Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792, into a wealthy Sussex family which
eventually attained minor noble rank--the poet's grandfather, a wealthy businessman,
received a baronetcy in 1806. Timothy Shelley, the poet's father, was a member of
Parliament and a country gentleman. The young Shelley entered Eton, a prestigious
school for boys, at the age of twelve. While he was there, he discovered the works of
a philosopher named William Godwin, which he consumed passionately and in which
he became a fervent believer; the young man wholeheartedly embraced the ideals of
liberty and equality espoused by the French Revolution, and devoted his considerable
passion and persuasive power to convincing others of the rightness of his beliefs.
Entering Oxford in 1810, Shelley was expelled the following spring for his part in
authoring a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism--atheism being an outrageous
idea in religiously conservative nineteenth-century England.
At the age of nineteen, Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, the sixteen-year-old
daughter of a tavern keeper, whom he married despite his inherent dislike for the
tavern. Not long after, he made the personal acquaintance of William Godwin in
London, and promptly fell in love with Godwin's daughter Mary Wollstonecraft,
whom he was eventually able to marry, and who is now remembered primarily as the
author of Frankenstein. In 1816, the Shelleys traveled to Switzerland to meet Lord
Byron, the most famous, celebrated, and controversial poet of the era; the two men
became close friends. After a time, they formed a circle of English expatriates in Pisa,
traveling throughout Italy; during this time Shelley wrote most of his finest lyric
poetry, including the immortal "Ode to the West Wind" and "To a Skylark." In 1822,
Shelley drowned while sailing in a storm off the Italian coast. He was not yet thirty
Shelley belongs to the younger generation of English Romantic poets, the generation
that came to prominence while William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
were settling into middle age. Where the older generation was marked by simple
ideals and a reverence for nature, the poets of the younger generation (which also
included John Keats and the infamous Lord Byron) came to be known for their
sensuous aestheticism, their explorations of intense passions, their political
radicalism, and their tragically short lives.
Shelley died when he was twenty-nine, Byron when he was thirty-six, and Keats
when he was only twenty-six years old. To an extent, the intensity of feeling
emphasized by Romanticism meant that the movement was always associated with
youth, and because Byron, Keats, and Shelley died young (and never had the
opportunity to sink into conservatism and complacency as Wordsworth did), they
have attained iconic status as the representative tragic Romantic artists. Shelley's life
and his poetry certainly support such an understanding, but it is important not to
indulge in stereotypes to the extent that they obscure a poet's individual character.
Shelley's joy, his magnanimity, his faith in humanity, and his optimism are unique
among the Romantics; his expression of those feelings makes him one of the early
nineteenth century's most significant writers in English.
Romanticism and Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"
May 12, 1997
The complete text of "Ode to the West Wind" can be read here.
M.H. Abrams wrote, "The Romantic period was eminently an age
obsessed with fact of violent change" ("Revolution" 659). And
Percy Shelley is often thought of as the quintessential Romantic
poet (Appelbaum x). The "Ode to the West Wind" expresses
perfectly the aims and views of the Romantic period.
Shelley's poem expresses the yearning for Genius. In the Romantic
era, it was common to associate genius with an attendant spirit or
force of nature from which the genius came; the Romantics
perceived the artist as a vessel through which the genius flows. For
instance, in "A Defence of Poetry," Shelley says that poets are
the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the
gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present . . . (Defence
In "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley implores the West Wind, a
powerful force of nature that Shelley identifies with his rapidly-
changing reality, to "lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!" He also
expresses his almost-melancholy wish that he could be as
I were in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven (Ode 815)
"Ode to the West Wind" invokes the attendant spirit from which
Genius comes to grant Creativity also. "If I were a dead leaf thou
mightest bear," he pleads, "If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee"
(Ode 815). In the fifth section, he begs the West Wind (which he
identifies with himself early in the section) to
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth,
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! (Ode 815)
Again, Shelley is asking the force that provides inspiration to act
"Ode to the West Wind" also expresses the hungering for
Imagination. Not only does Shelley want the force to make him the
"trumpet of a prophecy" (Ode 815), but he also is trying to forge a
oneness with the West Wind in the middle of the fifth section ("Be
thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!"). A
common Romantic notion was the idea that Imagination was the
side of the mind that allowed a person to forge a link with someone
Another of the central ideas of the Romantic literary figures was the
inherent value of the "primitive and untrammeled" (Revolution
657). Shelley fills the third section of "Ode to the West Wind" with
images of innocence and serenity. Descriptions of "azure moss and
flowers," "sea-blooms," and "oozy woods" dominate this part of the
The fifth section also expresses Shelley's belief that the quest for
beauty is important. At the beginning of the fifth section, Shelley
conjures the wind to "make me thy lyre" (Ode 815). The lyre is one
of few instruments which existed in the seventeenth century which
had taken the same form since ancient Greece. It is a symbol of art
and beauty; it is also a frequent symbol for the artist being played by
inspiration (Ode 815).
What is perhaps most important is that "Ode to the West Wind"
expresses the aspect of the Romantic movement which emphasized
the search for individual definitions of morality rather than blindly
accepting religious dogmas. As William Blake had his "Marriage of
Heaven and Hell," which emphasized the belief that traditional ideas
of good and evil needed reconsidering, so Shelley believed that in
some (but hardly all) cases, good could come from evil ("Percy"
811-12). Shelley does not support this idea in any particular place in
the poem, but rather by the way the poem develops throughout.
For instance, Shelley supports this idea in the way he orders the
sections. The first two sections contain images of violence, death,
and the coming Winter: the West Wind itself; the "leaves dead"; the
colors yellow, black, pale, and "hectic red"; the "corpse within a
grave"; the "angels of rain and lightning"; the Mænad, and the
"approaching storm." In short, these first two sections describe
images of evil: the West Wind brings death, cold, and hardship. The
third section describes images of peace and serenity: the "blue
Mediterranean," "summer dreams," "sleep," "old palaces and
towers," the "azure moss and flowers," and the "oozy woods." These
images and serenity are disturbed only by the coming of the West
Wind, which threatens to disturb the balance of the peaceful life.
