This is an extraordinary interview, and everyone should watch it. I have something important to tell humanity.
This is an extraordinary interview, and everyone should watch it. I have something important to tell humanity.
SO LONG, PLANET EARTH!: An analysis of ODE TO THE WEST WIND (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to Clive Hazell
Bad news, humans! The Andromeda Galaxy is barreling toward the Milky Way, the sun of our solar system will explode, will extinguish itself, as all stars do, and, long before either of these things happen, most of the Planet Earth will become uninhabitably hot. All of the planets within our galaxy, with the exception of Earth, are unlivable, which means that the human species, if it is to survive at all, will have to trickle away the rest of its existence in spacecraft. Otherwise, we are hurtling toward our extinction and oblivion as if we were a suicide of lemmings.
Percy Bysshe Shelley saw all of this coming and wrote a poem about the destruction of our world, in the autumn of 1819, when the poet was twenty-seven, entitled “Ode to the West Wind.” It recalls an earlier poem by Albrecht von Haller entitled “Incomplete Poem on Eternity” (1736), which was quoted by Immanuel Kant in his youthful essay “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and of the Sublime” (1764). (It is not entirely certain whether Shelley read Kant, much less Haller. See Hugh Roberts’ article “Shelley among the Post-Kantians.”) Both poems—that of Shelley and that of Haller—are chillingly apocalyptic and yet also celebratory of the apocalypse, the coming of what Haller described as “the second nothingness” that will “bury” us all.
The ode is divided into five groups. Each group contains five stanzas. The first four stanzas in each group are three lines long; the last stanza of each group is a rhyming couplet. The entire poem is written in iambic pentameter: Each line has ten syllables; the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed. It begins thus:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
The West Wind is like an invisible exorcist that expels leaves in the way that an exorcist expels ghosts. Thus far, the poem seems to be nothing more than the description of a natural phenomenon that uses a supernatural simile: A natural phenomenon (the West Wind) is likened to a supernatural force (the enchanter) that drives away another supernatural force (ghosts). Until we read of the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” who are escorted to their mass-death. “Multitudes” evokes human beings, not leaves—sick human beings, poor human beings.
When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, England was horribly impoverished. It was a time of famine, grave poverty, and deep unemployment. Thanks to the Corn Laws of 1815, the import of corn was blocked, and the multitudes were starving.
At this point, one of the meanings generated by the poem is clear: This is an ode that welcomes the death of humanity (as it was in the early nineteenth century) and the birth of a new humanity. The poem suggests that the Apocalypse might not be such a bad idea, after all. It is not a misanthropic poem, however, since Shelley is not opposed to humanity as such; indeed, he (the paper Shelley) affirms the advent of a better humanity. I hesitate to use the word nihilistic, since the poem is not absent of value. Value-building is all that the poem does. There is a value presented in the poem, and it is the value of preservative destruction: The westerly wind is named a “Wild Spirit,” at the close of the first section, and both a “destroyer” and a “preserver.” It is the unseen presence that destroys the immiserated multitudes and the regal chariot that bears the seeds of a new humanity to their wintry sleep, to be awakened by the Spring Wind. The West Wind, then, has two functions: to destroy lost contemporary humanity and to plant the seeds for a stronger future humanity.
At the close of the first stanza, as at the close of the second and the third, the narrator sounds a clarion call, a plangent summons to the West Wind (which is apostrophized by the familiar “Thou”): “oh, hear!”
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!
The focus of the poem shifts from the ground to the sky. To be precise: The view of the poem moves from the leaves that are being dispersed, like rioters in a mob, to the clouds that are being dispelled by the aerial force of the West Wind. No longer does the poem look down upon the poverty-stricken multitudes; now, the poem looks up at the Castlereaghs and the Eldons. No love is shown for the upper classes, which are likened to a bacchante’s tresses.
