392. (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

The contrast between Hopkins and Shelley is so perfect in so many respects—atheist and Jesuit; a seeming see-saw of reputations; two radically different styles of incongruent poetry—as to make unsurprising that some element is profound and common to both. It is, I’ll suggest here, a rare sensitivity to the binding perplexities of the self, such as nobody can fail to find in Hopkins’ “Terrible Sonnets,” but which I until lately failed to adequately detect in Shelley’s lyrics. One way of putting it is that the essential axis upon which the poetry moves is vertical, upwards to (and by means of) the grace of inspiration and inspiration of grace, and downwards to the weight of the world by means of matter. But whereas Hopkins writes of, and from, the abrupt self, breaking and breaking against words, Shelley’s self, ensnared in the involutions and metamorphoses of his metaphorical apprehension of the material world, is itself likewise diffused. It is, as a consequence, more difficult to feel, and the axis of the poetry more difficult to locate. And whereas Hopkins foregrounds the will and Shelley foregrounds desire, Hopkins’ is subtly erotic, and Shelley subtly willful. To read Shelley’s, we should read him for how he registers and brings, not into sharp focus, but into tangled presence, the movement towards a sublime that is paradisical and free, even if the word “grace” cannot properly fit into it, while also dramatizing the incessant downwards pull to earth. And both often happen at once: Mont Blanc is both a center of gravity and a blank glimpse into something that escapes from gravity’s pull. What I am saying was admittedly said a long time ago by Matthew Arnold, who compared Shelley to an angel ineffectually beating its wings—and I think, though he didn’t intend it as a compliment, that Arnold is roughly right, wrong only in reducing Shelley to an object of fantasy, when the sense of self in the poetry is so keenly, painfully present. That Shelley could not escape his self is itself a criticism that has been repeated: in Adonais, the elegy somehow curls back to lick the poet’s own wounds; he could take solace, at inopportune moments in the verse, in expressing the need for solace. But maybe it was a risk he needed to run—as it was a risk Hopkins needed to court in “The Terrible Sonnets.” Like Hopkins, it might be said that the ineffectual strain yields a struggle and tumult of verse that lacks what Shelley himself, noting its absence in his poetry, referred to as the tranquility that is an accessory and accompaniment of genuine power. That word, “power,” is like Mont Blanc itself, pulled in two directions in the poetry—a source of earthly corruption and also transcendence. And that unease in the word itself, rather than a contradictory tension held in balance and equipoise, is itself indicative of  the absence of tranquility as Shelley, in his own image, is thrown like leaves on the wind, beholden to, acted upon by, power from both directions. The lack of tranquility in Hopkins looks different, but I don’t think it’s difficult to find it there, too (even Empson throws up his hands in exasperation at what is going on in “The Windhover”). In both poets, it has to do sometimes with the inadequate “placing” of what the poem is saying and doing; at other times, it is a consequence of bringing the Aeschylean flavor into English.

Shelley’s most distinctly excellent poem—the poem whose excellences are most representative of Shelley alone—is, without much controversy, “Ode to the West Wind,” and also, without much controversy, the note in the poem that jars most clearly against the others, that not only refuses to harmonizes, but that introduces a sense of discord that is itself foreign to the poem, is the line “I fall on the thorns of life! I bleed!”  Here, as Christopher Ricks has suggested, is Shelley at his most self-pitying; but it is, more generously than Ricks allows, also Shelley at his most self-aware, most aware of the weight of the self, so that the baldness of the assertion, the sudden suggestion of the body (in “bleed”), the shift to an allegorical field (religious in origin, but not only religion, the “thorns of life” being something out of Renaissance Romance too), the bare first-person declaration (in a poem where the first and second person are otherwise so inextricably co-dependent), the verbs and syntax that, suddenly in the poem, resort to a sturdy English subject-verb-object closure, and the verbs themselves, present-tense, strangely reporting on what is being suffered with a detachment that is belied by the pain they imply—all of this makes these lines unusual in the poem. In my experience of the poem, they are a disappointment, and in part that is because they solicit too actively the solace or consolation that is nowhere else in the poem to receive or give. But I also think, whatever their measure of success, their lack of accord was a calculated risk by Shelley, and it was undertaken because in these lines the language of the poem itself “falls” into the gravity of self; in them, the downward pull of experience, fleshly, emotional, vulnerable, self-pitying, yes, but also self-condemning, is felt; they are the mode against which the rest of the poem would struggle, from which it would rise. And they are a part of the poem because in this poem, where poet and wind and language and nature, where figure and figurer, are one, there is a persistent apprehension that the imagination itself, as well as the nature with which it coincides (as in German Idealism, or Aristotle, anima and world are one), are together, as a whole, the axis upon which the self can transcend or plummet; that they contain at once what Hopkins might call damnation as well as grace, both within us and exercised upon us from without, both activities of the will and directed upon the will. When Shelley writes “I fall on the thorns of life! I bleed!” his language itself tumbles downward, he loses the flight of the imagination, and the world itself, nature, is no longer available to him as a part of him; the thorns of life are not, as the wind, or leaves, or water or clouds, both figure and object outside of Shelley; they are figurative, and that dominance of figurative language as figurative language marks Shelley’s alienation (his fallenness) from the grace of his imaginative union with the world. The dissatisfaction they yield is perhaps a failure in the poem, but it is a stunning failure, and a failure that I think the poem sufficiently diagnosis within its own terms. It is after these that he suggests he is “one too like thee,” and with these lines he has entered into the reflective detachment consequent upon the break. The fourth section is desperate, analogous to a Terrible Sonnet in its sense of loss that might, with sufficient grace of the spiritus (wind) and works of the spirit, be recovered.

