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Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’


Ship STC

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

Coleridge Rime of the Ancient Mariner (lines 288-291)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

At the end of the last post I explained that Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner served as the key to unlocking the puzzle of why I translated a poem of Machado’s in the way I did, especially the line I rendered as ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed.’

I need to quote some key passages mostly to illustrate where the ‘becalmed ship’ imagery came from, before spelling out more clearly what it has to do with the three brains model. The quotes come from the 1834 revised version, where the English has been made less archaic. I’ve noted one or two places where I think the meaning has been affected by the changes.

A Fatal Mistake

The mariner and his fellow crew-members are halted in an ice-bound wilderness. An albatross appears through the fog. They feed it, the ice splits and they can move forward at last.

The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!

Then comes the fatal mistake, a turn of events that Wordsworth apparently suggested to Coleridge after reading a sea captain’s account of a round-the-world voyage. This does not for me detract from the symbolic power of the act within the poem. It was the perfect suggestion to have made.

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS. . . . .

The consequences of that violent act are dire.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!

So his fellow sailors hang the albatross around his neck:

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

The crew all die apart from him after a dark ship come alongside with two sinister figures on deck playing dice. When one cries out she’s won, all the 200-member crew, except the mariner, fall dead, leaving only him alive:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on [And Christ would take no pity on]
My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting [eldritch] deck,
And there the dead men lay.

Things continue in this nightmare fashion. Only when he reconnects lovingly with the alien forms of life swimming near the ship does the curse lift:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

And he is left driven to tell his story at unpredictable moments:

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

He explains the meaning of his experience to the reluctant wedding guest:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

For completeness and to reinforce a key idea in the poem, that the Ancient Mariner has a duty to communicate not just what happened but also what he has learnt, I’ve quoted the ‘moral’ at the end. I feel I may be being a bit of an Ancient Mariner in this sequence of posts, driven to share what I have learnt to every unwilling listener. Coleridge himself didn’t like the moral much: he wrote (1832), ‘the chief fault of the poem was that it had too much moral, and that too openly obtruded on the reader.’

Are We Too Trigger-Happy?

I remembered that some time previously I found myself wondering whether I had shot an albatross when I had reacted too instinctively to an intense emotional experience. I was hurting so much I effectively walked out of a situation I should have stuck with: I had felt unable to follow Arnold Mindell’s advice to ‘sit in the fire.’ The hurt I felt meant I kept my distance for a while: because my reaction had caused hurt in its turn, the dear ones I’d hurt did the same.

I had then almost immediately forgotten the thought about the Mariner, as we do. Now it had come to mind again, a stream of questions came flooding in. Had this left me as disconnected as the mariner was from life, or at least from people? Had the distrust engendered by the hurt I felt contaminated my close connection with people so that I felt that only books, art and nature could be completely trusted, apart from three tried and tested people? Was I now keeping my distance as a result? Was all my blogging about interconnectedness simply an attempt to heal this wound or compensate for the ‘crime’ or both?

While all of that has more than a grain of truth in it of course, and the albatross-exterminating stranded-mariner metaphor helped me to discover it, there is another way of looking at this area, which is complementary not contradictory. This involves switching from the ship metaphor altogether, even at the cost of abandoning the crew idea, though I really like it. This second model focuses more on how to avoid shooting albatrosses in the first place, rather than the feelings of being cut off and stranded afterwards.

In the introduction to Consciousness beyond Life, Pim van Lommel introduces a helpful analogy that is being used quite widely by those who share his point of view:

Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. . . . . . The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.

Because I’m very drawn to this metaphor, as well as to the band-with idea that goes right back to FWH Myers in the 19th century, though he was obviously thinking more in terms of a spectrum such as colour rather than the internet, I am tempted to conceptualise my problem another way.

Transceivers can send as well receive data. They are also subject to interference. The interference, to simplify somewhat, is partly a tuning problem but is also related to internal self-generated signals that result either from a meaningless malfunction or a leakage from a coherent but unwanted source. Consciousness in the context of this discussion is the operator, with the power to determine the next move, and hoping to get accurate feedback and proper control so that it can make the best possible decision about what to do right now. It’s strongest card in this respect is its ability to buy time by putting on hold recommendations already made, sometimes powerfully, elsewhere in the brain system.

A Three-Brain Model Traffic lightUnfortunately, the operator finds it very difficult at best, and sometimes impossible, to achieve that ideal state of affairs. Either it finds itself tuned to the wrong but utterly compelling wavelength, the reptilian brain for example screaming blue murder from somewhere below and wanting to shoot albatrosses right left and centre, or possibly a timid advisor, over-socialised and compliant, who just wants a quiet life at any cost and would rather not comment for fear of offending someone. Fiddling with the dials in a search of better input it might stumble across a channel that asserts with almost irresistible parental confidence that it knows exactly what God wants, only to shift a couple of megahertz along to find an equally compelling voice arguing for one’s deepest desires as the best guide.

As long as consciousness can stand back from all of this and recognise it for what it is – neural noise, mostly – it can refrain from acting out any of this advice, including ‘Shoot the albatross!’ Indeed, it has the power, as long as it’s in any doubt as to who to believe, not to act at all but simply stand back – Malcolm Kendrick, in his book Doctoring Data, has a witty reversal of the standard saying that applies here: not, ‘Don’t just stand there, do something,’ but ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!’ And that’s where I feel am right now, rather as the diagram illustrates. So much so that I feel that perhaps the essence of the best of who I am right now, in such testing situations, lies in my capacity to watch and wait.