In the fourth and fifth sections, Shelley begins to identify himself
with the Windand beseeches the Wind to work through him for the
good of humanity; he wants the wind to
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth! (Ode 815)
Shelley is saying here that although the Wind can be a force for evil,
he wants the Wind to work through him because good can come
from evil; here, a "new birth" of Imagination, Genius, and Creativity
can come from death, darkness, and hardship.
Shelley is essentially a visionary of this change; he invokes the
powerful West Wind, a force he identifies with evil, his ever-
changing world, and his own subconscious, to work through him to
bring about the change that he so badly desires for the world, and
believes could be possible. Shelley's poem is his attempt to let the
West Wind work through him.
Poor Percy Shelley. A revolutionary who wanted to change the world
through his poetry, he has been dismissed far too often as being all
style and no substance, an artist whose life was more colourful than his
art and (worst of all) the archetype of half a century of lush Victorian
sentimentality. Never mind that he was sent down from Cambridge for
advocating atheism, that he renounced his inheritance to marry a
tavern-keeper's daughter, that he left England to seek artistic
salvation in Italy: the popular image of Shelley is of a figure of high
tragedy, Romantic with a capital R. A characterization that is as unfair
to Shelley as it is to Keats or Coleridge or any of their generation:
sure they had interesting lives, but they also produced lasting art.
(Which is not to say I like Shelley's poetry. To be frank, I don't).
'Ode to the West Wind' is one of Shelley's most celebrated works, and
justly so. In it, finally, we see Shelley fusing the airy imagery, the
interplay of colour and light and shadow which are his poetic forte,
with the philosophical and moral concerns that tinged his political
life. A bold and sweeping poem, it almost falls to ground under the
weight of its own presumption - almost, but not quite.And in that
avoidance of pomposity lies its greatness.
'Ode to the West Wind' is written in terza rima . Shelley uses a
three-line unit, a tercet, rhyming aba; the 'b' rhyme is carried into
the next tercet, bcb. Each stanza has four tercets of interlocking
rhyme, and ends in a couplet using the middle rhyme of the last tercet;
thus the rhyme scheme is aba bcb cdc ded ee. The lines themselves are in
a (not very rigorous) pentameter.
 The same metre that Dante uses in the Divine Comedy; perhaps this
was Shelley's way of paying homage to that great humanist. (Keep in mind
that the Ode was written in Italy).
[The Romantic Image]
The Romantics, more than most, have suffered (some would say
'benefited') from the problem of 'image'. As Adrian Mitchell puts it in
'The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry' (the source of most, if not all,
of my poetic education - you can read it at poem #211),
Then suddenly --- WOOMF ---
It was the Ro-man-tic Re-viv-al
And it didn't matter how you wrote,
All the public wanted was a hairy great image.
Before they'd even print you
You had to smoke opium, die of consumption,
Fall in love with your sister
Or drown in the Mediterranean (not at Brighton).
(Coleridge smoked opium, Keats died of consumption, Byron had a
scandalous affair with his half-sister, and Shelley drowned in the
Another, equally tongue-in-cheek view of the Romantics is Dorothy
Byron and Shelley and Keats
Were a trio of lyrical treats.
The forehead of Shelley was cluttered with curls,
And Keats never was a descendant of earls,
And Byron walked out with a number of girls,
But it didn't impair the poetical feats
Of Byron and Shelley,
Of Byron and Shelley,
Of Byron and Shelley and Keats.
-- Dorothy Parker, 'A pig's eye view of literature'
Ironically enough, Shelley always saw himself as a social reformer
first, and a poet second; to him, poets were 'the unacknowledged
legislators of the world', and his published writings all had an
explicitly political agenda.
More about the Romantics in general and Shelley in particular can be
found in Brittanica; here are some generous extracts:
Romanticism, an amorphous movement that began in Germany and England at
the turn of the 19th century, and somewhat later in France, Italy, and
the United States, found spokesmen as diverse as Goethe and August and
Friedrich von Schlegel in Germany, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor
Coleridge in England, Madame de Staël and Victor Hugo in France,
Alessandro Manzoni in Italy, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe
in the United States. Romantics tended to regard the writing of poetry
as a transcendentally important activity, closely related to the
creative perception of meaning in the world. The poet was credited with
the godlike power that Plato had feared in him; Transcendental
philosophy was, indeed, a derivative of Plato's metaphysical Idealism.
In the typical view of Percy Bysshe Shelley, poetry "strips the veil of
familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty,
which is the spirit of its forms."
Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), with its definition of
poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings and its attack
on Neoclassical diction, is regarded as the opening statement of English
Romanticism. In England, however, only Coleridge in his Biographia
Literaria (1817) embraced the whole complex of Romantic doctrines
emanating from Germany; the British empiricist tradition was too firmly
rooted to be totally washed aside by the new metaphysics. Most of those
who were later called Romantics did share an emphasis on individual
passion and inspiration, a taste for symbolism and historical awareness,
and a conception of art works as internally whole structures in which
feelings are dialectically merged with their contraries. Romantic
criticism coincided with the emergence of aesthetics as a separate
branch of philosophy, and both signalled a weakening in ethical demands
upon literature. The lasting achievement of Romantic theory is its
recognition that artistic creations are justified, not by their
promotion of virtue, but by their own coherence and intensity.
[The Later Romantics]
... [Shelley, Keats and Byron] shared their predecessors' passion for
liberty (now set in a new perspective by the Napoleonic wars) and were
in a position to learn from their experiments. Percy Bysshe Shelley in
particular was deeply interested in politics, coming early under the
spell of the anarchistic views of William Godwin, whose Enquiry
Concerning Political Justice had appeared in 1793. Shelley's
revolutionary ardour, coupled with a zeal for the liberation of mankind
and a passion for poetry, caused him to claim in his critical essay A
Defence of Poetry (1821, published 1840) that "the most unfailing
herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to
work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry," and that
poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." This fervour
burns throughout the early Queen Mab (1813), the long Laon and Cythna
(retitled The Revolt of Islam, 1818), and the lyrical drama Prometheus
Unbound (1820). Shelley saw himself at once as poet and prophet, as the
fine "Ode to the West Wind" (1819) makes clear. Despite his firm grasp
of practical politics, however, it is a mistake to look for concreteness
in his poetry, where his concern is with subtleties of perception and
with the underlying forces of nature: his most characteristic image is
of sky and weather, of lights and fires. His poetic stance invites the
reader to respond with similar outgoing aspiration. It adheres to the
Rousseauistic belief in an underlying spirit in individuals, one truer
to human nature itself than the behaviour evinced and approved by
society. In that sense his material is transcendental and cosmic and his
expression thoroughly appropriate. Possessed of great technical
brilliance, he is, at his best, a poet of excitement and power.