A more interesting, to me, case occurs in “Mont Blanc,” with the word “things.” It’s a crucial word in Wordsworth’s poetry, as in “The Tables Turned”:

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher.


She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless—

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.


One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.


Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—

We murder to dissect.


Whereas Wordsworth looks on it with reverence, a respect and awe for there being anything that is a thing at all, the thingness of things itself being a source even of light, the word in Shelley is more ambivalent, poised between a knotted reality that cannot be penetrated or mastered, that holds Shelley down, and also a lode where ore is to be mined, something that must be confronted and reckoned. I used to hear something merely dissonant in the word as it appeared in the poem, but now think it is a site of Shelley’s struggle with, and for, his imagination and the transcendence it promises. It is not endowed with a sacred naked simplicity as in Wordsworth or discordant like Whitman’s “clank of the world” in the Calamus poems. Whitman’s “clank” takes hold of the mechanical, laboring, urban machinery of life, as well as the aleatory discord that poetry needs to accommodate if it is to be universal and democratic; Shelley’s thing is organic, but resistant to poetry and thought alike.  It occurs six times in the poem, first in the poem’s opening line:

The everlasting universe of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—

Now lending splendour, where from secret springs

The source of human thought its tribute brings

Of waters—with a sound but half its own,

Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,

In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,

Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,

Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river

Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.

Here the word feels most uneasy in the poem, with the ill-fit between “things” and “flows” to the point, but not the sole cause of the un-ease, which owes as much to the questions it raises as to what other universes there might be, and also, most unsettling, whether the word signals a failure to discern: the thought that the word suggests “there’s a lot of stuff out there and I don’t know what it is” immediately punctures the poem’s lofty pretentions. But now I think that Shelley meant, from the start, to drag the poem downward, to make at least turbulent its initial ascent.  Next, near the close of the second section, twice:

Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee

I seem as in a trance sublime and strange

To muse on my own separate fantasy,

My own, my human mind, which passively

Now renders and receives fast influencings,

Holding an unremitting interchange

With the clear universe of things around;

One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings

Now float above thy darkness, and now rest

Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,

In the still cave of the witch Poesy,

Seeking among the shadows that pass by

Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,

Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast

From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!


Twice in the fourth section:


The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams,

Ocean, and all the living things that dwell

Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain,

Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane,

The torpor of the year when feeble dreams

Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep

Holds every future leaf and flower; the bound

With which from that detested trance they leap;

The works and ways of man, their death and birth,

And that of him and all that his may be;

All things that move and breathe with toil and sound

Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell.

When we see these four instances lined up, something like a progression in the word becomes evident: we can imagine that the poem is a narrative of Shelley’s struggle with the word itself, and what it represents, and it grows into itself, not merely carried upward with Shelley, but instead accommodated as a weight that he has learned to accommodate and not deny.  In “clear universe of things around,” the crucial word is “clear,” repeating the opening of the poem with a difference; it is a word that indicates the direction and object of Shelley’s will, to embrace the clarity of the opacity of “things,” to accede to that opacity for the time being in the momentous surge of the poem’s progress. “Ghosts of all things that are” begins the moment when Shelley reconciles the word to his imaginative thought, preserving it but also subordinating it within the fantastical imagery, which eddies around it. “Things” is a rock that the current of the poem cannot shift or dissolve, but it no longer rises from the poem’s course. It is absorbed, or subsumed, more completely yet in the phrase “all the living things”: Shelley has turned away from the extremes of fancy that saw only “Ghosts of all things that are,” and he has turned again to confront the world’s matter and density, but he finds there now life: “living things” is animal nature, but it is also the recognition that the inanimate things might, like Mont Blanc, be a source or element of life, themselves living in a fashion. Note how the phrasing has shifted from “all things that are” to “all living things,” where “that are” has now been elevated, imaginatively but not fantastically or whimsically, to “living.” Shelley has ascended in his sense of what he is capable of allowing himself perceive in the things of the world. Whether the word was always a nod and a wink to Lucretius, that nod and wink is now returned. In the fifth instance, the evolution of the word, the evolution of Shelley’s sense of the word, reaches further still, as “living” is articulated into “All things that move and breathe with toil and sound | Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell.” The ambiguity of “with” is crucial to preserving the possibility that Shelley refers to the inanimate world: it breathes and moves with the toil of the poet, and it breathes and moves with the sound of the elements and atoms jarring.Finally, at the poem’s close:

The secret Strength of things

Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome

Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,

If to the human mind’s imaginings

Silence and solitude were vacancy?