I find myself wondering whether all this cacophony of confidence which I hear around me about what to do in emotionally loaded and often complex situations is completely misguided, even though it leaves me feeling and seeming so ‘weak’ in my not being able to decide what to do. The pressure to rush to a decision, any decision no matter how little we really understand what’s going on, seems better to almost everyone than not deciding anything at all. It’s so obviously better to kill an albatross than do nothing. The use of pesticides such as DDT, which brought the bald eagle and peregrine falcon to the brink of extinction in the States, or CFCs in fridges, which hacked a great hole in the ozone layer, would be good examples of this tendency when expressed on a global scale.

And yet to me deep down deciding anything so important too fast is a grave mistake. But that feeling is so out of step with convention that I doubt my doubt, and its demand for more time. I often end up convincing myself to do something, to react at any price, because I can’t stand the tension of waiting any longer, nor the degree of displeasure and incomprehension from others – my position, or apparent lack of it, seems so pointless. I can’t see my uncertainty as the rational position it could sometimes be, and well worth defending, in spite of all my desk-bound rationalisations shared, for example, in the Eclipse of Certainty sequence, to be republished later.

Maybe this is partly why I ignored the whispers saying I should hang on in there, shot the albatross in the heat of the conflict situation, and betrayed myself in the process. At least I think it was. Maybe this, rather surprisingly, is the spiritual lesson Bahá’u’lláh wants me to learn from all this crackle in my system. Can I, should I make a virtue of uncertainty, at least in some circumstances, and have the courage of my confusion? This feels closely parallel to the need I met a long time ago to master the art of what I saw referred to as ‘negative self-assertion’ in terms of my introversion in highly extravert settings.[1]

We need to dig more deeply into that next time.

Footnote:

[1] I can’t now trace where I first latched onto this idea. To those who are interested, all I can say is that it means learning, as a person with a soft style, how to assert who you are without betraying it. Women and introverts frequently face this challenge, the former easily falling into the trap of becoming masculine-aggressive and the latter of behaving in a loud over-sociable way. Obviously, finding out how to assert uncertainty is similar challenge.

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Dore STC Holmes p144

Picture scanned from ‘Coleridge: Early Visions’ Richard Holmes (page 144)

The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God. But sincerity, justice, humility, severance, and love for the believers of God will purify the mirror and make it radiant with reflected rays from the Sun of Truth.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Coleridge (1834) Rime of the Ancient Mariner (lines 115-118)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

Events over the last four years have taught me a lot. It would be tedious in the extreme to bore you with all the details. The events were of the kind exemplified in the first post of the sequence about the Three ‘I’s.

What I want to talk about just now is the way that a poem, which I had translated and which raised interesting questions for a friend, led to a breakthrough into a different angle of understanding, enriched admittedly both by my recent practice of mindfulness, my intense encounter with van Gogh in Amsterdam, and my long-standing struggle with the processes of reflection and disidentification in general.

Three Brains

To understand fully what I’m going to be saying I need to take a brief detour at this point into the three-brain model, which I’ve already dealt with on this blog. I looked at the work of Charles Tart, especially his book Waking Up. He is influenced heavily in this by Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

I have now tweaked that model somewhat in the light of my own experience, trying to integrate some previously unmentioned aspects and also to make more explicit ways to begin using it in practice while keeping it as simple as possible. I have not repeated some of the detailed suggestions in the Three ‘I’s sequence such as how to work with dreams, as these are accessible still on this blog.

Emotions and feelings of various kinds are triggered by the content of experience at every level.

A Three-Brain Model BasicThose at the instinctual, limbic system or ‘gut’ level tend to be linked to survival and are frequently negative involving fear (flight) and anger (fight). The other ‘f’ words, such as ‘food,’ usually trigger pleasure and other more positive responses. We tend to react strongly and quickly to all such triggers: there isn’t much thought, if any at all involved. It’s very much a flash point situation which can make catching ourselves in time before we react a bit of a problem. It takes practice.

At the intellectual, left-brain or ‘head’ level, the nature of feelings will depend upon the content and difficulty of whatever preoccupies our thinking processes. When we have a complex problem we end up having to work things out more slowly and what comes out after a longer period is a calculated decision rather than a gut reaction. I’ve been over much of this ground in recording my responses to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow so I won’t rehash it all in detail here.

At the right-brain level of intuition, which can be termed the ‘heart,’ where holistic and creative processes tend to take place, emotions are overall usually more positive. Love and compassion are more frequently experienced at this level. It takes time for these processes to produce a sense of what to do next and more time still for us to explain what that is to our thinking mind. I have called the outcome here a ‘resolution’ because that word contains both the idea of resolving a problem and achieving a firm resolve about tackling it.

I will come back in the last post of this sequence to an examination of how to apply this model to any given situation.

Stranded Mariners

The poem in question was my rendering in English of Machado’s A Crazy Song, in particular the line I chose to render as ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed.’

A Crazy Song

My friend’s comment was unexpected:

. . . I was struck by your line ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed’.  Several images and connections arise:  The ship is like our conscious or personal self, . . . . If the ship is becalmed there is no wind in its sails, and the sea itself is barely moving.  So the reason for the ship’s lack of movement has its origin outside the conscious self, . . . . .  The ship is a symbol for the personal Will (in psychosynthesis) and its crew is the multiplicity of our subpersonalities, hundreds of different selves which work in unison to make sail across the ocean. But in the becalmed ship the crew are all waiting, they can do nothing. . . . . . Perhaps [there are issues] need[ing] resolution in order to find some wind for your sails?