[More on Shelley]
Shelley's [early] literary career [was] politically oriented. Queen Mab,
the early poems first published in 1964 as The Esdaile Notebook, Laon
and Cythna, and most of his prose works were devoted to reforming
society; and even Alastor, Rosalind and Helen, and the personal lyrics
voiced the concerns of an idealistic reformer who is disappointed or
persecuted by an unreceptive society. But in Italy, far from the daily
irritations of British politics, Shelley deepened his understanding of
art and literature and, unable to reshape the world to conform to his
vision, he concentrated on embodying his ideals within his poems. His
aim became, as he wrote in "Ode to the West Wind," to make his words
"Ashes and sparks" as from "an unextinguished hearth," thereby
transforming subsequent generations and, through them, the world. Later,
as he became estranged from Mary Shelley, he portrayed even love in
terms of aspiration, rather than fulfillment: "The desire of the moth
for the star,/ Of the night for the morrow,/ The devotion to something
afar/ From the sphere of our sorrow."
The careful study of Shelley's publications and manuscripts has since
elucidated his deep learning, clear thought, and subtle artistry.
Shelley was a passionate idealist and consummate artist who, while
developing rational themes within traditional poetic forms, stretched
language to its limits in articulating both personal desire and social
he spirit of revolution and the power of free thought were Percy Shelley's biggest
passions in life. After being sent away to boarding school at the age of ten, he
attended a lecture on science which piqued his interest in the properties of electricity,
magnetism, chemistry and telescopes. On return trips home, he would try to cure his
sisters' chilblains by passing electric currents through them. He also hinted of a
mysterious "alchemist" living in a hidden room in the attic.
While attending the Eton school from 1804 to 1810, the quiet, odd and reflective boy
was taunted relentlessly by schoolmates. This generated in him extremes of anger,
once even driving him to stab another boy with a fork. Shelley detested the practice of
younger boys buying protection (through doing menial tasks) from older bullies. He
was ever the visionary and daydreamer, often forgetting to tie his shoelaces or to wear
a hat. His odd behavior eventually earned him the nickname of "Mad Shelley".
At school, Shelley became intrigued with the revolutionary political and philosophical
ideas of Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Throughout his life, he emphatically
expressed his political and religious views in a struggle against social injustice, often
to the point where it got him into trouble or mired in controversy. In Geneva later
with Byron, he would often write "democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist" in
Greek after his signature in hotel ledgers. Upon finding one of these signatures, Lord
Byron remarked: "Do you not think I shall do Shelley a service by scratching this
out?" which he promptly did. Shelley detested the monarchy and aristocracy. He was
a great believer in the idea of the power of the human mind to change circumstances
for the better, in a non-violent way.
Shelley attended University College, Oxford in 1810. His friend, Thomas Jefferson
Hogg describes Shelley's college rooms as such:
Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols,
linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money,
stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, and boxes were scattered on the floor
and in every place. . . . The tables, and especially the carpet, were
already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently
proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air pump, the
galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers,
were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter.
The young Shelley was often seen indulging in his habit of sailing paper boats on the
water of any nearby pond, lake or river, or reading with a book held right up to his
eyes, lying very close to the fire.
In 1811 Shelley wrote and distributed to various bishops and heads of colleges a short
pamphlet he wrote on The Necessity of Atheism. One of these he sent to a poetry
professor with a letter signed with the name "Jeremiah Stukley". The professor then
brought the letter and essay, which proposed free inquiry into religious belief and
suggested that the existence of God remained unproven by physical evidence or
reason, to the University College master. Shelley and his friend Hogg were both
subsequently expelled from Oxford. This incident greatly upset Shelley's father and
grandfather. His relationship with them and his closeness to the rest of his family was
never completely mended.
Although he intellectually disliked the institution of marriage, stating that it was not
necessary if two people loved each other, he eloped to Scotland in 1811 and married
sixteen year-old Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a London merchant and a school
friend of his sister. Shelley's father immediately cut off his monetary allowance upon
hearing the news, but was eventually persuaded to restart it. Meanwhile, Shelley
continued to write political pamphlets, often sending them out in bottles or homemade
paper boats over the water, or inside fire balloons into the sky.
At the beginning of 1812 Shelley started to suffer from "nervous attacks" for which he
took doses of laudanum. He would start to sleepwalk when life became difficult or
stressful. One evening he was either attacked, or imagined he was attacked, outside
the door of his cottage. His wife and a neighbor found him lying senseless at the foot
of the entryway. It was also in 1812 that he met and became friends with William
Godwin and his family.
Harriet bore Shelley's first child, Elizabeth Ianthe, in June of 1813 and by the end of
the year was pregnant again. But by 1814, Shelley had fallen in love with Mary
Godwin, which upset both Harriet and Mary's father, William Godwin. When the two
persuaded Mary to stop seeing Shelley for a little while, he showed up distraught and
hysterical at her house with laudanum and a pistol, threatening to commit suicide.
Soon reconciled, Shelley and Mary later traveled around Europe with Mary's sister
Jane (later Claire) Clairmont. By the time they returned to London, Mary was
pregnant. Harriet gave birth to Charles, Shelley's first-born son in November of 1814,
but she was painfully aware that Shelley did not love her anymore.
Mary gave birth to a tiny girl in February of 1815, but it died within a few weeks. She
was soon pregnant again, and gave birth to a son, William, in early 1816. Mary,
Shelley and Claire spent the summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva near Byron. The famous
"ghost story contest " which spawned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein took place during
Tragedy struck twice at the end of 1816 after Mary and Shelley had returned to
London. Depressed, Mary's sister Fanny committed suicide in October. Later,
Harriet's body was found one November morning, drowned in Hyde Park's
Serpentine. She had presumably killed herself. She was several months pregnant from
an affair with a military officer who had later been sent abroad, and assumedly
despondent about Shelley leaving her for Mary. Shelley had had no contact with
Harriet since the spring. He soon proposed to Mary and they were married on
December 30, 1816.
