Born on August 4, 1792, the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley exemplify English Romanticism in both its extremes of joyous ecstasy and brooding despair. Romanticism’s major themes—restlessness and brooding, rebellion against authority, interchange with nature, the power of the visionary imagination and of poetry, the pursuit of ideal love, and the untamed spirit ever in search of freedom—all of these Shelley exemplified in the way he lived his life and live on in the substantial body of work that he left the world after his legendary death by drowning at age 29. From the beginning of his writing career at the age of 17, throughout his life, and even to the present day, the very name of Shelley has evoked either the strongest vehemence or the warmest praise, bordering on worship. More than any other English Romantic writer, with the possible exception of his friend George Gordon, Lord Byron, Shelley’s life and reputation have had a history and life of their own apart from the reputation of his various works, and one that contiued to evolve even after his death from drowning at the age of 29.
Though Shelley’s works will never be read by the masses, at least the spirit of his wish in “Ode to the West Wind” is perhaps closer to coming true today than he would have dared imagine:
Ode to the West Wind
IO wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves deadAre 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 bedThe winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,Each like a corpse within its grave, untilThine azure sister of the Spring shall blowHer 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!IIThou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,Angels of rain and lightning: there are spreadOn the blue surface of thine aëry surge,Like the bright hair uplifted from the headOf some fierce Maenad, even from the dim vergeOf the horizon to the zenith’s height,The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirgeOf the dying year, to which this closing nightWill be the dome of a vast sepulchre,Vaulted with all thy congregated mightOf vapours, from whose solid atmosphereBlack rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!IIIThou who didst waken from his summer dreamsThe blue Mediterranean, where he lay,Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams,Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,And saw in sleep old palaces and towersQuivering within the wave’s intenser day,All overgrown with azure moss and flowersSo sweet, the sense faints picturing them! ThouFor whose path the Atlantic’s level powersCleave themselves into chasms, while far belowThe sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wearThe sapless foliage of the ocean, knowThy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!IVIf I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;A wave to pant beneath thy power, and shareThe impulse of thy strength, only less freeThan thou, O uncontrollable! If evenI were as in my boyhood, and could beThe comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speedScarce seem’d a vision; I would ne’er have strivenAs thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’dOne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.VMake me thy lyre, even as the forest is:What if my leaves are falling like its own!The tumult of thy mighty harmoniesWill 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 universeLike wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!And, by the incantation of this verse,Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearthAshes and sparks, my words among mankind!Be through my lips to unawaken’d earthThe trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?