My immediate reaction was to dismiss the idea of present relevance. I had seen the translation I made as drawing on past experiences to mediate the transference of the emotional meaning of the poem for me from Spanish into English. I resonated so strongly to the original poem, I felt, because I’d been there, done that and got the t-shirt.

However, because I have learned that when this friend asks a question or raises an issue there is usually something substantial behind it, I went back to the original text. In doing so I came realise that ‘transference’ is an interesting word to have used in this context.

I went back to check out what I’d added to or subtracted from the original, which reads at that point:

Y no es verdad, dolor, yo te conozco,
tú eres nostalgia de la vida buena
y soledad de corazón sombrío,
de barco sin naufragio y sin estrella.

[Literal Translation: ‘But that’s not it – pain, I know you better: you are the longing for the happy days, the loneliness that fills the sombre heart, that haunts the ship unfoundering (ie ‘unwrecked’) and unstarred.’]

Clearly rotting and becalmed are my associations to what Machado wrote.

Whereas at first I had thought that I was simply rendering the spirit of the Spanish into an English equivalent, I’d clearly gone beyond it. So, in support of the ‘been there, done that’ theory, I argued to myself that perhaps I was referring back to some earlier state of mind and using the Spanish as a bridge to help me recreate it.

For example, at the time I was learning Spanish both at school, and later when a Spanish Assistante came to work at the college I was teaching at, I was still locked in my dissociation from or denial of the emotional turmoil of my childhood, up to and including my father’s death when I was 24. Not until my rather risky experiences with Reichian and Janovian breathing therapies (see link) at the hands of amateurs did I open Pandora’s box and discover what I really felt and really wanted to do – till then it had all been about addictive pastimes to help me keep shut down.

In one blog post I described it as follows:

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

I’m not sure why so many of my important experiences have such an aquatic flavour. Actually, I think I know why: anyone interested could check out an earlier post, which hints at the connection.

Anyway, after those moments, psychology/psychotherapy became the wind in my sails. I had reasons for wishing to become properly qualified in this area, having witnessed, as I saw it, the potential damage amateurs could do to the vulnerable (but that’s another story). I wanted to make a positive difference, something I couldn’t do outside the system against which I had rebelled. So I came back in, got a job, worked in mental health and found my vocation.

Finding the Bahá’í Faith put more wind in my sails. I thought the ‘painted ship upon a painted ocean’ experience that the Ancient Mariner describes was behind me. The imagery didn’t apply anymore to the present, did it?

Then, I began to wonder whether such a state might still be active somewhere underneath consciousness. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time I had failed fully to understand my own poem, let alone my translation of someone else’s. It’s some consolation to think that if you can completely understand a poem you’ve written, it probably isn’t much good.

Anyway, because she questioned what I might have meant and whether it applied to me and to what extent, a key association came to mind, the probable original source of those kinds of images for this kind of purpose. Surprise, surprise, it was Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Coleridge’s life has always fascinated me. He was 26 when he published this, younger than Keats when he died at 28 and younger than van Gogh when he started painting at 27 – extremely young to have composed, over what seems to have been a brief period of five months before first publication, such a powerful and dark poem. At least one biographer regards it as uncannily prophetic of his later life and all its suffering. He kept tinkering with the poem over a period of many years. It clearly was of profound significance to him.

In the next post I’ll be looking closely at the implication of this association for governing our reactions to experience. The poem would seem to have left a deeper mark on me than I had ever realised.

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Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

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.

Ship STC
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.

Michael Schmidt, in his massive overview of poetry in English – Lives of the Poetsastutely remarks (page 384):

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.

The Theme

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.

The Inspiration

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.

Dante0130

‘The Angels descending the Heavenly Ladder’ by Gustave Dore (for source of image see link)

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.

The Theme

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.

Beech hedge

The Inspiration

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.

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Mont_Blanc_depuis_Valmorel

Mont Blanc (for source of image see link)

How is it possible for a person who simply sets words to paper, who plucks a string or dabs colour on a canvas, to play… a remarkable role in the spiritual life of man? The key lies in the fact that art has a direct and real effect on the human soul.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 81)

As I have 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! 

At the end of the previous post it was clear that Shelley had still a lot to learn both as an artist and as a man.

A Breakthrough

What can we learn about how his poetic faculty developed? I’ll skate over his early efforts, such as Queen Mab and focus on the points at which there appeared to be breakthrough in his work. For example, Holmes expresses the feeling in his thorough biography (page 288):

In the effort to face his certain aspects of himself, his attempts and failures to set up constant and happy relations with those around him, he made a breakthrough into a new kind of reflective writing.

Holmes is referring here to ‘Oh, there are spirits of the air.’ Though the published dedication is to Coleridge, Holmes feels Shelley is talking to himself. This would not be the only example of Shelley’s choosing to distance himself from the directly personal content of his writing and disguise its relevance to him from the eyes of others by such a subterfuge.

While I find the style of the poem strained and overwrought, there are clearly moments of intense insight almost successfully captured. For instance, Shelley exclaims:

Still dost thou hope that greeting hands,
Voice, looks, or lips, may answer thy demands?
. . . . Did thine own mind afford no scope
Of love, or moving thoughts to thee?

