Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Shelley--"Ode to the West Wind" (1820)

Old Bysshe. Old Bysshe sounds like he was probably an extrememly annoying guy to hang out with, but I like his poems. I like all the Romantic poets. As I have written before, they are very much the soul of English poetry as far we moderns are concerned. The Elizabethans and the 17th century poets are rather remote from most of us spiritually and emotionally, I think, in a way that Shelley and his literary brethren still are not. In contrast with what is supposed to be the usual pattern, I find myself liking Shelley the poet more as I get older. I held the position of not liking him at all as an adolescent, not that I was a great consumer of poetry at that time, but because I took him to be an effete snot. In my twenties and early thirties I thought his poems fun and enjoyable, and his biography to give English literary history some welcome color and interesting character, but that he did not have the depth and intellectual brilliance of a world class superpoet, that he didn't break much ground, and that the poems wanted something in the way of strength or urgency. These concerns interest me much less at the present time than they did formerly, in part because I either lost the sense of missing or gave up looking for the secret meanings of poems and other works of genius that were only accessible to the most advanced people. This has had the effect of making Shelley more enjoyable to me. "Ode to the West Wind" has 70 lines, so I am not going to break it down line by line. I am greatly impressed by the composition of this poem in that the language comes off so naturally, without ever feeling strained or artificial, such as to cause one to wonder why English is not more commonly thus expressed. The call of antique, or more accurately eternal, nature, sensitively noted and interpreted, never fails to appeal--indeed, in such translations of Japanese and other Eastern poetry as I have looked into it would seem to be the primary appeal--and there is a good deal of that quality in this, larded with the characteristic Shelleyan qualities of emotionality, hostility to anything smacking of conventional life or thought, and the need to infuse the tangible objects and beings populating his poems, not least of all himself, with a kind of strident immortality. The temporal, fleeting nature of all things, human things especially and passion perhaps the foremost of these, is a pretty continuous theme throughout Shelley's oeuvre, including this poem. Here as elsewhere this existential law is dealt with more with resignation than acceptance, though not with a great amount of either.

This is the poem that has the famous closing line "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" (Needless to say, old Bysshe did not live in New England). A lot of the lines at this level of fame don't have much of an effect on me, but this one does stir some feeling. Why? It is very simple, and probably not even all that sincerely felt by the poet, but it does capture a sense, I would not say of hopefulness exactly, but that existence has some kind of purpose, enough that we look forward to the next spring, and not merely as the absence of pain and unpleasantness. I guess that is hopefulness, though I don't really experience it as such.

Another image I liked was in lines 32-6:

"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!..."

*Near Naples; popular with Roman emperors as a spot for villas.

I especially like that "the sense faints..." as if to say one cannot rely on sense to give any comprehension of the meaning of existence. I could write more about these and other lines and about Shelley but I don't feel up to it this week. There will be other poems and other authors and maybe Shelley will come up again someday.
As I get older I find that one of my first physical aspects to be noticeably weakening is the mechanism of speech. By which I do not even mean the content but the actual ability to enunciate words crisply. I slur a great deal, as if my vocal musculature has not the strength to sustain certain combinations of sounds. It is very strange, and disturbing. If I have to speak at work or in other public settings I find I have to be very conscious of separating and taking the time to take sure I fully pronounce each word properly. I wonder if this is not just 40 years of underdevelopment of my personal linguistic infrastructure finally having its effect, though I don't remember having this particular problem before.

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