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 England 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.