It is important to place the poem in the age in which it was written. Shelley had already condemned the government of Lord Liverpool for butchering the British people at Peterloo, Manchester (16 August 1819), in a rage-incented and rage-incenting poem entitled “The Masque of Anarchy.” Shelley was no nihilistic, ennui-drowsy elitist wishing for the death of the poor and uneducated masses. The paper Shelley, at least, wishes for the West Wind to sweep away everyone and everything that currently exists, both low and high.
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!
The tyrannies of the world—the violently repressive British government among them—are overthrown by the annihilating gust. The great wind dreamed, and this is what it dreamed: The wind envisioned the “old palaces and towers” reflected in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. And these “old palaces and towers” were “all overgrown with azure moss and flowers.” Swathes of invasive vegetation colonize the city, which is transmuting into a jungle—an ever-growing, ever-flourishing, ever-blossoming jungle.
This is the last time that the prophet will summon the West Wind. Now, it is the prophet himself who will become the focus of the poem. I use the masculine pronoun because it is clear that the narrator is a he in the fourth section:
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
The prophet, far from exempting himself from the wind’s sweepings, calls to the wind to carry him along as if he were a leaf, a cloud, or a wave. At first, it seems as if the prophet were calling for his own self-negation, but then notice how he quickly calls himself a “comrade” of the wind in Stanza Three and then identifies himself with the wind in the second line of the couplet: “[o]ne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.” One cannot escape the impression that the prophet sees himself as something more than a leaf, a cloud, or a wave. If anything, this is self-deification, the raising of the Self to the godhood. This is anthropotheism, similar to the anthropotheism that Feuerbach saw in Christianity: Christians attribute the best parts of themselves to God.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Translation: Let my leaves emerge from the nothingness that the wind will leave in its wake. Le me be revivified after the wind’s many destructions and annihilations. Let my poems revitalize the dead Earth. Like any good Romantic figure, Shelley’s prophet desires to unify himself with nature, but this does not mean that he would be swallowed up by nature — it means, rather, that he would swallow nature, engulf nature, interiorize nature, transform nature into the Self: “Be thou me.” This is, again, not self-obliteration; it is anthropotheism, the aggressive self-assertion of the human will. The poet’s song will outlast the wind.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript. German Romanticism (of the Jena period) is nostalgic for the reunification of subject and object, self and world. English Romanticism seems to want the same thing, except, in the English Romantic imagination, the Self dominates Nature. It wants Nature to capitulate to the Self.
Compare Shelley with Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A commentary on “Eveline” (1904-1907; published in 1914), from James Joyce’s Dubliners
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.
Notice that Eveline is not named at the beginning of the story. Her name is given in the title, it is true, but not in the first sentence of the text. She is a nameless passive percipient, rather than an agent (an actor). She does not act; she observes. It is the evening that is performing an action; it is the evening that is acting. The evening is invading—Eveline is already paralyzed, immobile, static at the very opening of the story, as she will be at the story’s close.
Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Joyce does not write, “She leaned her head against the window curtains…” He writes that her head was leaned. The head is described as an object, as the object of an action. The head was leaned—this means that Eveline was not leaning her own head; someone or something was leaning her head against the window curtains. The use of the passive voice illuminates Eveline’s own passivity and immobility.
In her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne: The odour of the heavy fabric enveloping the furniture was invading Eveline’s nostrils. Again, an image of invasion, of infiltration, of violation. She was tired: This was Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite of all sentences, presumably because the simplicity of the language is a red herring, distracting the reader from the complexities of the text-web.
Few people passed. The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.
The last house where? Where is the cinder path? Where are the new red houses? It is difficult to locate any of these things. Joyce is generally very good with space and with describing the placement of objects within spaces, but here, he leaves it to the reader to imagine where the last house is, where the cinder path is, and where the new red houses are.
One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children. Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it—not like their little brown houses but bright brick houses with shining roofs. The children of the avenue used to play together in that field—the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters.
Notice that Eveline places herself after the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, and little Keogh the cripple. “Devine” is assonant with “Eveline,” and yet Eveline is subordinate to the Devines. Already we have a sense that this girl has abysmal self-esteem.
Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up. Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming.
“In” and “out” are a strange coupling of prepositions. What does it mean to hunt children in out of the field? Shouldn’t the independent clause read: Her father used often to hunt them out of the field? Incidentally: “To keep nix” means “to be on the lookout.”
Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead. Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England. Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.
If Eveline’s father was not so bad then, just imagine how bad he is when the story takes place.
Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from.
Eveline identifies herself as a duster-of-inanimate-objects.
Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided.
She does not distinguish herself from the static objects that surround her. At the end of the story, when she has the opportunity to realize her human freedom and spontaneity, she imitates the inertia of inactive objects.
And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Beloved of Irish Catholics, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was a French Catholic nun who was the embodiment to pious devotion to tradition—much in the same way that Eveline is piously devoted to her family and her homeland.
He had been a school friend of her father. Whenever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word:
“He is in Melbourne now.”
She had consented to go away, to leave her home.
The fact that she describes her decision to escape Dublin as one of consent implies that she does not see that decision as her own, but rather as one that has been made for her and one to which she has assented.
Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question.
Apparently, she assented reluctantly. Her mind has not yet been made up. The reader also is invited to weigh each side of the question: Should she leave? Should she have left? No answer is given. A literary work of art, “Eveline” provokes questions that it never answers; it never gives readers the means of answering these questions.
In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her. Of course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business. What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool, perhaps; and her place would be filled up by advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.
“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”
“Look lively, Miss Hill, please.”
She would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.
But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations.
At this point, one has to wonder why any person of sense would want to stay in the Hill household. Her father is abusive; this much is clear. She is treated derogatorily by her employer, Miss Gavan. Her brother Ernest and mother are dead. She is suffering from violent paroxysms, tremors brought on by her father’s abuse. What is there to keep her in Dublin? And trying her luck in the open air of Buenos Ayres would afford her a new possibility. Though not everything that is possible is positive, at least she would have the possibility of something positive in her life.
When they were growing up he had never gone for her like he used to go for Harry and Ernest, because she was a girl but latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother’s sake. And now she had nobody to protect her. Ernest was dead and Harry, who was in the church decorating business, was nearly always down somewhere in the country. Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably. She always gave her entire wages—seven shillings—and Harry always sent up what he could but the trouble was to get any money from her father. He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn’t going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more, for he was usually fairly bad on Saturday night. In the end he would give her the money and ask her had she any intention of buying Sunday’s dinner. Then she had to rush out as quickly as she could and do her marketing, holding her black leather purse tightly in her hand as she elbowed her way through the crowds and returning home late under her load of provisions. She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work—a hard life—but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.
She was about to explore another life with Frank. Frank was very kind, manly, open-hearted. She was to go away with him by the night-boat to be his wife and to live with him in Buenos Ayres where he had a home waiting for her. How well she remembered the first time she had seen him; he was lodging in a house on the main road where she used to visit. It seemed a few weeks ago. He was standing at the gate, his peaked cap pushed back on his head and his hair tumbled forward over a face of bronze. Then they had come to know each other. He used to meet her outside the Stores every evening and see her home. He took her to see The Bohemian Girl and she felt elated as she sat in an unaccustomed part of the theatre with him. He was awfully fond of music and sang a little. People knew that they were courting and, when he sang about the lass that loves a sailor, she always felt pleasantly confused. He used to call her Poppens out of fun. First of all it had been an excitement for her to have a fellow and then she had begun to like him. He had tales of distant countries. He had started as a deck boy at a pound a month on a ship of the Allan Line going out to Canada. He told her the names of the ships he had been on and the names of the different services. He had sailed through the Straits of Magellan and he told her stories of the terrible Patagonians.
Now, the bit about the Patagonians makes me wonder if Frank is a liar. A chronicler of Magellan’s expeditions wrote that the Patagonians were a race of giants. Is Frank repeating the same myth of the “terrible Patagonians”? If Frank is telling Eveline such nonsense, this should lead us to question the integrity of his intentions.