The newlyweds eventually moved to Great Marlow, where Mary finished her work on
Frankenstein while pregnant, and Shelley provided help to the poor--a habit which
made the local aristocrats call him "mad". In a bout of hypochondria, Shelley
imagined for weeks that he was developing elephantiasis after sitting next to a woman
with fat legs on a coach.
In 1817 daughter Clara was born, and in 1818 Shelley left England for good to seek
warmer climes for his health, not to mention that he also wanted to escape his
persecutors in the press and in his family. While in Italy, Claire Clairmont became
pregnant again (after having had Byron's daughter Allegra in 1817), but the identity of
the father remains uncertain. Many speculate that Shelley himself was the father, as it
is obvious from letters and accounts that he felt a great love for both Claire and Mary;
and after all, he was a great proponent of the completely radical idea of "free love" as
put forth in his essay On Love and the poem Epipsychidion:
I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals. . . .
A baby (Elena Adelaide), born in late 1818 was listed as Shelley and Mary's, but
scholars are convinced that it was most likely Claire's. Nonetheless, the baby was sent
off to foster care, and died at the age of two.
Tragedy struck the Shelleys again and again in Italy. Baby Clara died in 1818 in
Mary's arms while she waited in the hall of an inn for Shelley to find a doctor.
Depressed and bitter in December of 1818, in failing health and with a marriage that
was falling apart, Shelley composed his Stanzas written in Dejection, near Naples,
where he writes:
Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,
Nor that content surpassing wealth
The sage in meditation found,
And walked with inward glory crowned--
Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
Others I see whom these surround--
Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;
To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.
Little William became ill in late May of 1819, and although watched over agonizingly
by his loved ones, he died on June 7. This pain was mixed with the joy of the birth of
son Percy Florence in November. Stress took its toll, as Shelley's cousin Medwin,
during a visit in 1820, described the twenty-eight-year old poet as "tall, emaciated,
stooping, with grey streaks in his hair."
Percy Shelley could not swim, and even though he had recently been involved in a
boating accident in a canal one night in which he was nearly drowned, he and several
friends decided to spend the summer of 1822 sailing on the Bay of Lerici. A boat was
ordered and built for this purpose -- named Don Juan by Byron, but renamed Ariel by
Shelley. Meanwhile, the pregnant Mary, who was expecting in December, suffered
another miscarriage in June. Shelley himself suffered from disturbing recurring
nightmares and hallucinations during the summer. One vision was of a naked child
rising out of the sea and clapping its hands; another was an encounter with his own
doppelganger on the terrace, who then asked him "How long do you
mean to be content?"; and the most terrifying was of his good friends
Jane and Edward Williams coming into his room one night, bloody and
mangled, to tell him that the house was falling down--but when he went to Mary's
room to warn her, he found himself strangling her. Shelley wrote to a friend and asked
him to send a lethal dose of prussic acid, not to use immediately, but as comfort to
hold "that golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest."
On July 7, after a long trip of sailing out to visit several different friends, a sudden
afternoon storm sunk the Ariel ten miles from any land. The bodies of Shelley,
Williams and the boat's sailor washed up ten days later and were treated and cremated
on the beach because of quarantine laws to protect against the plague. Shelley's ashes
were buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome. His heart was first given to a friend,
then to Mary, and eventually buried in Bournemouth. Shelley's final, unfinished poem
was, perhaps ironically, titled The Triumph of Life.
"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"
The speaker says that the shadow of an invisible Power floats among human beings,
occasionally visiting human hearts--manifested in summer winds, or moonbeams, or
the memory of music, or anything that is precious for its mysterious grace.
Addressing this Spirit of Beauty, the speaker asks where it has gone, and why it
leaves the world so desolate when it goes--why human hearts can feel such hope and
love when it is present, and such despair and hatred when it is gone. He asserts that
religious and superstitious notions--"Demon, Ghost, and Heaven"--are nothing more
than the attempts of mortal poets and wise men to explain and express their responses
to the Spirit of Beauty, which alone, the speaker says, can give "grace and truth to
life's unquiet dream." Love, Hope, and Self-Esteem come and go at the whim of the
Spirit, and if it would only stay in the human heart forever, instead of coming and
going unpredictably, man would be "immortal and omnipotent." The Spirit inspires
lovers and nourishes thought; and the speaker implores the spirit to remain even after
his life has ended, fearing that without it death will be "a dark reality."
The speaker recalls that when he was a boy, he "sought for ghosts," and traveled
through caves and forests looking for "the departed dead"; but only when the Spirit's
shadow fell across him--as he mused "deeply on the lot / Of life" outdoors in the
spring--did he experience transcendence. At that moment, he says, "I shrieked, and
clasped my hands in ecstasy!" He then vowed that he would dedicate his life to the
Spirit of Beauty; now he asserts that he has kept his vow--every joy he has ever had
has been linked to the hope that the "awful Loveliness" would free the world from
slavery, and complete the articulation of his words.
The speaker observes that after noon the day becomes "more solemn and serene," and
in autumn there is a "lustre in the sky" which cannot be found in summer. The speaker
asks the Spirit, whose power descended upon his youth like that truth of nature, to
supply "calm" to his "onward life"--the life of a man who worships the Spirit and
every form that contains it, and who is bound by the spells of the Spirit to "fear
himself, and love all humankind."
Each of the seven long stanzas of the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" follows the same,
highly regular scheme. Each line has an iambic rhythm; the first four lines of each
stanza are written in pentameter, the fifth line in hexameter, the sixth, seventh, eighth,
ninth, tenth, and eleventh lines in tetrameter, and the twelfth line in pentameter. (The
syllable pattern for each stanza, then, is 555564444445.) Each stanza is rhymed
This lyric hymn, written in 1816, is Shelley's earliest focused attempt to incorporate
the Romantic ideal of communion with nature into his own aesthetic philosophy. The
"Intellectual Beauty" of the poem's title does not refer to the beauty of the mind or of
the working intellect, but rather to the intellectual idea of beauty, abstracted in this
poem to the "Spirit of Beauty," whose shadow comes and goes over human hearts.