As this biography progressed and the quality of the poetry improved, there seemed a clear pattern: grappling with his personal challenges fuelled the insights that sparked the better poems. This was further facilitated by certain external triggers that were not necessarily stressful. We will see this, for example, when Shelley engages with Byron at length for the first time.

Holmes also sees another dynamic at work. When Shelley was involved in self-mocking social interactions (page 292), the ‘combination of public joking and private poetic meditation can be seen to recur as a pre-creative condition.’

At the same time Shelley appeared to be developing, somewhat ahead of his time (page 295), ‘the notion of an objective psychology’ and used dream analysis as a tool, though he continued to find it difficult ‘to analyse himself, to follow the stream to its source.’

Shelley described the state of mind, which for him connected self-understanding and creativity (page 298):

Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being.

In the second long poem of his life, Alastor, he attempted to create a picture (page 300) ‘of a developing psychological state.’ He uses scenes and landscapes to convey mental states. But we are still a long way from the poetic achievements of his relative maturity, the ones I want to focus on the most.

His experiences in the Alps contributed to his writing poetry that further developed his thinking. His poem Mont Blanc (page 341) explores ‘three levels of human consciousness,’ namely ‘human imagination, material phenomena and . . . hypothetical divinity.’ For Shelley ‘the natural world held no other intelligent divinity except the mind of man.’

My edition of Shelley

My copy of Shelley’s Poetry, bought in 1961

Shelley & Byron

It was in Venice in 1819, as a result of Shelley’s deepening relationship with Lord Byron, that Holmes feels we begin to see appearing the first of Shelley’s masterpieces (page 449): Julian and Maddalo.

I must admit, at this point, that I had never even heard of this poem. Looking at my first copy of Shelley, bought more than fifty years ago, Julian and Maddalo is one of three long non-satirical poems not marked as read. My exploration of Shelley had stalled at the earlier Revolt of Islam, after feeling moved by Ode to the West Wind, impressed by two of his sonnets – Ozymandias and England in 1819 – and finally frustrated by the strained rhetoric of Adonais. I went back to Byron for a while, before settling my affections on Wordsworth, to some extent, and on Coleridge more whole-heartedly.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Holmes explains the characters and impetus of the poem (page 450):

Maddalo [Byron] is a philosophic pessimist and cynic, who pretends to believe that most men are mere sheep and that all men are at the mercy of chance and circumstance and their own passions. Julian [Shelley] chooses to argue as a progressive and an optimist, believing that men’s circumstances can be changed, that society is capable of continuous improvement, and that individuals can in the end command their own faculties and fates.

He quotes the poem to illustrate his point:

Of all that earth has been or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint or suffering may achieve,
We descanted, and I (for ever still
Is it not wise to make the best of ill?)
Argu’d against despondency, but pride
Made my companion take the darker side.

He stops short of the next three brilliant lines:

The sense that he was greater than his kind
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
By gazing on its own exceeding light.

The directness of the language, I agree with Holmes, is such a refreshing change from most of his earlier work, as is the accessibility of his insight into character. I am amazed and disappointed that I never knew this poem till now. It is a radical advance. Later he would find that time spent with Byron undermined his poetic productivity, but happily not yet.

Holmes then points towards a central even pivotal episode in the poem (page 455): their encounter with the ‘Maniac.’ He doesn’t quote this passage (lines 358-368) but I find this about the best short section to give an impression of how he is conveying what he is saying:

Believe that I am ever still the same
In creed as in resolve; and what may tame
My heart must leave the understanding free,
Or all would sink in this keen agony;
Nor dream that I will join the vulgar cry;
Or with my silence sanction tyranny;
Or seek a moment’s shelter from my pain
In any madness which the world calls gain,
Ambition or revenge or thoughts as stern
As those which make me what I am; or turn
To avarice or misanthropy or lust.

The combination of power and simplicity is characteristic. In spite of the abstractions, the emotional force and personal meaning is not lost. It is possible that the Maniac’s monologue is excessively long and therefore somewhat out of balance, and that the close of the poem, which refuses to define the exact nature of his end, may be more an indication that Shelley had no more idea than the rest of us about what was going to happen, rather than the sign of a suitably mysterious finale.

Holmes’s analysis of what is going on here is interesting (ibid):

The Maniac is like a dream that visits Julian and Maddalo simultaneously, and some of what he says refers indirectly to their own conscious or waking experience. Rather than a real character of person, he is part of a person, the part which lies below the threshold of consciousness. It is symbolic that he is both found and left asleep by his visitors.

It is important to note here that Ann Wroe, in Being Shelley, very much sees the Maniac as a projection of Shelley alone (page 33):

In Julian and Maddalo… Shelley played two characters made odd, or mad, by their dreams. He was both the serious, idealistic Julian… and a Maniac in the madhouse, demented by lost love, who still sang by moments his beautiful and unbidden songs.

This interpretation is reinforced by Maddalo’s saying that the Maniac spoke as Julian did.

Whichever perspective is true, and I am going with Wroe on this one, given my fascination with the idea of ‘subliminal uprush’ it is intriguing indeed to toy with the possibility that Shelley has explored this explicitly in this poem. I need to read and re-read the poem far more often than I have done to-date before I can comment more on that.

