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Shelley's Defences of Poetry' Michael O'Neill Durham University

Autor:   •  October 20, 2017  •  23,182 Words (93 Pages)  •  214 Views

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Something comparable occurs at the close of "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley's major short poem. There, Shelley concludes his wrestling with the angel of the wind, at once verbally embodied "breath of Autumn's being" (2), and im- age of revolutionary inspiration, by shaping an apparently rhetorical question out of the final couplet of the five that turn headlong terza rimai nvocations and pleadings into ver- tiginous sonnets. Apparendy rhetorical, since Shelley prompts the reader to ask why there is any reason other than human desire that the spiritual, poetic, and political should model their processes of change on those evident in the cy- cles of the seasons. The compulsion to honour the drive to- wards betterment impels the poem through its progressive uncovering of the poet's "sore need" (52), a need for the wind's revivifying power to re-animate his words. In the last secdon, the poet rises, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of his sprawled abasement at the hand of chastising experience, ex- perience that forces him to exclaim, "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" (54). True to the reversals and shifts that make the ode a record of shaped but inwardly conflicted struggle rather than a polemical exhortation, Shelley, in this last section, pleads with the wind in such a way that plea be- comes impassioned command. He cries: "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth" (63-4). The lines concoct their own, very Shel- leyan blend of pathos and power, out of their ability to com- bine assertion, evident in the strong stress on "Drive," with awareness of failure, seen in the reference to "dead thoughts," and hope for the future, shown in the reference to the emphasized "new birth."

"Ode to the West Wind" wishes to "Scatter" (66) the poet's "words among mankind" (67), literally to disseminate them, "Ashes and sparks" (67) that will, the poem hopes, have the effect that, in A Defence of Poetry, Shelley ascribes to Dante's work and all "high poetry": a capacity to serve as prompts to "inextinguishable thought" (693). This sense of poetry as working on the reader's imagination is the spring of Shelley's poetic practice in Prometheus Unbound. It is not enough, for example, for us to dismiss Jupiter as "the tyrant of the world" (3. 4. 183); through Prometheus' double-signi- fying "recalling" of his curse, we have to recognise how tyr- anny takes two to dance its savage tango. The very hatred and contempt which Prometheus expresses towards Jupiter establish the two figures as caught up in a strangely twinned alliance, from which Prometheus can only break once he re- alizes the psychodynamics of his dependence on hatred. At the same time, enslaving as hatred can be, its expression is also a necessary first step in the eventual liberation imagined in the lyrical drama. As it moves beyond the rocky dungeon of the Caucasus, Prometheus Unbound continually appeals to the reader's desire to imagine the new, the transfigured, the yet to be. It does so through lyrical measures that appeal to yet brilliandy frustrate and redirect the senses into "thought's wildernesses" (1. 742), as in the "Life of Life!" (2. 5. 48) lyric chanted by a "Voice in the Air" to che transformed Asia; through dialogic scenes, as when Asia catechizes Demogor-

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gon about the origins of evil in 2. 5; through verse whose negations memorably allow the altered and the old to occupy the same poetic space, as when the Spirit of the Hour pro- claims that after the fall of Jupiter and the coming of a reno- vated world "None wrought his lips in truth-entangling lines" (3. 4. 142); and through visions whose re-organizing energy seems to mime the work of the imagination itself, as when Panthea in Act 4 depicts the earth as a "multitudinous Orb" (253) that "Grind the brigbt brook into an azure mist / Of elemental subtlety, like ligbt" (254-5). That "azure mist / Of elemental subtiety" bas a self-refiexive dimension and might describe tbe vision to wbich the poem tends. Yet, even at the end, Demogorgon is at hand to advise of the need, should tyranny return, "to hope, till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates" (4. 573-4); pushed into the rhyme position, "creates" assumes a special, self-generating heroism.

At the same time, in the roughly contemporaneous/M- lian and Maddalo, the Shelleyan surrogate Julian asserts, "Where is tbe love, beauty and truth we seek / But in our mind?" (374-5), only to be told by his friend and intellectual adversary, the Byronic Maddalo, 'You talk Utopia" (179). The poem, subtitled "A Conversation," uses its deftly modu- lating, frequendy enjambed couplets to create a poem of gripping interest. If we sway between Julian's optimism and Maddalo's electrifyingly autboritative pessimism, we are also taken in the depths of a third speaker's mind, the Maniac. Torn between a desire to repress and speak of emotional trauma, the Maniac speaks "Of the mind's hell" (441). He does so in tones tbat veer between near-paranoia and the confessionally anguished, even as be asserts that "to myself I do not wholly owe / What now I suffer" (321-2). The very syntax of that phrasing suggests the difficulty of understand- ing the self (and others). It is a difficulty enacted with great humaneness by a poem that at its close places us uncomforta- bly close to "the cold world" which "shall not know" (617), Julian decides, what happened between tbe Maniac and his Lady.

The libertarian bopefulness tbat is apparent in the Pro- metheus Unbound volume of 1820 concedes that hope's major guarantor is hope itself, a state inseparable from self-aware commitment to the imagination. In later poems Shelley gives greater prominence to the potentially perilous nature of the imagination. The Triumph oJLiJe, tbe poem on which he was working at the time of his death by drowning, uses its Dantes- can form, a dream-vision in fluid terza rima, to reassess the gap between aspiration and reality, between what "glimmers" as possibilities (see lines 33 and 431, and wbat appears to erase such possibilities. Different lights blaze, sbine, and gleam through the poem, now evoking the stars that give some form of approach to hope, now suggesting the ordinary ligbt of tbe sun that threatens to obliterate star-light, and now describing the blinding glare cast by the Car (or chariot) in which the ominous figure of Life sits. Over and over, his-

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