The poem is the poet's exploration both of the qualities of beauty (here it always
resides in nature, for example), and of the qualities of the human being's response to it
("Love, Hope, and Self-esteem").
The poem's process is doubly figurative or associative, in that, once the poet abstracts
the metaphor of the Spirit from the particulars of natural beauty, he then explains the
workings of this Spirit by comparing it back to the very particulars of natural beauty
from which it was abstracted in the first place: "Thy light alone, like mist o'er
mountains driven"; "Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart..." This is an
inspired technique, for it enables Shelley to illustrate the stunning experience of
natural beauty time and again as the poem progresses, but to push the particulars into
the background, so that the focus of the poem is always on the Spirit, the abstract
intellectual ideal that the speaker claims to serve.
Of course Shelley's atheism is a famous part of his philosophical stance, so it may
seem strange that he has written a hymn of any kind. He addresses that strangeness in
the third stanza, when he declares that names such as "Demon, Ghost, and Heaven"
are merely the record of attempts by sages to explain the effect of the Spirit of
Beauty--but that the effect has never been explained by any "voice from some
sublimer world." The Spirit of Beauty that the poet worships is not supernatural, it is a
part of the world. It is not an independent entity; it is a responsive capability within
the poet's own mind.
If the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" is not among Shelley's very greatest poems, it is
only because its project falls short of the poet's extraordinary powers; simply drawing
the abstract ideal of his own experience of beauty and declaring his fidelity to that
ideal seems too simple a task for Shelley. His most important statements on natural
beauty and on aesthetics will take into account a more complicated idea of his own
connection to nature as an expressive artist and a poet, as we shall see in "To a
Skylark" and "Ode to the West Wind." Nevertheless, the "Hymn" remains an
important poem from the early period of Shelley's maturity. It shows him working to
incorporate Wordsworthian ideas of nature, in some ways the most important theme
of early Romanticism, into his own poetic project, and, by connecting his idea of
beauty to his idea of human religion, making that theme explicitly his own.
The speaker recalls having met a traveler "from an antique land," who told him a story
about the ruins of a statue in the desert of his native country. Two vast legs of stone
stand without a body, and near them a massive, crumbling stone head lies "half sunk"
in the sand. The traveler told the speaker that the frown and "sneer of cold command"
on the statue's face indicate that the sculptor understood well the passions of the
statue's subject, a man who sneered with contempt for those weaker than himself, yet
fed his people because of something in his heart ("The hand that mocked them and the
heart that fed"). On the pedestal of the statue appear the words: "My name is
Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" But around
the decaying ruin of the statue, nothing remains, only the "lone and level sands,"
which stretch out around it, far away.
"Ozymandias" is a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem metered in iambic pentameter. The
rhyme scheme is somewhat unusual for a sonnet of this era; it does not fit a
conventional Petrarchan pattern, but instead interlinks the octave (a term for the first
eight lines of a sonnet) with the sestet (a term for the last six lines), by gradually
replacing old rhymes with new ones in the form ABABACDCEDEFEF.
This sonnet from 1817 is probably Shelley's most famous and most anthologized
poem--which is somewhat strange, considering that it is in many ways an atypical
poem for Shelley, and that it touches little upon the most important themes in his
oeuvre at large (beauty, expression, love, imagination). Still, "Ozymandias" is a
masterful sonnet. Essentially it is devoted to a single metaphor: the shattered, ruined
statue in the desert wasteland, with its arrogant, passionate face and monomaniacal
inscription ("Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"). The once-great king's
proud boast has been ironically disproved; Ozymandias's works have crumbled and
disappeared, his civilization is gone, all has been turned to dust by the impersonal,
indiscriminate, destructive power of history. The ruined statue is now merely a
monument to one man's hubris, and a powerful statement about the insignificance of
human beings to the passage of time. Ozymandias is first and foremost a metaphor for
the ephemeral nature of political power, and in that sense the poem is Shelley's most
outstanding political sonnet, trading the specific rage of a poem like "England in
1819" for the crushing impersonal metaphor of the statue. But Ozymandias
symbolizes not only political power--the statue can be a metaphor for the pride and
hubris of all of humanity, in any of its manifestations. It is significant that all that
remains of Ozymandias is a work of art and a group of words; as Shakespeare does in
the sonnets, Shelley demonstrates that art and language long outlast the other legacies
Of course, it is Shelley's brilliant poetic rendering of the story, and not the subject of
the story itself, which makes the poem so memorable. Framing the sonnet as a story
told to the speaker by "a traveller from an antique land" enables Shelley to add
another level of obscurity to Ozymandias's position with regard to the reader--rather
than seeing the statue with our own eyes, so to speak, we hear about it from someone
who heard about it from someone who has seen it. Thus the ancient king is rendered
even less commanding; the distancing of the narrative serves to undermine his power
over us just as completely as has the passage of time. Shelley's description of the
statue works to reconstruct, gradually, the figure of the "king of kings": first we see
merely the "shattered visage," then the face itself, with its "frown / And wrinkled lip
and sneer of cold command"; then we are introduced to the figure of the sculptor, and
are able to imagine the living man sculpting the living king, whose face wore the
expression of the passions now inferable; then we are introduced to the king's people
in the line, "the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed." The kingdom is now
imaginatively complete, and we are introduced to the extraordinary, prideful boast of
the king: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" With that, the poet
demolishes our imaginary picture of the king, and interposes centuries of ruin
between it and us: "'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' / Nothing beside
remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and
level sands stretch far away."
"Ode to the West Wind"
The speaker invokes the "wild West Wind" of autumn, which scatters the dead leaves
and spreads seeds so that they may be nurtured by the spring, and asks that the wind, a
"destroyer and preserver," hear him. The speaker calls the wind the "dirge / Of the
dying year," and describes how it stirs up violent storms, and again implores it to hear
him. The speaker says that the wind stirs the Mediterranean from "his summer
dreams," and cleaves the Atlantic into choppy chasms, making the "sapless foliage" of
the ocean tremble, and asks for a third time that it hear him.