He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres, he said, and had come over to the old country just for a holiday. Of course, her father had found out the affair and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.
“I know these sailor chaps,” he said.
Is the father necessarily incorrect? As dour as Eveline’s life is in Dublin, is it not preferable to being seduced and abandoned in South America? There is no way to know with authority whether or not Frank is a reptilian seducer. He very well might be a boa constrictor in human form. Not even Frank might know if he is a seducer, if we consider the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity. Frank is inscrutable to us, and perhaps Frank is even inscrutable to himself. The inscrutability of Frank summons forth the indeterminacy of life itself.
One day he had quarrelled with Frank and after that she had to meet her lover secretly.
The evening deepened in the avenue. The white of two letters in her lap grew indistinct. One was to Harry; the other was to her father. Ernest had been her favourite but she liked Harry too. Her father was becoming old lately, she noticed; he would miss her. Sometimes he could be very nice. Not long before, when she had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mother’s bonnet to make the children laugh.
The atypical tenderness of the father only serves to underline his general abusiveness.
Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.
The grammar changes here: Now, Eveline is playing a more active role: She was leaning her head, she was inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.
Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air. Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy.
The song of the Italian organ-player conjures the most dominant figure in Eveline’s life. Neither her father, her surviving brother Harry, nor Frank, her lover, but rather her dead-yet-deathless mother. The mother is resurrected, invoked by the organ-player’s song, and reminds Eveline of the latter’s death-bed oath to glue together the unglueable pieces of their shattered family. As if to hook and draw Eveline into the tomb. To save her from life.
The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying:
“Damned Italians! coming over here!”
The father’s hatred of itinerant foreigners stands in contrast to the Wanderlust of Frank, an émigré from Ireland who travels to the “good air” of Buenos Ayres.
As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.
Notice the use of the verb to close. Three sentences before, Joyce used close as an adjective. Here, he is using close as a verb. This is paronomasia (punning). An adjective in one sentence is used as a verb in another. The fact that Joyce is using close twice in proximity means something: Close evokes the sepulchral narrowness of the life that Eveline will choose.
She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:
“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”
This is, apparently, corrupt Gaelic for: “The end of pleasure is pain! The end of pleasure is pain!” It is as if the mother were admonishing her daughter from beyond the grave to avoid pleasure—to live in a narrow life of nun-like self-renunciation, to stay mired in the misery in Dublin, to languish in Dublin, to duplicate the self-negations of her mother’s life and the insanities of her mother’s dying. These are irenic words, sibylline utterances. They are necrotic commandments, words spoken from the tomb, words spoken from deathness.
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.
And she would not, then, save herself? This passage highlights, more than any other, why Eveline is immobilized. Rather than will to escape, she wills not to have a will. She wills to let someone else make the decisions for her. Her absence of self-determination is the reason that she is likely condemned to the self-negating boredom and insanity that marked her mother’s life.
She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes.
Joyce, again, is very good at describing place—particularly, at describing blockages. A less talented writer would have merely pointed to the existence of the boat. A less talented writer would have merely described the boat. Joyce describes the visual impediments, the obstructions that impede the view of the ocean liner. The black mass of the boat is seen through the wide doors of the sheds—an image of blockage, of separation. The sheds are emblematic of the self-imposed barriers that divide Eveline from freedom.
She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.
A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:
All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.
No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.
It is difficult to believe, but Joyce—one of the greatest literary artists who ever lived—makes a usage error in this passage. Amid, which means “in the midst of,” should only be placed before singular nouns. Seas is a plural noun and should take among.
He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
Nothing has changed within Eveline since the opening of the story. She is immobile from the beginning of the story unto its end. The blankness of her eyes—their illegibility, their incomprehensible nothingness—can be interpreted to signify anything. Readers may introject their own meanings into those null eyes.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
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