The fascination of the poem does not stop there. It contains ideas concerning the triggers to write poetry (page 456):

Maddalo recalls the power of [the Maniac’s] language, . . . . .
And I remember one remark which then
Maddalo made. He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Julian’s reaction is also significant, though he is described as being unable to follow through with his idea of healing the Maniac’s state of mind:

. . . . I imagined that if day by day
I watched him, and but seldom went away,
And studied all the beatings of his heart
With zeal, as men study some stubborn art
For their own good, and could by patience find
An entrance to the caverns of his mind,
I might reclaim him from this dark estate.

Colney Hatch

Colney Hatch Asylum (later Friern Mental Hospital). For source see link.

Progress So Far

The compassionate impulse those lines capture and the understanding of the patient presence that would be required suggests that Shelley’s understanding of the human mind has increased considerably as a result of his painful life experiences at this point. And, what’s equally important, he has learnt how to capture such insights with power and clarity.

I am supposing that life’s tests have taught him the insights, and determined practice of his art has given him the skills.

Whether the inspiration for any particular poem is subliminal, at least in part, is not yet clear. What Holmes clarifies later is that Shelley saw the ‘passion for penetrating into the mysteries of our being,’ as a religious impulse (page 515).

Holmes’s comments are again most helpful here (page 456): ‘The underground cavern or labyrinth was to recur again and again in Shelley’s Italian writing, as an image of the spiritual quest for the truth about oneself.’ He regards Julian and Maddalo (page 457) as ‘perhaps the most subtle . . . . and the most suggestive [of Shelley’s major poems] in terms of psychological analysis.’ It set the standard for him of ‘realistic’ writing. It also revealed a capacity for self-criticism with its emphasis on ‘the values of psychological understanding, self knowledge and personal experience.’

I feel that even with these advances Shelley’s poetry is still falling short of the standard he seems to have set himself in the Preface to The Cenci I quoted in an earlier post:

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

Holmes points to forward to events that may thrust Shelley further on. He feels that Shelley had suffered much in order to become capable of such an achievement as Julian & Maddalo, though sadly more suffering was yet to come for him and all those close to him, as the episode involving Elise and the birth of Elena, explored in an earlier post, testifies.

In the next post I mainly explore one of Shelley’s political poems.

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Resist oppression with justice, oppose tyranny with equity, and respond to bloodthirstiness with loving kindness.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá quoted on 8 May 2015 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of Iran)

As I have 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! The role of trauma in his life is again emphasised:

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt.

Yet more I will need to note and reflect upon in the light of what I have recently been learning.

As the previous posts have made clear, I hope, I am seeking to understand more deeply the nature of the relationship between the art and the artist who creates it, as well, if possible, as shedding some light on what kind of role contemporary reality has on that relationship. An important aspect of this exploration will be the positive impact of the arts on society, and not only by means of protest songs such as the one above and in previous posts.

I have decided at this point to do this by looking at the art in the light of the artist’s biography.

Almost by accident, and because I came at him initially with very few details about his life or art, I’m going to test out this approach with Shelley. An overview of key developments in his poetry and his thinking will take up the next four posts, before the fifth post moves onto the implications for my own tentative general model.

The Man & his Times

Ann WroeSome Impacts of Early Experience

How his early experiences affected Shelley as an artist is a complex matter to grapple with.

Given what we learned about Shelley’s early life in the second pair of posts, how did things develop for the poet in him as he grew older?

Holmes, in his biography of Shelley, expresses the feeling that (page 64) he was both ‘fascinated and terrified by the workings of his own mind’ and that ‘the secret workings of his own personality and the half-hidden movements of his own mind at a subconscious level were for him an ever-deepening source of imagery, and poetic myth-making.’

Ann Wroe’s thoughtful study, Being Shelleyquotes Shelley’s poems and notebooks many times to illustrate this point. He writes of (page 183) ‘The caverns of the mind,’ which seem ”obscure & shadowy’ or ‘beautifully bright.’ She appropriates his words from the Preface to The Cenci, confident that words he used to explain one of the aspects of religion in Protestant countries could be applied to the poet himself (page 184):

A gloomy passion for penetrating the impenetrable mysteries of our being, which terrifies its possessor at the darkness of the abyss to the brink of which it has conduct of him.

Interestingly, on another important point, as I read the Preface myself, I discovered a passage that is quoted neither by Holmes in his entire book nor by Wroe completely.

The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.

In this passage Shelley has given me a criterion of his own to help me judge the value of not only his dramatic works but of his poetry as a whole.

In spite of what his contemporaries, and perhaps even Shelley himself in his public persona, saw as his atheism, according to Holmes he seemed to believe (page 65) that ‘the mind and the soul were separate and different entities.’

Coleridge provides what is perhaps one of the most astute comments on the relationship between Shelley, the man, and Shelley, the poet (page 94):

Shelley was a man of great power as a poet… and could he only have had some notion of order, could [he] only have [had] some place to stand, and look down upon his mind, he would have succeeded.

This relates to the caveat that Myer’s had about the poetry of Blake (Irreducible Mind: page 445):

Myers. . . . . regards Blake as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: “throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow” (Human Personality, vol 1, page 73).

I will need to keep an eye on this issue in relation to Shelley when I come to form my conclusions.