The speaker says that if he were a dead leaf that the wind could bear, or a cloud it
could carry, or a wave it could push, or even if he were, as a boy, "the comrade" of
the wind's "wandering over heaven," then he would never have needed to pray to the
wind and invoke its powers. He pleads with the wind to lift him "as a wave, a leaf, a
cloud!"--for though he is like the wind at heart, untamable and proud--he is now
chained and bowed with the weight of his hours upon the earth.
The speaker asks the wind to "make me thy lyre," to be his own Spirit, and to drive
his thoughts across the universe, "like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth." He
asks the wind, by the incantation of this verse, to scatter his words among mankind, to
be the "trumpet of a prophecy." Speaking both in regard to the season and in regard to
the effect upon mankind that he hopes his words to have, the speaker asks: "If winter
comes, can spring be far behind?"
Each of the seven parts of "Ode to the West Wind" contains five stanzas--four three-
line stanzas and a two-line couplet, all metered in iambic pentameter. The rhyme
scheme in each part follows a pattern known as terza rima, the three-line rhyme
scheme employed by Dante in his Divine Comedy. In the three-line terza rima stanza,
the first and third lines rhyme, and the middle line does not; then the end sound of that
middle line is employed as the rhyme for the first and third lines in the next stanza.
The final couplet rhymes with the middle line of the last three-line stanza. Thus each
of the seven parts of "Ode to the West Wind" follows this scheme: ABA BCB CDC
The wispy, fluid terza rima of "Ode to the West Wind" finds Shelley taking a long
thematic leap beyond the scope of "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and incorporating
his own art into his meditation on beauty and the natural world. Shelley invokes the
wind magically, describing its power and its role as both "destroyer and preserver,"
and asks the wind to sweep him out of his torpor "as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!" In the
fifth section, the poet then takes a remarkable turn, transforming the wind into a
metaphor for his own art, the expressive capacity that drives "dead thoughts" like
"withered leaves" over the universe, to "quicken a new birth"--that is, to quicken the
coming of the spring. Here the spring season is a metaphor for a "spring" of human
consciousness, imagination, liberty, or morality--all the things Shelley hoped his art
could help to bring about in the human mind. Shelley asks the wind to be his spirit,
and in the same movement he makes it his metaphorical spirit, his poetic faculty,
which will play him like a musical instrument, the way the wind strums the leaves of
the trees. The thematic implication is significant: whereas the older generation of
Romantic poets viewed nature as a source of truth and authentic experience, the
younger generation largely viewed nature as a source of beauty and aesthetic
experience. In this poem, Shelley explicitly links nature with art by finding powerful
natural metaphors with which to express his ideas about the power, import, quality,
and ultimate effect of aesthetic expression.
"The Indian Serenade"
Addressing his beloved, the speaker says that he arises from "dreams of thee / In the
first sweet sleep of night, / When the winds are breathing low, / And the stars are
shining bright." He says that "a spirit in my feet" has led him--"who knows how?"--to
his beloved's chamber-window. Outside, in the night, the "wandering airs" faint upon
the stream, "the Champak odours fail / Like sweet thoughts in a dream," and the
nightingale's complaint" dies upon her heart--as the speaker says he must die upon his
beloved's heart. Overwhelmed with emotion, he falls to the ground ("I die, I faint, I
fail!"), and implores his beloved to lift him from the grass, and to rain kisses upon his
lips and eyelids. He says that his cheek is cold and white, and his heart is loud and
fast: he pleads, "Oh! press it to thine own again, / Where it will break at last."
The trancelike, enchanting rhythm of this lovely lyric results from the poet's use of a
loose pattern of regular dimeters that employ variously trochaic, anapestic, and iambic
stresses. The rhyme scheme is tighter than the poem's rhythm, forming a consistent
ABCBADCD pattern in each of the three stanzas.
This charming short lyric is one of Shelley's finest, simplest, and most exemplary love
poems. It tells a simple story of a speaker who wakes, walks through the beautiful
Indian night to his beloved's window, then falls to the ground, fainting and overcome
with emotion. The lush sensual language of the poem evokes an atmosphere of
nineteenth-century exoticism and Orientalism, with the "Champak odours" failing as
"The wandering airs they faint / On the dark, the silent stream," as "the winds are
breathing low, / And the stars are shining bright." The poet employs a subtle tension
between the speaker's world of inner feeling and the beautiful outside world; this
tension serves to motivate the poem, as the inner dream gives way to the journey,
imbuing "a spirit in my feet"; then the outer world becomes a mold or model for the
speaker's inner feeling ("The nightingale's complaint / It dies upon her heart, / As I
must die on thine..."), and at that moment the speaker is overwhelmed by his powerful
emotions, which overcome his body: "My cheek is cold and white, alas! / My heart
beats loud and fast..."
In this sense "The Indian Serenade" mixes the sensuous, rapturous aestheticism of a
certain kind of Romantic love poem (of Keats, for example) with the transcendental
emotionalism of another kind of Romantic love poem (often represented by
Coleridge). The beautiful landscape of fainting airs and low-breathing winds acts
upon the poet's agitated, dreamy emotions to overwhelm him in both the aesthetic and
emotional realm--both the physical, outer world and the spiritual, inner world--and his
body is helpless to resist the resultant thunderclap: "I die! I faint! I fail!"
"To a Skylark"
The speaker, addressing a skylark, says that it is a "blithe Spirit" rather than a bird, for
its song comes from Heaven, and from its full heart pours "profuse strains of
unpremeditated art." The skylark flies higher and higher, "like a cloud of fire" in the
blue sky, singing as it flies. In the "golden lightning" of the sun, it floats and runs, like
"an unbodied joy." As the skylark flies higher and higher, the speaker loses sight of it,
but is still able to hear its "shrill delight," which comes down as keenly as moonbeams
in the "white dawn," which can be felt even when they are not seen. The earth and air
ring with the skylark's voice, just as Heaven overflows with moonbeams when the
moon shines out from behind "a lonely cloud."
The speaker says that no one knows what the skylark is, for it is unique: even
"rainbow clouds" do not rain as brightly as the shower of melody that pours from the
skylark. The bird is "like a poet hidden / In the light of thought," able to make the
world experience "sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not." It is like a lonely
maiden in a palace tower, who uses her song to soothe her lovelorn soul. It is like a
golden glow-worm, scattering light among the flowers and grass in which it is hidden.