The “secret Strength of things” reverses the polarity from “Universe of things,” as the latter refers to the “universe that is composed of things,” whereas “secret Strength of things” refers instead chiefly to the “strength that inheres within things.” He is now able, if not to look and see within “things,” if not to overcome their gravity, to regard it with the respect due a sacred mystery (“secret Strength”), and to recognize that what they contain, their very secrecy and gravity that pulls against him, is itself a source of strength. The opacity of things is not vacancy, and even if it cannot be filled like the white silence of the mountain’s snows, it at least testifies that there is something capable of filling: it “inhabits.” The final question is not entirely rhetorical; it does insist that there is something to silence and solitude that it is properly imagination’s function and duty to fill, but it also acknowledges that there is something question as to what the mountain, earth, stars, and sea are: it acknowledges that they remain secretive things that the imagination can work upon, but not entirely know for what they are.

The downward pull of material nothingness, or the nullity of matter, that pulls on Shelley’s imagination and sense of self, that he struggles to overcome, is a source of some beautiful moments elsewhere. In the opening of Prometheus Unbound, for example, Prometheus describes himself: “Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain, | Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured.” “Eagle-baffling” is the crux of the first line, where the eagle of Zeus, but also the eagle of thought is not merely opposed but is baffled; the confusion is a perplexity of the self working itself out in the figurative lift to a transcendent vision, for which Prometheus strives.  But then the second line finds force in the oppressive adjectives, each of which pulls in a different direction, and the last item of which “unmeasured” is not quite “unmeasurable” and allows either that it might be a mountain that cannot be measured or that it is a mountain that none have yet dared or managed to measure: it does not quite despair and does not quite presume.

I know there are many more examples that might be worth discussing, but a different sort is worth including, and that’s to be found in “Adonais,” where the stanza shape itself runs the language in a downward groove, like a funnel, so that there is an acceleration towards closure in the final four lines of many of the stanzas. I don’t know if that is a consequence of the stanza itself; more likely, it’s what Shelley is doing with it, the sense of the words generating a sense of how the lines move. Take a few examples:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,

       He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;

       ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep

       With phantoms an unprofitable strife,

       And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife

       Invulnerable nothings. We decay

       Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief

       Convulse us and consume us day by day,

And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.




Who mourns for Adonais? Oh, come forth,

       Fond wretch! and know thyself and him aright.

       Clasp with thy panting soul the pendulous Earth;

       As from a centre, dart thy spirit’s light

       Beyond all worlds, until its spacious might

       Satiate the void circumference: then shrink

       Even to a point within our day and night;

       And keep thy heart light lest it make thee sink

When hope has kindled hope, and lur’d thee to the brink.


As I said, it might be that I am feeling the gravity intensify because of the senses of the words, but I don’t know if that matters much, since it is evident to me that again and again, the stanzas begin with an opening out and looking up and come to their close with closing off and in, a shutting off and extinguishing. The elegy is, in its repeated movement, registering not just the loss of death but the freight and burden of living. And even where Shelley celebrates a triumph, he does not neglect the drama and tension along the axis of movement.

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,

       That Beauty in which all things work and move,

       That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse

       Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love

       Which through the web of being blindly wove

       By man and beast and earth and air and sea,

       Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of

       The fire for which all thirst; now beams on me,

Consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.


“The last clouds of cold mortality” have the last word, and even if they are consumed, they remain, to the imagination, something consuming. That was the penultimate section; the final section:


 The breath whose might I have invok’d in song

       Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,

       Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng

       Whose sails were never to the tempest given;

       The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!

       I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;

       Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,

       The soul of Adonais, like a star,

Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.


The soul of Adonais is “like a star” because he flashes out and beacons, and is above, but that above is also painfully distant, surrounded by dark, as the poet himself is “borne darkly, fearfully, afar.”  “The massy earth” and “spheres skies” are “riven,” and the axis of gravity and grace are severed and held apart.  Most tellingly is “Descends on me,” since the breath whose might he has invoked—that of Urania, that of the dead poet, that of the eternal One—descends on him with inspiration, but also with terror; it does not just fill him, but presses upon him; it does not only answering his summons, but hunts him like its quarry.  The same imagination that can provide an escape, a way up and out, also haunts and pursues; it is the sin as well as the salvation.


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