Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Poet With No Identity

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John Keats’ assertion that the “Poet […] has no Identity” and thus is constantly reinventing himself holds true in the poetic works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a man constantly considering the Romantic concept of the ever-changing self.

Stephanie Burt and David Mikics outline, in The Art of the Sonnet, the restructuring of the traditional sonnet and vivid imagery that Shelley employs in England in 1819 as an urgent political message. The poem itself was not published in Shelley’s lifetime because it was so unabashedly anti-monarchical that it would have been considered treason had he been living in England at the time of its composition.

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As a poet of nature and an endlessly dynamic writer, Shelley identified with the wind itself, and Ode to the West Wind was written as a result of a personal experience of a storm in Italy that particularly enraptured him. Henry Pancoast’s assessment of the symbolism in the Ode states that the West Wind is invoked specifically for its dynamism. Writing specifically of the West Wind of autumn, he was inspired by the fact that he was witnessing a crucial point in the life cycle of the seasons, where the lively European landscape is swept away by autumn and once again emerges after winter; the very spirit of the poem – death and rebirth – owes itself to the nature of the autumn wind specifically.

A reading of Ozymandias by John Rodenbeck states that the poem is a political and moralising work, rather than the outcome of an inspiring tale of ancient Egyptian artefacts. Rodenbeck argues that Ozymantias is about the inevitable end that awaits all tyrants, rather than the longevity of the art. Although the message against arrogant tyranny is clear, Shelley’s stance on art and its power cannot be entirely dismissed.

Percy Shelley’s works are an ode to the nature and necessity of change and transformation, protesting against attitudes of arrogant conservatism. In this essay I will argue, in light of three of his poems – England in 1819, Ode to the West Wind, and Ozymantias – that Shelley placed particular importance on progress and change, both societal and personal, and condemned attempts to defy the natural transformative cycle of life. He asserts, through his poetry, that resistance to change is restricting and futile, emphasising the importance of the ever-shifting natural world which reflects the ever-shifting nature of humanity.

Of these three works, England in 1819 is the most blatantly incendiary, detailing the failings of English authority in the government of their country. As pointed out by Burt and Mikics, instead of culminating his concerns at the end, the speaker begins with the worst, giving a scathing dismissal of King George III as “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying”. Amongst the other insults, the particular diction of “despised, and dying” points to the speaker as a representative of a dissatisfied population whose hatred of a failing system calls for a much-needed evolution. Unsettling imagery of “leechlike” royalty subverts the idea of the monarchy as providers and guardians of the state. Instead, the monarchy is stagnant, unchanging rulers, “blind with blood” – a sudden caesura here, coupled with the alliteration of an impactful ‘b’ sound slows down the rhythm and compounds the disdain for the exploitative divide between a government and its people. Taking an optimistic turn after listing the wrongs of the nation, the last two lines compare the failings of society to a “grave”, implying the death of the old order that will give way to a revolution of progress.

The motif of rebirth from death is a common one in Shelley’s work, serving as the driving motivation of Ode to the West Wind – one of Shelley’s less outwardly political poems, but nonetheless reveals a reverence for nature that is as integral to his views as his criticism.

The entire poem is apostrophic, addressing the inanimate as a manner of expressing interiority that would be hidden had the speaker been addressing a person; an attempted dialogue with the West Wind represents the rebirth and freedom from societal constraints that another human being could not. The West Wind is established as a self-contradictory force – representing the arrival of autumn and winter and the driving of “winged seeds” to their “grave[s]”, and yet by that very arrival of seeds to their graves new life in spring is made possible. The vivid imagery of leaves as “yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red” seems to allude to the horses of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, signalling the approach of Judgement Day and subsequent eternal life in Heaven, accepting death not as a finite ending but as a process of reinvention. The West Wind itself is appealed to as one would a god in prayer, culminating in a plea to spread [the poet’s’] words “by the incantation of this verse”; this self-awareness of composition demonstrates the acknowledgement of poetry and the spoken word as the only truly immortal artform – physical works cannot be spread as words can, nor can they perform the necessary self-transformation from person to person that is required to withstand the test of time.

Shelley’s aversion to the immutable is evident in Ozymandias, describing a once-grand relic of an Egyptian king long gone. The polyphony of the poem separates the listener from the kings supposed glory by several degrees; we hear about Ozymandias through the speaker’s retelling of a traveller’s account of an artist’s rendition of him – his legacy lives stronger in language than it does in sculpture. The harsh, superior expression on the face of the statue which “tell[s] that its sculptor well those passions read” speaks to the interpretation of the sculptor himself, demonstrating that one cannot possibly hope to capture the truth of the ever-evolving individual in something so unchanging as stone. A long ellipsis in the third line, followed by the sibilance of “sand”, “sunk” and “shattered visage lies” mimics the passage of thousands of years in the stillness of a desert that has long forgotten the glory of Ozymandias’ kingdom. The inscription’s prompt for the viewer to “despair” is totally out of place, meant to be an awe-inspiring declaration that ironically falls flat because the structures and material riches that would have supported it have since disappeared. The steady statement that “nothing beside remains” hangs by itself immediately after the inscription as an intense anticlimax; combined with the long vowels and alliteration of “lone and level” and “far away” in the final line, the standalone, simple sentence suddenly demolishes the imagined kingdom built up in the first octave, returning to the undisturbed flatness of the desert.

Shelley does not strive to resist change and present one, the unwavering image of himself – rather, as in the Ode, asks to be made a “lyre” for the wind, to be played and interpreted however the forces of nature may seem fit, so that he may live on after the death and subsequent rebirth of the self. His poetry contends that a static and unchanging existence is unnatural and suffocating. Constant reinvention of identity through language and memory is Shelley’s key to transgressing the boundaries of mortal existence; language and poetry will forever be reinvented and kept alive, but that which is carved in stone will eventually crumble.    


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