THE BLOG
10/28/2007 08:07 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Inspiration and Shelley's West Wind

It was great to see in the responses to my essay last week "Why You Should Read Poetry" that so many of you Huffington Post readers already are. I took note of the favorite poems and poets that ticked by in the comments section and hope to feature a lot of them here in a weekly Sunday post. As an introduction to this week's poem, I want to discuss an issue Nommo brought up:

"I think [poetry's decline] had far more to do with the butchering of poetry that goes on in institutions of edu. Uninspired teachers, or overly technical approach(es) that do nothing for appreciation."

I wish I'd mentioned the impact of inspired and uninspired teaching, as both had an effect on my poetic education. I remember one of my high school teachers breaking us into groups to interpret T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Now Prufrock would get my vote for the great poem of the 20th century, but asking a bunch of 15-year-olds to interpret it is like asking them to decipher something fed through an Enigma machine. By the end of class, my group was pretty sure J. Alfred had been murdered by his cat, and I was still uninterested in poetry.

That changed on a stormy fall day during my sophomore year of college. I was sitting in the back of a Lit. Survey class--a pre-med student fulfilling a requirement. The professor, an old Irishman and a hard grader, had to that point stuck stubbornly to the syllabus, but on this day he started class by opening the windows. We weren't supposed to get to Shelley for a while, he said, but it's a perfect day to read 'Ode to the West Wind'." I had to hold my notebook pages down. The wind was literally blowing in.

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,

There was a spark in his eyes I hadn't seen before, and the evil aura that had trailed him since he'd graded my last paper was gone. The old man was inspired. I thought about how many times he must have read that poem before and how it still affected him. It was the moment I realized I had underestimated poetry.

Because of his display of passion, I spent a lot more time hunched over my Norton Anthology. My early experience reading poetry was like what Hontonoshijin wrote about learning to read Shakespeare last week:

"There is a power in the best poetry that shines through the supposed 'difficulty.' I didn't understand it all, but I knew how amazing it was."

For me, there was nothing supposed about the difficulty, but I could feel the power in poetry: the rhythms and sounds of words; the sharp images and ideas working together; the emotional immediacy. The more I read, the more I was hooked. Ode to the West Wind is one the poems I first pored over. Since it's fall, I thought it would be a good place for us to start.

The Poem

In a note, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) describes writing Ode to the West Wind near Florence on the banks of the Arno "on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began, as I foresaw, at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning..." In the poem, Shelley calls out to this storm and the creative force it represents. He wants to be inspired to write words that will change the world and "quicken a new birth."

A storm isn't a bad metaphor for Shelley's brief and fascinating life. Here are some snippets that may help you to appreciate the poem. He was expelled from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism; he left his first wife to run off with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, future author of Frankenstein and daughter of a famous feminist (they would later marry); and he died at 29 via shipwreck in a storm, an event he eerily predicted (some claim it was suicide or even an assassination). Throughout his life, he spoke out for societal change, and in his Defense of Poetry, famously proclaimed that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Not surprisingly, his stances made him lots of enemies. Upon his death, the English newspaper The Courier published this: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or no." Thank you, 19th century Ann Coulter!

Here's the entire invocation from the impassioned poet. I hope it inspires. If the wind's blowing, you might want to open your windows.

Ode to the West Wind

I.

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 wingd 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, O hear!

II

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 airy 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: O hear!

III

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 grey with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!

IV

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.

V

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?

2007-10-26-shelley.jpg
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born August 4, 1792 in Sussex, England. He is considered one of the great poets of the British romantic period along with William Blake, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron and John Keats. His best-known poems include Ozymandias, Adonais, and Prometheus Unbound.