[In art] what is important is not only the subject matter but also the way it is treated; not only the cognitive and emotional content manifest in the work of art, but also, and especially, the effect such content is intended to have on the knowledge and the feelings of the participant.
(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 88)
In the last post I focused mainly on the Mask of Anarchy, and concluded that Shelley manages to avoid the trap of painting only in black, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. The stanza form makes the message accessible. The figure of Hope, without in my view becoming sentimental, counterpoints the nightmare. And, most brilliantly, given where Shelley’s personal violence and previous politics might have led him, he depicts the power of non-violent resistance. This makes the work far greater than the man.
Ode to the West Wind
At about the same time as he completed this superb protest poem, another of his great poems was incubating, according to Holmes in his biography (page 546):
Shelley went for walks along the banks of the Arno thinking of . . . . his own exile, his ‘passion for reforming the world,’ his apparent impotence to help the downtrodden people of England, the disasters of his private life and inevitably, at 27, the beginning of the end of his youth.
His hair was already becoming streaked with grey, according to Anne Wroe a possible symptom of syphilis. It is perhaps not surprising then to see the appeal of autumn as a symbol of his declining condition and his deep need for a powerful force to lift him out of his despondency. The climax of the The Ode to West Wind fuses these two aspects:
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 wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
In this poem, I feel, Shelley has managed to curb his tendency to over-wrought diction, which mars so much of his poetry, without selling out the intensity of his feeling and the exaltation of his vision. Also, he has been more successful, as a result, in pitching his imagery at a deeply resonant level. For example, at first sight the idea of ‘dead thoughts’ seems inherently despairing and negative, until you see the comparison with dead leaves, whose death is precisely what is necessary to fertilise new growth. There is a sense of Shelley’s willingness to sacrifice himself in this process, but he does not rub our noses in it in the self-aggrandising way we see so often elsewhere in his poetry. It may be no coincidence that this poem follows on from the risk he took in trying to get The Mask of Anarchy published. (I will be returning to a closer analysis of both these poems in a later post.)
It will come as no surprise to readers of my blog that I find his use of the word ‘hearth’ particularly rich in implications. It contains the words ‘art,’ ‘heart’ and ‘earth’ within it, as I have explained elsewhere. As this was a poem I read often in my late teens, I now find myself wondering whether the core image in the dream I had in my 40s of the hearth, which was so important to my understanding of spiritual processes, was first planted by Shelley.
I will skate over another long poem – Peter Bell the Third – even though it does have some powerful passages. It is too uneven, and therefore ultimately unsuccessful, to be included here, where I am focusing exclusively on his more powerful poems for what they might reveal about the creative process at its best.
Holmes’s commentary on this period is relevant (page 556):
The astonishing speed and range of his creative output, which had now run in an unbroken curve from 6 September when he first received news of Peterloo, until 5 November, embracing such widely different genres of poetry and prose, and simultaneously throwing off a comet’s tail of ballad fragments and songs, suggest a state of exultant energy and vision, a consciousness of formidable active power that is difficult to conceive in ordinary terms.
He amplifies on this (page 569):
Like the great creative efforts of 1812 and 1817 – which were, equally, responses to political and social crisis in society – the effort of 1819 pushed forward the range of Shelley’s literary powers. It established in his mind more mature conceptions both of the actions and sufferings of other men, and of his own. In artistic terms the greatest gains were in economy and intensity of style.
Ann Wroe makes the astute observation that (page 92) ‘he could not will or control the poetic power, and when it lapsed he was merely a man again.’ What I would very much wish to be able to define, are the factors that connect him to this power so that his work resonates at a higher level than his more workaday verse. This would help me understand better the difference between poetry and verse: they can sometimes, to a cursory glance, appear the same, but repeated exposure reveals the former to penetrate reality far more deeply than the latter.