Holmes ShelleyBasically, as Holmes summarised and I quoted in a previous post (page 21):

Of the damage that the early Eton experience did to him, repeating and reinforcing the Syon House pattern and reaction, there can be little doubt. Fear of society en masse, fear of enforced solitude, fear of the violence within himself and from others, fear of withdrawal of love and acceptance, all these were implanted in the centre of his personality so that it became fundamentally unstable and highly volatile. Here to seem to lie the sources of his compensatory qualities: his daring, his exhibitionism, his flamboyant generosity, his instinctive and demonstrative hatred of authority.

This instability may account for the uneven quality of his work, especially but not only the early poems.

The Influence of Recent Events on Shelley’s Political Beliefs

Shelley’s political views, in addition to being shaped by his personal background, were also formed against a backdrop of the aftermath of the French Revolution, its subsequent terrifying transformations into various forms of tyranny, and the English recoil from what they were observing from across the channel. William Godwin and his circle (page 122) felt that ‘revolutionary mobs do not in the end bring liberty, but civil war followed by some form of tyranny.’ In the wake of the indiscriminate bloodshed of the French Revolution, and in the face of the apparently irreversible tendency of humanity to spill even more blood since on an industrial scale, much ink has been spilt in countless attempts to explain it.

For present purposes it is perhaps enough to note the contention in Jonathan Haidt’s humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ which suggests that idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Earthly PowersThis powerful idea may have its roots in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution which, he feels, took on ‘that appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries’ (quoted in Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers – page 3), and flowering in Dawson’s simpler version of Eric Vogelin (page 8) when he wrote, ‘this determination to build Jerusalem, at once and on the spot, is the very force which is responsible for the intolerance and violence of the new political order.’

This tendency of idealism to make the ends justify the most abhorrent of means, and humanity’s addiction to making a quasi-religion out of terror as a result, continues to this day, morphing through Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism to the horror of Isis/Daesh right at this moment.

I am fully aware that statisticians can reassure us that we have never had it so good (see link for the full exploration):

In the UK, Matt Ridley has been beating his Rational Optimist drum for years, while Harvard professor Steven Pinker argued persuasively in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence is on the decline. Presiding over the field is Hans Rosling, the Swedish professor who is the closest thing statistics has ever had to a rock star. His TED talk The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen has been viewed more than 10m times. Last month the BBC aired a lecture, timed to coincide with new UN development goals (and made with input from Roser), called How to End Poverty in 15 Years. Rosling lectures all over the world to rapturous audiences, making his points with humour, striking visuals and the occasional flash of temper with interviewers who don’t get it.

But we still have a long way to go when you consider the absolute numbers of the dying rather than the percentage they constitute of the world’s population, and that extremism may not be as easily containable in a world where fanaticism could suddenly gain access to technologies capable of killing thousands, and possibly millions in a matter of moments.

Given the escalating responses of the major powers to the slaughter in Paris, it seems to me we might be entering a dangerous zone where revenge can be rationalised as self-defence, and those who raise legitimate questions about this approach can be dismissed as weak, confused or wooly-minded. We may have stepped more deeply into the black and white world of the reptilian brain, and the consequences could be even blacker than we feared.

We should have no difficulty really putting ourselves into Shelley’s shoes as he gazed on a landscape where his own government, as we shall see, could gun down unarmed protestors, and the government overseas had morphed from freedom fighters through totalitarian mass murderers to a one-man dictatorship threatening the whole continent. It is tragically ironic that it is now this same country that has suffered so much so recently from dystopian terror from overseas.

After his return from Ireland and his first entry into the field of anti-establishment politics (page 131), what he had seen there left an indelible impact on his mind and art:

The confrontation with the physical facts of poverty, disease and brute ignorance was an experience which never left Shelley, and they were to fill his best writing with images of macabre force. The issue of violent change was brought forward as a central question in his political thinking.

He was beginning to develop a remarkably advanced view of where society, religion and politics should be heading, though he had further to travel yet. In an 1812 pamphlet to Lord Ellenborough, he wrote (page 155):

The time is rapidly approaching, I hope, that you, my Lord, may live to behold its arrival, when the Mahometan, the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist will live together in one community, equally sharing the benefits which arise from association, and united in the bonds of brotherhood love

At this stage of his life, though, his overall vision was less than impressive. Holmes summarises it (page 201):

What Shelley was preaching came to be understood by his friends, and by his enemies, as a vision of the good life based on atheism, free love, republicanism and vegetarianism: a combination of the enlightened, the millennial and the cranky.

I rather resent the implication there that vegetarianism is cranky and atheism enlightened, but I accept his basic point about Shelley.

800px-John_Everett_Millais_-_Ophelia_-_Google_Art_Project

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1852) is part of the Tate Gallery collection.

His View of Personal Relationships

According to Holmes, Shelley’s emphasis on love is marred by two very major blemishes (page 207-08):

The first is his blindness to the intrinsic value of constancy in human relations… His second blindness was to the way in which children made a fundamental alteration to the direction and responsibilities of a love relationship

Relating to the first point, in Epipsychidion, the poem that examines his own development, he writes eloquently, though with a kind of superior self-congratulating tunnel vision:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread,
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so,
With one chained friend, and perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.

Sadly ‘he was to pay dearly – and make others pay dearly – for his personal blindness in both these respects.’ His first wife, Harriet, was not the only victim, though perhaps the one who suffered most. Her pain at his abandonment of her, and of their children, which was invisible to him much of the time, drove her eventually to suicide (page 238):

. . . . busy with the excitement of [the planned expedition with his new love and her sister], Harriet’s pain and misery was obviously quite unreal to him.

