This is an age when the poet is not the only seer we have on earth, but is the seer particularly endowed to sing of what he sees.
(Bahíyyih Nakhjavání in Artist, Seeker and Seer)
As I brought Shelley back into the frame with Monday’s post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago. It will also give me some much needed thinking time before my next new posts comes out! This is the last post in the sequence,.
At the end of the previous post I had come to the conclusion that in the poem Julian & Maddalo we are not seeing ‘subliminal uprush’ at its deepest and best. This is rather eloquence fuelled by a personal feeling state and not much more. Shelley has not broken through to a new level of consciousness, he has merely been spurred to find a new vehicle through which to express his conscious convictions and self-justifications. Therefore, it follows, that we as readers will tend to remain undisturbed by it within our own existing frames of reference. No ‘solving for the unknown’ then.
This is, I think, very different from the situation we now encounter in the next two poems.
The Mask of Anarchy – the Music
First of all, does its music match its meaning?
A good place to look is a key moment of transition in the poem. In an earlier post I have quoted the opening lines that lead to our first sight of Anarchy riding along exulting in his power and the adulation of his followers. Then things are about to shift.
Then all cried with one accord,
“Thou art King, and God, and Lord;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!”
And Anarchy, the skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education,
Had cost ten millions to the nation.
For he knew the palaces
Of our kings were rightly his;
His the sceptre, crown, and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.
So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned parliament,
When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair;
And she cried out in the air;
“My father, Time, is weak and grey
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!
“He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me–
Misery! oh, Misery!”
Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses’ feet,
Expecting with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.
This is a completely different verse form from that of Julian and Maddalo. This is ballad metre, the verse form of the people not the elite, similar, it is interesting to note, to the metre Coleridge chose for his masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
This is not the language of the ballad. Ballad was beyond the aristocratic populist. He can write directly, but on his own terms which are – in his view – universal. Ballad is rooted in the tribal and rural; this poem addresses an urban populace, a proletariat.
It tells a story well. Written in this way, the language is plain and accessible to all. The rhythm and the rhymes are strong, perfect for the forceful and dark anger of this poem, but also capable of carrying the depth of compassion for the oppressed it also includes. The repeating rhythm is like a hammer or a drum beating the meaning into our skulls.
Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’
I have no doubt about this. The outrage Shelley feels against the atrocity of the massacre is one almost everyone would share as is the feeling that a strong protest needed to be registered in as many ways as possible.
In this poem, though, Shelley took his own understanding and that of his audience to a completely new level. After the intervention of a mysterious power,
. . . the prostrate multitude
Looked — and ankle deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien . . .
The oppressed are addressed by Hope as being capable of the one truly effective method of opposition to tyranny: passive resistance. It is perhaps no accident that here we have another ‘maniac.’ She describes the forces arrayed against them before she advises them how to respond:
“Let the fixed bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood,
Looking keen as one for food.
“Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.
“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.”
The combination of a powerful theme and a new understanding make this poem great in this respect at least. I feel the combination of that with a strong but accessible verse form, brilliantly managed, makes this a great work of inspired poetry.
So, now I need to look at the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.
It is undoubtedly the trauma of Peterloo that triggered this poem, though it was also fed from years of mulling over in prose and poetry the political ideas that underpin its message.
The Mask of Anarchy, never published in his lifetime, was Shelley’s response to the outrage of Peterloo. It was 12 days in the writing. Holmes unpacks its subliminal origins (page 352):
His images are drawn recognisably from almost all of his previous political poems, right back to The Devil’s Walk, and the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into unity at a single demand.
That a poem of this length and quality was written in a mere 12 days suggests something of the subliminal pressure that might have been behind it. It is not just the speed though that suggests the inspiration of the poem goes beyond the kind of emotional reaction that fuelled Julian and Maddalo.
He avoids repellent didacticism, even though the poem clearly has a message. The message is rooted in a vividly created situation. There is a narrative and the characters, even though symbolic, have a physical presence that is conveyed by few but telling details – ‘skeleton,’ ‘palsied’ ‘ankle-deep in blood’ etc. At the same time, amidst the horror and the outrage, he does not lose the music, moving between dissonance and grace as the occasion demands: in one stanza even we move from the dissonant half-rhyme of ‘. . . the prostrate multitude/Looked — and ankle deep in blood’ to the harmony of the long rhymes ‘Hope, that maiden most serene,/Was walking with a quiet mien . . .’
This is, for me, Right-Brain Poetry of a high order.
Just as importantly, he also does not capitulate to the dissonance of the events by making them all there is in the poem. Shelley manages to avoid this trap, which I described in an earlier post, without selling out the trauma that triggered the poem. 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. I feel he has lifted his own consciousness and thereby become capable of lifting ours.
This makes the work far greater than the man. So, great art like this – though I’m not saying it’s faultless – can come from a flawed human being. It can be written at great speed – too fast perhaps for conscious control to explain it completely – and yet break new ground and maintain a wide-angled perspective on events.
Ode to the West Wind – the Music
First of all, does this poem’s music match its meaning?
Of all the poems I have chosen to consider, this is by far the most musical, the most purely lyrical.
The form is a mix of two – terza rima and an improvised sonnet structure. Terza rima is best known in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sonnet blend is achieved by dividing his poem into five fourteen-line sections, each ending as the Shakespearean sonnet does, with a couplet. I’ll quote the first section in full to illustrate:
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!
