It’s time for my Midweek Recommendation, in which I commend to your attention books or music or movies or anything I find worth recommending.
All right, so I decided after the weekend’s literary trivia question to make the poem in question – Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” – my midweek recommendation. It’s appropriate as a follow-up to my recent post in praise of Autumn, but also as a foil to last week’s recommendation of Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14.”
Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is in some ways a strange poem for a Christian to love, since after all it is essentially a pagan prayer to the West Wind, or perhaps more broadly to Nature itself. And yet, I’m not at all squeamish about saying I love it. It isn’t like Holy Sonnet 14 in that it doesn’t feed my soul or represent my own prayer for God’s Divine intervention into my life. And yet, it doesn’t have to be all of that to be beautiful and to contain in it things of value.
The poem is long, and I will take just a little bit of space to commend it for three things.
1. The language is beautiful – I am, in general, very fond of the English Romantics even though their view of life was often diametrically opposed to my own, and Shelley is no exception. When he is on his game, he writes with both beauty and power. This excerpt from the poem shows this, I think, as it speaks of the power of the wind not only to effect the surface of the mighty ocean, but plants far below…
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 grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
The picture of the foliage on the ocean floor hearing the mighty echo of the West Wind’s voice and trembling and despoiling themselves is really magnificent, isn’t it?
2. The shared human experience is real – Near the end of the poem, we learn that Shelley has been driven to this prayer to the West Wind out of some extremity, and he is desperate for inspiration and aid. He cries out in a moving line, I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! There have certainly been times in my life since this poem first captured me in college, when I have felt the weight that Shelley speaks of just after this, and when I have thought to myself, I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! It is not to the West Wind that I cry out, but his words have at times given me words to utter in the extremity of my own need.
3. The longing for the supernatural is an echo of truth – Shelley’s prayer is directed to the wrong source, but there is in it an echo of what we ought to do, to seek something greater than us when we have been brought to our knees. The urge and longing to seek out the Divine is found here, and that longing for the Divine we can commend as a God-given longing to find that something larger than us to which our hearts bend.
Yes, as I said, it isn’t Donne, but it is worth a read, and I commend it to you.