This was completely typical (page 255) of the ‘total lack of understanding’ or ‘sympathy towards his wife’s feelings’ that he consistently displayed throughout this whole period. As my understanding of this issue shifts with the insights Emma has shared in her comments on my earlier posts, I can see that this is more likely to be the result of his narcissism rather than the effects of his traumatic schooling.

At this stage of his life (page 246) he was espousing ‘wholesale political terrorism and violence’ as the way of ‘liberating and freeing a “civilised” society.’ It would be sometime before he worked his way to a more temperate position.

Clearly at this stage he had neither learnt the lessons of the French Revolution about where the use of violence to achieve positive ends might lead, nor come to understand through pain what others close to him really suffered.

The next post begins to see an uplift in his poetry and in his understanding.

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[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 102)

As I am about to bring Shelley back into the frame with my next new post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago part way through. I will be checking each post carefully before I republish as I want to try and flag up places where my new understanding of the role of trauma shaping personality might help me see where any trauma in Shelley’s history might have had an impact on his art. The first three re-published posts will be run consecutively. Others will follow after Monday’s new post.

As I explained in Monday’s post, at this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process, and not just in terms of the protest songs I discussed in the last post.

For reasons that may become slightly clearer as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors. Before we close in on the man himself, I felt I needed to say a bit more about my journey towards this particular choice. There were after all other poets I knew better and liked far more.

Tintern Abbey (for source of image see link)

“Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures” by Samuel Colman (for source of image see link)

The Limitations of Protest Alone

Admittedly even my infatuation, in the poems I quoted last time, with Byron’s pointed cynicism or Shelley’s dark condemnation did not entirely replace the powerful tug of what I have always felt are Wordsworth’s greatest lyrics, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey and Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. They touched on a sense of the transcendent, which is of course not incompatible with protest against injustice, but takes things to an altogether different level. Again my mind was ringing to the melody of many remembered lines (From the Ode:lines 59-67).

The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Or (From Lines written a few Miles above Tintern Abbey: lines 96-103):

                                      And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Something of the same current can be detected at times in the poet I have chosen to explore, but it feels more strained and less convincing, which may account for the extreme darkness of some of his poetry.

More consistently I resonated also to Keats’s greatest poems as an earlier post on this blog testifies, as does another post register my current debt to Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner, something that also goes back many years – through May 1982 as a diary entry of mine testifies – to my years at secondary school.

The diary entry in part reads:

At 17 I stopped up the wellsprings of my deepest feelings when I turned my back on all religions. I am now parching with a spiritual thirst – my main priority is to find out what I need to slake it.

I then quoted the same passage of spiritual insight from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as I have used in the blog post I linked to above.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

I then continue:

Tonight after I have prepared my meal I shall return to this journal to reflect upon what I need to do now. I have wasted half my life on vanities. I do not want to throw away the rest. . . . . Buddhism and meditation, in this last year mainly, have done so much to free my mind from its old debilitating patterns. I would be very foolish not to continue with my meditation and at least a minimum of Buddhist reading. Do I need to do more?

Seven months later I declared as a Bahá’í, but that is another story.

Not surprising, then, that I find Coleridge far more appealing, in spite of his evident frailties. He seems more rounded as a person than all the other Romantics, more complexly spiritual than Wordsworth (though undoubtedly a touch too abstractly philosophical at times) and far less egocentric than Byron. Keats I loved but his tragically short life left him somehow incomplete.

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

A Charismatic Teacher

Two post-romantics, Tennyson & Browning, were also important to me, the one mainly for his brilliant collection of lyrical meditations on loss known as In Memoriam, and the latter mostly for his brilliant handling of the dramatic monologue – but more of them another time perhaps.

My strong connection with those two poets I owe to a charismatic English Teacher at my secondary school. He was an unlikely inspiration at first sight. He was short and round, steel-rimmed spectacles with round pebble-thick lenses perched on the end of his nose. But his enthusiasm for the poetry was infectious. He paced and bounced back and forth at the front of the classroom, the sunlight glinting back at us from his glasses, as he probed our hearts for responses to the challenges of verse.

He somehow managed to convey to us, at the age of 15 in our Fourth Year, the rich layers of meaning in even a poem as complex as Browning’s Abt Vogler, which captures the experience of the organist:

All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—

It may be no coincidence, in the light of my present concerns, that this poem explores the relationship between music and spirituality. Most of that aspect passed right over my adolescent head, though it may have registered subconsciously. Mind you, now that music can be recorded Browning might have had to steer Abt Vogler along a slightly different track.

I can remember though the impact of his enthusiasm to this day. I doubt that such a poem would find its way into any classroom nowadays, such is the pressure to equip our children to be effective cogs in the competitive economic machine we have come to believe is the peak of civilisation.

In the sixth form he taught us how to approach Tennyson’s outpourings of grief before most of us had the faintest idea of the agony loss can cause.

Without exposure to such art our sensibility is incalculably impoverished and our ability to contribute to bettering our world will be seriously impaired. Maybe that was partly what Pink Floyd were protesting about in their bleak song Another Brick in the Wall, as the powerful video below brings to life.

Coming onto Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

So, why am I not starting with one or other of those poets?

I’d better start by admitting that my head doesn’t really understand my choice of Shelley at this point. I’m simply following my intuition here. Let’s hope my head catches up completely before the end of this sequence of posts, as I’ll need its help to make some sense of it all. What follows is my best attempt to understand the direction I have chosen to take.