I feel Shelley is at his best when he constrains his impetuous turbulence within tight forms such as this and the ballad form of The Mask of Anarchy. The way Shelley uses this form evokes the gusts and eddies of the wind he addresses. Enjambments cross over stanza breaks, not just line breaks, and focus switches between the ends and beginnings of lines in mimicry of the wild wind’s switches of direction. Even the apparently clumsy parenthesis in the last triad serves to convey the hidden strain of new life bursting through once spring is here.
In all the succeeding sections the sense ebbs and flows in this same masterly fashion across line and triad breaks, the meaning and the music of the verse are so closely intertwined.
Next, we need to ask, ‘Is the theme a significant one?’
I think so. Shelley is addressing one of the fundamental questions this whole sequence of posts is in part concerned with. What is art, in this case poetry, for? What is it supposed to do and how is it supposed to do it? For anyone concerned about the over-mechanised instrumental model of education that is becoming increasingly prevalent in our market-driven civilisation, there are few questions more important than this.
We need to leap to the last section to examine this further:
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!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
It expresses a model of inspiration. After all that word comes from the same source as respiration and is linked to spirit as derived metaphorically from breath. It is vital to life. In this case there is a strong link made with attunement to Nature. In part, he sees the poet as an instrument that unseen powers play to produce harmony.
Comparing thoughts to autumn leaves unlocks other powerful implications. Thoughts, on this model, are the product of powerful natural processes involving soil, sunlight and rain. They are part of a natural cycle of creation, death, transformation and renewal. They are meant to fertilize new growth. Interestingly, in the light of the discussion in the next set of posts on a model of creativity, he switches metaphors from compost to fire. While wood ash will help in the processes of gardening, sparks of fire are clearly intended to set other minds aflame.
So, Shelley seems to see the poet’s role as nurturing within himself deep insights into truth, which have to be spread abroad by the same wind whose air has helped form them, so that new and deeper forms of thought may be created that will change the world, make it more beautiful. By ‘prophecy’ Shelley does not mean foretelling the details of the future, but tuning into the spirit of the age and helping shape the future by the intimations so received. Ann Wroe explains (page 312):
Poets, Shelley hastened to say, were not prophets ‘in the gross sense of the word.’ They could not foretell [events]. . . . . [But t]hey could not deny the Power that was ‘seated on the throne of their own soul’ . . . . . ‘For [the poet] not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time. [The quote is from A Defence of Poetry.]
How art is to do this remains an interesting implication. That he sees thought as leaves not seeds suggests that the artist’s work nourishes new growth that is inherent in reality. The seeds are there already waiting to be cared for, fed if you like. The world is fertile with constructive growth: the poet’s job is to make sure the seeds can grow. Our job is to tune into what he is saying and add the dead leaves of our own thoughts to the enriching layer of mulch. There is also here the implication of sadness and sacrifice. We won’t be able to contribute to this process by remaining in our comfort zone. The sacrifices of the artist are meant to inspire us in this respect as well.
Schmidt’s comment (page 386) is helpful here. He contrasts what he terms the ‘abstracting technique’ and a ‘process’ which ‘tends to particularise emotion.’ He spells out a key implication:
Between these two processes a crucial difference exists: the first constructs, the second interprets experience. Shelley’s most popular poems are in the latter category. He sees himself as a moral, not a didactic writer, seeking to ‘awaken’ and ‘enlarge’ the mind, and this he does best through experience, not through projection.
Perhaps it would be best to give Shelley the last word on this issue. In his Preface to The Revolt of Islam he explained (Ann Wroe – pages 259-60):
I have sought to enlist the the harmony of metrical language, the ethereal combinations of the fancy, the rapid and subtle transitions of human passion, all those elements which essentially compose a poem, in the cause of a liberal and comprehensive morality; and in the view of kindling within the bosom of my readers a virtuous enthusiasm for the doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation nor prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind.
Now I need to look at the source of the inspiration behind this poem, which I think is different from the source of inspiration of the other two I’ve chosen to focus on.
Its source this time seems to be his sense of aging, though the immediate trigger was his experience of the powerful winds of Italy in autumn. The resonance we can get from nature, or other aspects of the environment, can help pierce the membrane which separates us from the subliminal, while not being in themselves traumatic events. They simply connect us to our depths by what they represent.
This makes it even more likely that the main source of the poem’s power is from ‘subliminal uprush.’ There is no association with a community of minds behind it in the same way as there was with Julian and Maddalo. There is no dramatic event such as the massacre of Peterloo fuelling an outrage that seeks an outlet in poetry. There simply seems to have been a strong and sudden sense of what his life as a poet should mean, which poured out rapidly in a specially created form, whose solemn music and rich imagery contain a wealth of implications for the rest of us to reflect upon at length, spending more time reading and re-reading it than he did on composing it at the time. For me the poem pushes the boundaries of my understanding of the nature of poetry and its purpose: this is because, in his struggle to capture his own emergent conception, he has seized on a rich vein of imagery with a multitude of penetrating implications, some of which I have tried to explore.
It is probably only fair to add that all three poems probably have a kind of composting gestation of subliminal influence behind them as well, something I have referred to once or twice but not analysed in detail.
The next post takes me to the more difficult bit.