourth canto. By doing all of this, he constructs a continuous jump from one season to the next for the first time since he unnaturally jumped from spring to autumn between lines 12 and 13 in the first canto. Furthermore, this is the first time since that jump from spring back to autumn that a seasonal change corresponds to a jump forward in time, in accordance with the natural progression of the seasons.
This mental shift to accord with the natural seasonal progression has immediate benefits for the poet-narrator. Previously, in the first three cantos, the speaker in the poem simply attempted to invoke the creative force, which he saw as something alien which was to "hear, oh, hear" him (14). Although the fourth canto also takes the form of a series of invocations, these are shorter and less formal. Some are only one line long -- for instance, the invocations in lines 43 and 44 -- in contrast to the elaborate, terza rima-sonnet invocations of the first three cantos. The poet's conception of the creative force also changes: rather than seeing it as something alien, he begins to conceptualize it as something capable of working through him; he wishes that he could be lifted as "a wave, a leaf, a cloud!" by the inspirational Wind (53).
The narrator's conception of his relation to this inspirational force evolves continually throughout the fourth canto. At first, he sees himself as something that the wind could, conceivably, work through (that "thou [the Wind] mightest bear") (43). The narrator pleads with the wind to work through him later in the canto ("Oh, lift me" in line 53 is the clearest expression of this desire). By the end of the canto, he identifies himself with the West Wind's inspirational force, saying that he is "one too like thee" (56).
In the fourth canto, and in the transition from the third to the fourth canto, Shelley's narrator finally begins to align his process of thought to the natural seasonal progression demanded by the nature of his inspirational force. He completes this process of attuning in the last part of the fourth canto and the beginning of the fifth canto. The fourth canto proceeds in a continuous manner from the third, and in the proper order; but most of the fourth canto is simply a group of static statements that all describe a single emotion at a single point in time. A static thought is not completely attuned to the temporal nature of the progression of the seasons that Shelley's inspirational force demands simply because it is static, i.e. is an abstract construct outside of the flow of time. The narrator spends lines 43-52 listing metaphors that describe a relation he would have with the inspirational West Wind; this intended relationship does not begin to develop -- grow over time -- until the "Oh, lift me" of line 53. It undergoes another fundamental shift in lines 55-6, when he not only pleads with the wind, but also identifies with it.
This forward temporal movement takes a different form in the fifth canto. The narrator's thoughts are now turned outward and encompass events in the natural world, and events in the natural world show the progression of time. The "leaves … falling" of line 58, indicating early autumn, become "withered leaves," indicating late autumn or early winter, in line 64. This late autumn/early winter time frame naturally accounts for the "unawakened [i.e., sleeping] earth" of line 68. The winter itself is tensed with anticipation for the coming spring, for the awakening of earth promised by the "clarion" call (10) of the "trumpet of a prophecy" (69), and for the "[quickening] new birth" (64) of the "sweet buds" (11) and the "wingèd seeds" (7) that have spent the winter in their "wintry bed" (6).
It is only at this late point that the poem makes any explicit statement indicating how narrator intends for it to be interpreted, or regarding its intended effects. Once the narrator has attuned his mind to the seasonal operation of his inspirational force and bridged the conceptual gap between him and it, he is able to take full advantage of the Wind's creative power to influence the poem's interpretation, and begins by describing his own developing relationship to the inspirational Wind. At first, he is to be the "lyre" (57) played by the West Wind, and the Wind will take from him, as from the forest, a "deep autumnal tone, / Sweet though in sadness" (60-61). He then abandons this modified conception of his relationship to the Wind, which is a concept that still conceives of poet and inspiration as separate being (although entities that work closely together), and makes a statement of complete identity with his inspirational force: "Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!" (61-2).
All of the images the narrator now uses to describe the poem's intended effects -- "dead thoughts" blown like "withered leaves" (63-4) by the Wind, words scattered like "ashes and sparks … among mankind" (67) the "trumpet of a prophecy" (69) -- involve the dispersion of something (an object or a sound) from a central source over a large distance. The narrator, then, is concerned with the general reception of his ideas among "mankind" (67) rather than with the reception of the ideas by specific individuals. The narrator's concern is not with individual members of society, but rather with the organic whole.
The images Shelley's narrator uses to describe the effects of the poem are all particularly indicative in light of this large-scale model of dispersion. "Withered [and, therefore, dead] leaves" from the autumn provide the soil with nutrients to allow for the growth of new life in the spring, and "ashes and sparks" can transfer a fire from one place to another, or ignite a new fire from an old one; both of these are images of a new birth from dead material. A trumpet call is a method by which one soldier may rally a number of others. All of these models allow for Shelley's poet-narrator to spread his influence, not only to single other individuals, but throughout the social body. All of these images, which build on or are related to images from earlier in the poem, show that the poet, once he has harnessed the inspirational power of the force he invokes, has a clear conception of the poem's purpose, audience, and reception.
Figure one, above, shows the course of temporal thought in which the narrator engages throughout the course of the poem. In this diagram, the poem's cantos are represented by concentric arcs: the first canto by the inmost arc, the second canto by the next arc outward, etc. The temporal discontinuities in thought -- the occasion when Shelley's narrator's thought jumps from the future back to the present between lines 12 and 13 and the occasion when the narrator's thought jumps from the present back to the past between the second and third cantos -- are represented by dashed lines. Natural progressions in time between cantos -- when Shelley's narrator's thought remains in a single time period between cantos one and two or cantos four and five, or when the narrator moves properly in thought from one season to the next in the transition from canto three to canto four -- are shown with solid lines between the arcs representing the cantos. When a single canto progresses naturally through more than one season, as in canto five and the first twelve lines of canto one, the curve of the arc sweeps through the spaces representing the seasons without a discontinuity.
An examination of the diagram shows the gap between the method of thought that Shelley's narrator needs to achieve and the reality of the situation over the course of the poem. At first, as discussed above, the narrator's thought is uncontrolled, out of joint, and unattuned to the processes of thought needed to relate to his inspirational force. Gradually, however, Shelley's narrator brings his patterns of thought into line with the natural pattern required by his inspirational force.
The process of attuning is required because the narrator becomes the "lyre" played by his inspirational force, the West Wind, and so is required to harmonize with it in his patterns of thought. This attuning, a concordance of thought and method, allows him to identify himself with this inspirational force. For this reason, Shelley's narrator needs to establish enough control over his thought processes and the creative force driving them before the poem is able to control its interpretation. Once this has been accomplished, however, the poem turns immediately to Shelley's standard political/pedagogical concerns and becomes concerned with the manner in which the poem is received. At this point, it begins to shape its reception by deploying a group of symbolic allusions that develop from -- and lend coherence to -- the already-existing imagery of the struggle for control over and identification with the inspirational force of the poem.
- Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "A Defence of Poetry" in The Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Modern Library, 1951. [Read it online]
- ---. "Ode to the West Wind" in The Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Modern Library, 1951. [Read it online]
- ---. "The Revolt of Islam: Preface" in The Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Modern Library, 1951. [Read it online]