Shelley and Keats
Autumnal Theme in English Romantic Poetry: Shelley^Òs "Ode to the West Wind" and Keats^Òs "To Autumn." A season of autumn is traditionally associated with transience and mutability, with dying of nature and expectations of the following winter time. For Romantic poets who are known for their extraordinary sensitivity to natural moods the period of fall becomes a great force for poetic creativity. Percy Bysshe Shelley^s "Ode to the West Wind" and John Keats^s ode "To Autumn" are two beautiful poems which were blown to its authors by the English autumn ^ both poets are influenced by the seasonal process in nature which ushers them into the mood of transience and aging. However, the two of them differently perceive the same natural manifestations. The radical poet Shelley observes the deadly changes in nature caused by the autumnal wind with an expectation for the following spring and revival. In the seasonal process he sees a symbolic prototype for possible revolutionary changes both in his own life and in the existing social structure of his country. His "Ode to the West Wind" ! primarily appeals to the active sublime power of the west wind to give him that energy which is able to change the world. At the same time, another Romantic poet Keats drowsy accepts the idea of aging and accomplishment ^ in his ode "To Autumn" he celebrates fruitfulness of the autumn and bides farewell to the passing away year and together with it to his great poetry. The Romantic autumnal odes of Shelley and Keats are born from the poetic observations of natural changes and from their ability to penetrate the mood of fall which provides them a incentive for artistic creativity. In "Ode to the West Wind" Shelley mainly concentrates his attention on his observations of the death caused by the autumnal wind. He compares the "dead leaves" to "ghosts" (WW, 676/2-3), and the "winged seeds" ^ to dead bodies which "lie cold and low... within [their] grave" (WW, 676/7-8). All these images talk to the author of the "dying year" (WW, 677/24), of transience of time and of aging. Little by little his mind becomes full of "dead thoughts"(WW, 678/63) which overwhelm him after he penetrates the autumnal mood of nature ^ thus his mind generates the mood of the season and he becomes a part of it. However, observing the autumnal devastation Shelley knows that this season is not to rule over the earth forever: for him it is just a period of "darkness which waits for a redeemer" (Webb, p.178). He expects the time when "Spring shall blow" (WW, 676/9) over
and new leaves will replace the falling ones, and when the "winged seeds" (WW, 676/7-8) will awake from their deep sleep to produce new life. Aware of the fact that year after year "the old life goes and a new life returns with the seasonal cycle" (Tet, p.214), the poet is disturbed by a feeling of heavy pressure of time on the world. Being a part of natural mood, as well as natural mood being a part of him, Shelley decidedly composes the lines, where he identifies the mature season of the year with his own aging: "A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed One too like thee^" (WW, 678/55-6). According to Ronald Tetreault^s critical study The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form "the poet^s response to the wind initially repeats the response of nature" (Tet, p.214). So, as the autumnal forest gets old and leafless, thus the poet feels how he grows older and so he writes: "as the forest is^my leaves are falling like its own" (WW, 678/57-8). Shelley believes that the "wild west wind^ breath of Autumn^s being" (WW, 676/1) is responsible for the autumnal desolation which influences both nature and the poet himself. In the Ode the poet describes it as a power "^from whose unseen presence the leaves are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing^" (WW, 676/2-3). Ronald Tetreault sensibly claims that this wind ^ "a mysterious cause whose existence is evident only in its effects" ^ in this poem becomes a "symbol for the unknown power which animates the life" (Tet, p.214). This is a kind of sublime authority which has an infinite rule over the worldly substances: Shellean west wind is both "Destroyer and Preserver" (WW, 676/14) which is responsible not only for the deadly manifestations of autumn, but also for the coming of lively spring ("until thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow^" (WW, 676/7-8)). Throughout the whole poem Shelley deliberately chooses the praises for the powerful west wind: he calls it "wild" (WW, 676/12) or "fierce" (WW, 678/61) spirit which is "moving everywhere" (WW, 676/12), and, moreover, calls its power "Uncontrollable" (WW, 678/47). All these characteristics serve the invocation of the impression that the wind is an absolute and free power, which influences everything around. The "loose clouds like Ear! th^s decaying leaves are shed" (WW, 677/16) and "the blue Mediterranean" awakes "from his summer dreams" (WW, 677/30-1) when the wind makes its way through the sky. Even "the Atlantic level powers cleave themselves into chasms" (WW, 677/37-8) to make a path for the west wind, and "the oozy woods^ grow grey with fear" (WW, 677/41) when they hear its voice. The poet, seeing the mighty influence of the wind on nature, appeals to this "Spirit fierce" (WW, 678/61) to become his own spirit so that he also can influence and change things around him. His "Ode to the West Wind" may be righteously called "both a hymn and a prayer" (Webb, p.37), because in this verse Shelley not only praises the wind for its active energy but also appeals to its active power to help him. The poet believes that as in nature there is a seasonal cycle, thus "in human life there also must be a cycle of renewal" (Tet, p.215) and he seeks that power which would help him to bring the necessary changes into the world. He would himself try to do it only if he would be "a dead leaf" (WW, 677/43) or "a swift cloud" (WW, 677/44)or "a wave" so to be able to move together with the wind, to have a part of its power, "to share the impulse of [its] strength" (WW, 678/46). However, this is a very difficult task for the mature poet, who as the autumnal nature is not "in [! his] boyhood" (WW, 678/48) anymore, and is not so flexible as a child, and so he appeals with a prayer to the external power in his "sore need" (WW, 678/52), his need to do something in order to change things, not to keep dying passively in silence! Thus, "Ode to the West Wind" "is not mere private meditation" (Tet, p.212) but