It is like a rose embowered in its own green leaves, whose scent is blown by the wind
until the bees are faint with "too much sweet." The skylark's song surpasses "all that
ever was, / Joyous and clear and fresh," whether the rain falling on the "twinkling
grass" or the flowers the rain awakens.
Calling the skylark "Sprite or Bird," the speaker asks it to tell him its "sweet
thoughts," for he has never heard anyone or anything call up "a flood of rapture so
divine." Compared to the skylark's, any music would seem lacking. What objects, the
speaker asks, are "the fountains of thy happy strain?" Is it fields, waves, mountains,
the sky, the plain, or "love of thine own kind" or "ignorance or pain"? Pain and
languor, the speaker says, "never came near" the skylark: it loves, but has never
known "love's sad satiety." Of death, the skylark must know "things more true and
deep" than mortals could dream; otherwise, the speaker asks, "how could thy notes
flow in such a crystal stream?"
For mortals, the experience of happiness is bound inextricably with the experience of
sadness: dwelling upon memories and hopes for the future, mortal men "pine for what
is not"; their laughter is "fraught" with "some pain"; their "sweetest songs are those
that tell of saddest thought." But, the speaker says, even if men could "scorn / Hate
and pride and fear," and were born without the capacity to weep, he still does not
know how they could ever approximate the joy expressed by the skylark. Calling the
bird a "scorner of the ground," he says that its music is better than all music and all
poetry. He asks the bird to teach him "half the gladness / That thy brain must know,"
for then he would overflow with "harmonious madness," and his song would be so
beautiful that the world would listen to him, even as he is now listening to the skylark.
The eccentric, songlike, five-line stanzas of "To a Skylark"--all twenty-one of them--
follow the same pattern: the first four lines are metered in trochaic trimeter, the fifth
in iambic hexameter (a line which can also be called an Alexandrine). The rhyme
scheme of each stanza is extremely simple: ABABB.
If the West Wind was Shelley's first convincing attempt to articulate an aesthetic
philosophy through metaphors of nature, the skylark is his greatest natural metaphor
for pure poetic expression, the "harmonious madness" of pure inspiration. The
skylark's song issues from a state of purified existence, a Wordsworthian notion of
complete unity with Heaven through nature; its song is motivated by the joy of that
uncomplicated purity of being, and is unmixed with any hint of melancholy or of the
bittersweet, as human joy so often is. The skylark's unimpeded song rains down upon
the world, surpassing every other beauty, inspiring metaphor and making the speaker
believe that the bird is not a mortal bird at all, but a "Spirit," a "sprite," a "poet hidden
/ In the light of thought."
In that sense, the skylark is almost an exact twin of the bird in Keats's "Ode to a
Nightingale"; both represent pure expression through their songs, and like the skylark,
the nightingale "wast not born for death." But while the nightingale is a bird of
darkness, invisible in the shadowy forest glades, the skylark is a bird of daylight,
invisible in the deep bright blue of the sky. The nightingale inspires Keats to feel "a
drowsy numbness" of happiness that is also like pain, and that makes him think of
death; the skylark inspires Shelley to feel a frantic, rapturous joy that has no part of
pain. To Keats, human joy and sadness are inextricably linked, as he explains at
length in the final stanza of the "Ode on Melancholy." But the skylark sings free of all
human error and complexity, and while listening to his song, the poet feels free of
those things, too.
Structurally and linguistically, this poem is almost unique among Shelley's works; its
strange form of stanza, with four compact lines and one very long line, and its lilting,
songlike diction ("profuse strains of unpremeditated art") work to create the effect of
spontaneous poetic expression flowing musically and naturally from the poet's mind.
Structurally, each stanza tends to make a single, quick point about the skylark, or to
look at it in a sudden, brief new light; still, the poem does flow, and gradually
advances the mini-narrative of the speaker watching the skylark flying higher and
higher into the sky, and envying its untrammeled inspiration--which, if he were to
capture it in words, would cause the world to listen.
How does Shelley's treatment of nature differ from that of the earlier Romantic poets?
What connections does he make between nature and art, and how does he illustrate
Whereas older Romantic poets looked at nature as a realm of communion with pure
existence and with a truth preceding human experience, the later Romantics looked at
nature primarily as a realm of overwhelming beauty and aesthetic pleasure. While
Wordsworth and Coleridge often write about nature in itself, Shelley tends to invoke
nature as a sort of supreme metaphor for beauty, creativity, and expression. This
means that most of Shelley's poems about art rely on metaphors of nature as their
means of expression: the West Wind in "Ode to the West Wind" becomes a symbol of
the poetic faculty spreading Shelley's words like leaves among mankind, and the
skylark in "To a Skylark" becomes a symbol of the purest, most joyful, and most
inspired creative impulse. The skylark is not a bird, it is a "poet hidden."
How and why does Shelley believe poetry to be an instrument of moral good? What
impact does this belief have on his poems, if any?
As Shelley explains in his essay A Defence of Poetry, he believes that poetry expands
and nurtures the imagination, and that the imagination enables sympathy, and that
sympathy, or an understanding of another human being's situation, is the basis of
moral behavior. His belief that poetry can contribute to the moral and social
improvement of mankind impacts his poems in several ways. Shelley writes his
poems in fulfillment of the responsibility to exercise the imagination and provide it
with beauty and pleasure; thus his poems become whimsically imaginative in content
and manner. The sense of this "responsibility" also adds urgency to Shelley's poetic
product, and makes the widespread reading of the poems a central and explicit goal:
thus Shelley's speaker makes declarations such as those in "Ode to the West Wind"
and "To a Skylark", expressing his desire that his words will spread amongst
Many of Shelley's poems include a climactic moment, an instant when the poet's
feelings overwhelm him and overwhelm his poem. What are some of these moments?
How do they relate to the poems as wholes? How are they typical of the poetic
personality Shelley brings to his writing?
The most obvious example of such a climactic moment is the speaker's collapse at the
beginning of the third stanza of "The Indian Serenade"; one might also include the
poet's cry "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" in "Ode to the West Wind," and "To
a Skylark" as accounts of such moments sustained for an entire poem and distilled
from all feelings of lesser intensity. These moments show both the power of the
outside world to affect Shelley's inner feelings, and the power of these feelings in and
of themselves--Shelley responded very intensely to the world, and in his poems the
world is a place to which one can respond only intensely.