Well, it was my interest in Coleridge that triggered me to read Richard Holmes’s excellent twovolume biography. That in turn meant that when I saw his biography of Shelley on the shelves of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye last year I immediately snapped it up, even though Shelley has always been my least favourite poet of the Romantic period.

I’m still not quite sure why I decided to pull it off the shelf and begin to read it at last. After all, it was what I experienced as Shelley’s combination of ethereal intensity and chaotic sensibility that repelled me from his longer poems in the first instance, and nothing had happened since to change my mind. The decision to learn about his life possibly came from another level.

Initially, my recent reading of this biography did little to dispel my negative perception.

However, as my reading of this 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced by examples of his capacity for kindness, even generosity at times, by the increasing breadth of his understanding, and by the increasing depth and accessibility of even some of his longer poetry. I became intrigued and wanted to try and understand the dynamics of that better, while also wondering whether this might all shed some more light on the factors that influence our levels of altruism, as well as on our responses to and understanding of violence and terror.

Suddenly his life began to seem exactly what I needed to reflect on now. It looked like Shelley might be a fruitful biographical test case to get me started on my quest to understand what puzzles me so intensely.

I need to mention at this point that I am also reading a book by Ann Wroe called Being Shelley: the poet’s search for himself. As she describes it, the book (page ix) ‘is an attempt to write the life of the poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature. It is a book about Shelley the poet, rather than Shelley the man.’ She quotes Shelley as stating in a letter written in 1821 (ibid.): ‘The poet & the man . . . . are two different natures; though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other . . .’

Intriguingly Alan Bennet exploits this idea in his script for The Lady in the Van, though in his case the writer and the man communicate incessantly over what is happening. The film is worth watching, therefore, not only for Maggie Smith’s performance, but for the insights it gives into the creative process, though the trailer gives you no clue about that, sadly.

Wroe’s book clearly contains information relevant to my current task.

However, I have decided to focus most on Holmes’s more prosaic biography and other similar sources, only pulling in comments from Wroe’s book when I feel they add something of significance or illustrate a point more powerfully.

In this sequence of posts I will share a helicopter review of his life first. After that will come a discussion of some general ideas before I attempt to deal with his poetic development in detail, including some clues I have found in his biography about the source and nature of his creativity.

Only after that will I come to some tentative general conclusions intended to guide my subsequent investigations into the lives of other creative artists of various kinds, contrasted I hope with the Florence Nightingales and Indira Ghandis, to test whether there is a distinction to be made concerning the relationship between intense activity and personal life in the field of the arts as against in other domains, in the light of the conditions prevailing at the time.

I also eventually want to examine, further than I will be able to do here, the nature of poetry’s power. This of course requires making a distinction, that to some extent might be arbitrary, between poetry and verse.  Even my own limited experience of writing poetry suggests that there is such a distinction to be made. There are times when what I write is merely workmanlike. It is fundamentally pedestrian. It’s just verse. It has no spark. I have tried not to fall into the temptation of posting any of that on my blog.

Other poems seem to be alive in a way that I find it hard to describe. They often appear with whole lines or even passages more or less complete. They also have unexpected ideas, sometimes I even do not fully understand what I am writing (see link for one example). Whenever I have read a poet’s complete works I have found the same unevenness: one poem is sublime, the next one dull. Bob Dylan, in response to his being awarded the Nobel prize for literature, has admitted that he has to write 100 worthless songs for every good one. Also:

Gottfried Benn said: ‘No one, not even the greatest poets of our time, has left more than eight or ten perfect poems . . For six poems, thirty or fifty years’ asceticism, suffering, battle!’

(A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa & L. C. Taylor – page 18)

Dullness can even predominate in the published work. In the dedication to Don Juan, Byron made his famous comment on a poem of Wordsworth’s, that suggests that even the greatest can produce copious quantities of sub-standard work:

And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
       (I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
       Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
       And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

I also have to admit that this, in the end, comes down to a matter of taste when we discuss any particular poem, and taste is something learnt rather than innate. I found this out very early. Almost at the same time as one teacher was helping us gain access to Abt Vogler, another teacher was testing us in a different way. He came into the classroom with two poems and handed them round. He asked us to read them both and then decide which was the better of the two. Almost the whole class picked the same one. Only then did he explain that we had preferred a poem he’d written in his teens over one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

That complicates it all even more.

Anyhow, this whole enterprise may be hopelessly ambitious. It is very much a pilot study. It may be that the anarchic chaos of Shelley’s life will spread to my treatment of his art. This may not be a bad thing if I manage to rescue some reliable data from the maelstrom. They may be worth a great deal when I come to look at more orderly examples later, if I ever do. We’ll see how far I get before I run out of steam or ideas.

An irony I can’t resist mentioning at this point is that his personal life displayed the anarchy in a less violent form that he so detested in the political arena.

There will be more on Shelley tomorrow.

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Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

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)

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.

Ship STC
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.

Michael Schmidt, in his massive overview of poetry in English – Lives of the Poetsastutely remarks (page 384):

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.

The Theme

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.

The Inspiration

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.

Dante0130

‘The Angels descending the Heavenly Ladder’ by Gustave Dore (for source of image see link)

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.

The Theme

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.

Beech hedge

The Inspiration

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.

Next Monday takes me to the more difficult bit.

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