a public poem, in which the poet needs the wind to change him in order to "transform the world" (Tet, p.212). Observing the seasonal cycle, the poet looks for "a similar pattern in the world of social and political life" (Tet, p. 214) of England: he wants to be for his nation such a changing power, as the wind is for nature. So he calls for the wild spirit to become his own, praying to it: "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe To quicken a new birth!" (WW, 678/63-4). That is, he wants to hasten the coming of new changes in his society through his verse ^ he asks from the wind to "scatter... [his] words among mankind" (WW, 678/66-7) as the prophetic revolutionary entreaty. He ends his prayer to the wind by asking it to be through his lips "the trumpet of a prophecy" (WW, 678/69) to the whole Earth, which is as yet "unawakened" (WW, 678/68) as nature in the season of autumn in expectation for the for the coming of springtime after the winter is over. So Shelley logically completes the ode with a rhetorical question which affirms the inevitability of the coming change rather than questions it: "O Wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" (WW, 678/70). The same English autumn inspires another Romantic poet, John Keats, who under the impression of the mood of this season composes his "last complete great poem" (Baker, p.194) ^ "To Autumn." However, the autumn in this ode is different from one described in Shellean "Ode to the West Wind." It is very important to acknowledge the fact that "nature may provide a stimulus, but it is the poetic consciousness itself that must give voice to nature and articulate its meanings" (Tet, p.214) ^ so, though both poets live in the same epoch and in the same country and witness the same natural manifestations during the fall time, they apply to it different terms. While in "Ode to the West Wind" Shelley personifies the active sublime power of the wind, the other poet in "To Autumn" puts in the center the figure of autumn, which in his descriptions is "a female^passive, an embodiment of earthly paradise" (Baker, p.187). Unlike Shelley^s fall which sounds as a mighty symphony of falling le! aves and dying nature, Keats^s autumn is a drowsy and fertile sonata. "To Autumn" begins from a very calm and meaningful statement ^ "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" (Keats, 813/1) ^ which sets the tone to all the following lines. By mentioning the autumnal mists the poet implies his fusion with the mood of the season and half-sleepy half-real perception of the world around where he finds not death of the year as Shelley does, but fertility and benevolence. This is obvious that as well as the other poet Keats under the influence of the season gets sick with the idea of transience ^ his autumn is an aging mother figure, who is conspiring with her "close-bosom friend" ^ also "maturing" (Keats, 813/2) sun. Also such expressions as "sound asleep" (Keats, 814/16), "drows^d with fume^" (Keats, 814/17) serve the implication of the poet^s belief that the world passively falls asleep, that time passes and that autumn is a passive watcher of "last oozings hours by hours" (Keats, 814/22). These phrases introduce the reader "the idea of transienc! e^" (Hart, p.426) and mutability which later leads the poet to bewail the spring that has passed: "Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?" (Keats, 814/23). However, Keats looks "back to Spring instead of forward to Winter" (Hart, p.424) ^ thus he tries to find good things in what is left ^ beyond the autumnal fogs sees the autumn^s own beauty: he appeals to it not to think about those songs of spring saying to it "thou has thy music too" (Keats, 814/24). It sounds very true that in the mood of transience, "in fear of early death, and sensing riches his pen might never glean, Keats evokes a figure of genial harvests" (Hart, p.434). Instead of expecting something better to come in the future, Keats just finds beauty in what he still has today, though feeling that very soon this will be over. In his last great poem he implies the feeling that the autumn is still full of energy "to load and bless" (Keats, 813/3), "to bend" (Keats, 813/5), "to fill" (Keats, 813/6), "to swell" and "to plump" (Keats, 813/7) every lively thing around. Indeed, his whole poem is full of images of fertility and blessing ^ Jeffrey Baker in his critical study John Keats and Symbolism wisely notes that "we have in these lines not merely a description of autumn, but a celebration of it" (p.184). Indeed, the season described in this poem is full of provincial harmony ^ there are trees full of apples and swelled gourds, there are the bees enjoy the "later f! lowers" (Keats, 814/9), thinking that these last "warm days will never cease" (Keats, 814/10), the "clouds bloom" (Keats, 814/25), and "full-grown lambs loud bleat from the hilly bourn" (Keats, 814/30). The autumn herself is shown "careless" (Keats, 814/14), when she is described sitting "drows^d with the fume of poppies" next to her "store" (Keats, 814/12), and even the wind, so furious and powerful in Shelley, in this poem is "winnowig" (Keats, 814/15) and "light" (Keats, 814/29), playing with the autumn^s "soft-lifted" (Keats, 814/15) hair. It seems like the poet creates this picture of relaxation and fertile accomplishment to bide last farewell to the beauty of the passing year and together with it to his poetic creativity and life. The two autumnal odes by Shelley and Keats are two diverse points of views on the same subject. This subject is our human understanding that everything in our lives is transitive and that nothing is forever. In the season of autumn, when a year moves towards its closure, when summer is over, and winter is coming forth, the two Romantic poets deeply penetrate the mood of something going and dying. They both see in the aging of a year their own aging and fear it, however, they represent two different human relations towards the things they see. Shelley represents the optimistic humanity which is able to expect better future even in the casual present perplexities and they continue living with their hopes for the changes. At the same time, Keats is a representative of that part of us who are not able to withstand their pessimistic thoughts, who live by what they have today and silently leave the world for tranquillity in nonexistence. So the poets on their own examples show their! readers the two possible ways of existence which are given to each one of us for selection.