Think about Shelley's use of the sonnet form in "England in 1819" and "Ozymandias."
How does he shape the form to his own purposes? How does his use of the sonnet
form break from the established traditions of the early 1800s?
Shelley was a political radical who never shied away from expressing his opinions
about oppression and injustice--he was expelled from Oxford in 1811 for applying his
radicalism to religion and arguing for the necessity of atheism. What do we learn
about Shelley's ideal vision of the human condition, as based on his political poems?
With particular attention to "Ode to the West Wind," how might a sense of his social
hopes emerge from even a non-political poem?
In some ways Shelley is a creature of contradictions: he was an atheist who wrote
hymns, a scandalous and controversial figure who argued for ethical behavior, an
educated aristocrat who argued for the liberation of humankind, and a sensuous
Romantic poet whose fondest hope was that his poems would exert a moral influence
over the human imagination. How can one resolve these contradictions? (Are they
even resolvable?) How do they manifest themselves in his poetry?
Shelley lived a fascinating and turbulent life among fascinating and turbulent people,
from Lord Byron, the most famous, controversial, and popular poet of the era, to his
wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein. How does a knowledge of Shelley's biography
(and early death) affect your appreciation of his poetry? Or does it affect it at all? Is it
necessary to know about Shelley's life and times in order to fully understand the
IN ELEGY, A POETIC VOICE confronts the threat of its own dissolution, and
works to forge an enduring, living form by which its author merits inclusion in a
pantheon of the poets. Elegy is an inaugural genre, most attractive to a poet on the
cusp of his (or her) literary career. From the outset, Adonais, the pastoral elegy that
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote for his fellow poet, John Keats, strikes an odd note. It
was written at a time when pastoral elegy had become both obsolete and explicitly
maligned. Furthermore, Adonais comes from the pen of a poet not just mature but
even infamous. Alastor, the long elegiac poem that anchors Shelley's first published
poetic work, comes closer to fitting the traditional pattern. Though ending on a
dismal note, Alastor marks a poetic birth, not least of all through a pointed refusal of
the traditional tropes of elegy that defines the terrain of Shelley's own surpassing
genius. Five years later, however, in Adonais, Shelley adopts the conventions of
pastoral elegy with a tenacious energy. The resulting poem has struck many as
bound by mortality and marked by despair. Rather than going forward, like Milton's
Swain, "to flesh Woods, and Pastures new," Adonais is by turns tired out,
overwrought, and spectacularly suicidal.
To understand Adonais, a poem so fiercely traditional that it seems anachronistic,
we need to consider both its handling of the conventions that it inherits from the
tradition of pastoral elegy and how Shelley's use of them reflects and responds to the
condition of the poet in the early nineteenth century Shelley's poem is driven by the
profound shifts in the profession of poetry occasioned by the rise of print culture and
a marketplace of letters. These developments altered relations between readers,
writers, and texts. Whereas the manuscript circles wherein literary work circulated
in an earlier age allowed writers a high degree of influence over both the material
dimensions of their texts and how they might be read, print culture opened these
intimate relations to third parties such as publishers, printers, and periodical review.
Adonais, as it frames the death of Keats in the context of a vicious paper war, makes
these concerns central to its elegiac work. As Shelley knew from his own
experience, publishers and reviewers shaped the field of reading and writing in
distinctive ways, and with palpable impact on writers' lives. In a larger sense,
weaker bonds between writers and readers, and the emerging strength of the market
allowed writers and readers to imagine each other differently. Readers gained
increased sway as buyers and consumers of literary material, and writers acquired
cultural prominence, or notoriety, as the owners of their works.
In recent years, discussion of elegy, with Peter Sacks's The English Elegy at the
forefront, has addressed the genre in the context of psychoanalytic models that
structure maturation, both personal and poetic.(1) Sacks's work revitalized the study
of elegy by freeing it from a dry cataloguing of conventions, on the one hand, and
from an overemphasis on expression that eclipsed the author's participation in a
public generic discourse, on the other. Linking literary performance, psychoanalytic
development, and the anthropology of mourning, Sacks gave critics an impressive
handling of the conventions of elegy in the context of a powerful interpretive model.
A number of critics, however, have complained that this model is too narrow to
accommodate the full range of elegiac utterance, and that it falls short of the real
quality of lived experience with loss. Critics working with elegies by women argue
that an oedipal model fails to account for how elegies by women may embody a
different set of conventions and an alternative conception of purpose.(2) Critics
working with modern and contemporary elegies, which often deviate significantly
from Sacks's norm, take issue with a too rigid demarcation of normative and
pathological forms of mourning. Jahan Ramazani, for example, in his Poetry of
Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney, suggests that mourning and
melancholia are contrasting emphases within mourning and its successful literary
expression. For Ramazani, "melancholic mourning" is both a more apt description of
lived experiences with loss and a more accurate description of the anti-elegiac
shapes of the modern elegy. In the modern era, Ramazani argues, melancholia or
anger may provide the elegist with his or her only and best recourse to effectively
mourn the dead in the midst of a fast-paced culture intent on forgetting them.(3)
The problem of memory and adequate commemoration under the stress of modern
culture has likewise prompted Dominick LaCapra to posit a revised and enlarged
concept of mourning or working through. In History, Theory, Trauma: Representing
the Holocaust, LaCapra argues that a successful work of mourning--one that honors
the dead and avoids denial--must recognize "loss that cannot be made good: scars
that will not disappear and even wounds that will not heal."(4) In History and
Memory after Auschwitz, LaCapra expands on this notion. He defines successful
working through as an act of memory that recognizes differences between the
present and the past, and that enacts a performative relation to the past, remembering
and taking leave of it in a way that allows for critical judgment and a reinvestment
in social life; but he also argues that it may only proceed by acting out or falling
silent. For LaCapra, an expanded notion of mourning that clears a place for
melancholia and silence is the only way to invest the process with an appropriate
ethical dimension, respecting others and otherness, and resisting the tendency to
reduce real, historical trauma to an illustrative or explanatory instance of larger,
ahistorical patterns which appear in many societies and many contexts across a
broad time frame.(5)