It was Erich Fromm who alerted me to the distinction between two kinds of stimuli. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, having discussed simple stimuli, which is the common usage of the term stimulus and means a trigger to reaction, he explains that there is another kind of stimulus (page 269):
. . . . one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, and landscape, music, or a loved person. None of these stimuli produce a simple response; they invite you, as it were, to respond by actively and sympathetically relating yourself to them; by becoming actively interested, seeing and discovering ever-new aspects in your ‘object’… by becoming more awake and more aware.
He unpacks some of the implications of this distinction (pages 269-70):
Stimuli of the first, simple kind, if repeated beyond a certain threshold, are no longer registered and lose their stimulating effect. . . . Activating stimuli have a different effect. They do not remain the same; because of the productive response to them they are always new, always changing: the stimulated person… brings the stimuli to life and changes them by always discovering new aspects in them.
When ‘poetic power’ is present we have activating stimuli which can change our awareness and which repay revisiting: when it is absent there is unlikely to be any such effect. In the final group of posts I will be exploring this issue in greater depth, though it will mean digressing into a discussion of the novel’s capacity to promote empathy as well as exploring the difficulties of distinguishing between a poem that is merely a simple stimulus and therefore probably only verse, and a poem that is an activating one, and therefore poetry in the best sense of that word.
I bet you’re looking forward to that discussion.
A Defence of Poetry
After the end of this period comes A Defence of Poetry, which Holmes (page 642) regards as something of an anthology of his earlier prose writing. A well known antecedent is Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry. The Wikipedia article acknowledges his influence on Shelley and beyond, and summarises his message:
In an era of antipathy to poetry and puritanical belief in the corruption engendered by literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function.
One of the most recent descendants is Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry, where he speaks of (page xvii) how poetry can bring ‘human existence into fuller life.’
This may not seem consistent with a strong desire to change the world in some particular way (page 2):
[Poetry] offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist. For the activist, there is going to be no point in envisaging an order which is comprehensive of events but not in itself productive of new events. . . . . They will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view.
He sets an important criterion for the reality that poetry seeks to capture (page 7-8):
Poetry . . . whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and of which it is generated. . . . . As long as the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function.
Shelley stands at a point of time approximately halfway between these publications. Similar to Sidney, he continues to see (page 642) ‘the function of poetry as a moral and political one, rather than as a purely literary one,’ and defines the moral function of poetry as (page 643) putting ‘himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ He sees poetry as strengthening that function.
Shelley draws a distinction which anticipates Iain McGilchrist, in a way (page 645):
The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has for want of the poetic faculty proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world.
Approaching his End
Interestingly, when it came to Shelley’s reaction to the death of Keats in Italy from consumption, his ability to empathise with the reality of Keats’s situation was deeply flawed (page 648):
It is transparent . . . that Shelley was not thinking in any realistic way about Keats’s reaction to any review of 1818, but rather of his own reaction to the quarterly attack on himself in 1819.
His total lack of interest at this same time in the situation of his own children by Harriet points in the same unfeeling direction.
Writing to Claire at the time of the composition of Adonais, he explained (page 656) that:
. . . . in writing poetry he found the only real form of mental relief which lifted him above ‘the stormy mist of sensations.’
I won’t be dwelling on this poem here, not only because of its flawed empathy, but also because, while I do not I agree with Holmes’s dismissive description of it as mannered and pompous (page 657), its unevenness raises too many doubts in my mind about its overall quality. I need more time before I can come to a measured assessment.
Concerning what poetry was for him, he said something revealing at this time, which I have also quoted in an earlier post (page 659):
‘The poet and the man are two different natures,’ he explained . . . ‘though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other.’
The best poetry of this period comes under the heading of Pisan Poems though I am not sure at this point what exactly triggered them and therefore am unclear how they might help clarify my current theme.
This is where my rather rapid overview of his poetic output comes to an end and I now face the daunting task in the next set of posts of integrating what I have learnt into my working model of the creative process so I can test it out on other writers. I’ll probably stick to writers because I understand the written arts better than the others, though I don’t necessarily value them more.
Because we are now hitting the Christmas period and the level of interest in my blog declines at this time, I plan to begin posting this last set of articles on this topic after Christmas and probably continuing them into the New Year.
Did I hear a sigh of relief?