PERCY SHELLEY’S POETRY
by Matthew Ross
Non-Linear Temporality and Causality, Trans-Dimensional Space, and the Struggle to Grasp it All; Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Pioneer
A to B. Water freezes into ice – fire boils the former and melts the latter. A three-dimensional space with no doors or windows, only walls, cannot possibly be escaped by whatever resides within. A collapsed kingdom exists only in the minds of those who lived under it; that kingdom’s ruins and remains become the relics of history forgotten to the next kingdom’s – the next nation’s – push toward the future. The contemporary world is in the now, and it is the now which truly matters – there can be no better summation of the commonly held perspective on time and space. The Romantic poets, however, thought anything but common thoughts. In a number of his most renowned pieces, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley challenges the common notions of time flowing along a clear continuum, explores the perception that physical space has easily comprehensible limitations, and expounds on human’s tendency to fashion definitions for the laws of our reality in the desperate attempt to understand and reconcile them. In crafting metaphors for these thoughts of his, Shelly has succeeded in providing his readers with not only a lens through which to re-evaluate their perception on these matters, he also has formulated a dialogue through which these facts about our reality may be discussed.
Archaeologist James McGlade writes this on the archaeologist’s perception of time; “Until recently the temporal discourse in archaeology was marked by its objective detachment and almost non-problematic nature; time was some-how self evident.” He begins by outlining the commonly held belief on time; it is linear and, ultimately, objective.” Then, later; “…the experiential nature of time, i.e. its human face has become a dominant focus as an antidote to the omnipresence of objective, measured time within archaeological practice.” McGlade refutes that original belief of an objective time and asserts that a subjective – a non-linear – view on temporal matters is the more accurate perception (McGlade).
This shift of thought – at least among learned archaeologists – occurred in the late 1900’s – well after Percy Bysshe Shelley had already touched on such revelations in his 1818 poem “Ozymandias”. Perhaps his most famed poem, “Ozymandias” is but a narrator hearing the recounting of what a traveller saw. “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desart,” the traveller describes, “Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visages lies, whose frown, and wrinkled lip, the sneer of cold command…(Shelley 776). What this traveller “from an antique land” saw was a ruin in the desert. However, what the traveller may not have realized about his observation – what it seems Shelley wanted to hint at – was the traveller, in truth, interacted with the ruin through his interpretation of it and projection on it’s subjects. The traveller describes a “sneer of cold command” but that he sees a sneer is simply how he interpreted the expression. His description is wrought with cynicism regarding the ruler’s benevolence – but in fact, that ruler may have been well loved by his people. The sneer he sees may instead be a look of contemplation, of pondering – that the traveller sees a sneer is merely his projection, likely based on his own negative experiences with rulers, onto the ruler displayed on the stone. Likewise, the creator of that sculpture – “it sculptor well whose passions read” – may have created his work in the aim of deifying the beloved, contemplative “Ozymandias, King of Kings.” That the traveller thought the sculptor’s hands were “mocking” is, again, that traveller’s interpretation – only instead of then projecting onto the King, he is projecting onto the sculptor. The form of interaction – interpretation and projection of an individual – is identical across generations and subjects; the only difference lies in whether or not the subject’s heart still beats. In crafting “Ozymandias,” it is clear that Shelley sought to expound on these manners of interaction with the past – and in doing so he revealed how the “past” is made to live in the present. The traveller’s experience with a relic of time has crafted an entire interpretation – an entire personal history – of that time. Yet the truth is so much more – the truth is something that may be completely unknowable; Ozymandias may have been cold, but he also may have been well loved. His sculptor may have mocked him – or he may have revered him. That lone sculpture may be a testament to the patheticness of virtues such a order and civilization – or that a sculpture even remains from that civilization may speak to it’s lasting power, especially when compared to all the nations without even broken sculptures left as relics of their existence. The shift of thought McGlade highlights, then, was in truth likely a struggle; archaeologists were forced to recognize and re-evaluate previous perspectives on history with the revelation those perspectives may be tainted by bias. After-all, if the aim of archaeology – the aim of laymen discussing history and it’s facts – is the establishment of an objective framework from which to draw lessons to improve the present and future, then archaeologists and laymen must recognize their tendencies to fall into to the same method of thinking the traveller in “Ozymandias” fell into; one characterized by bias-based interpretation and the forming of potential un-truths due to subsequent projection. As Shelley addresses these issues of time in Ozymandias, he likewise addresses issues of space in another of his prominent works.
In the same way McGlade addresses time in his dissertation, anesthesiologist Peter T. Walling addresses space – and how humans perceive space – in his own. He writes, “Consciousness is indeed strange, straddling the objective and the subjective with no dimensions to call it’s own.” This seems to reflect McGlade’s belief that common perceptions of time as objective must be re-evaluated – but Walling takes that another step by challenging the common notion that an objective reality may even be determined. He uses the example of a rose’s color; “The redness of the rose I see exists in a private domain. I cannot communicate to anyone else what redness is like. Redness and other qualia are subjective phenomena which cannot be described to outsiders” (Walling). In essence, the rose, the object with permanency – existing “objectively” in reality – is not, in truth, objective. That is an illusion, and each individual has their own perspective – their own interpretation – of that illusion. Walling’s red may be the green of this essay’s reader – that reader’s green may be McGlade’s blue. An individual with sharp eyesight may see the rose’s thorns while a blind person may only realize those thorn’s very existence when they prick themselves on them. The rose, an object deceivingly existing in three-dimensional space, in truth exists in a space incomprehensible to us. The rose can be anything – any object or any space – and the allegory remains; the space we perceive is not the space that exists in truth. Shelley, again, comprehended this long before many others.
“Ode to the West Wind” is more than just an ode to the beauty of nature – it is Shelley’s poetic dissertation on the nature of space itself. In the poem’s second stanza, Shelley presents a metaphor for life and death; “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…”(Shelley 791-792). Death is the sepulchure, and confined within – defined by, built and supported by – the multitude of experiences each individual life goes through before death. A sepulchure – as with any other building – is a three-dimensional space. In Shelley’s view, death itself constrains life by nature of seemingly being a space with walls and a roof, with clear boundaries and clear entrances and exits – a clear beginning and end, in other words. This is but a reflection of the fact that while living, our perspectives are seemingly bound to three-dimensions. Even in an open field, for instance, the sky itself is a boundary, and its permanency and our inability to defy the laws of our reality and escape beyond it define that boundary. Just as Shelley asserts, we are bound throughout the duration of our lives because of the very nature of those lives. Shelley, however, may also have envisioned a way beyond those boundaries. Although death is “the dome of a vast sepulchre,” that sepulchure, it seems, has a tendency to explode; “From whose solid atmosphere Black rain and fire and hail will burst….” Shelley describes “fire and hail” bursting from the dome – a seemingly minor bit of vivid imagery that is so much more. By every natural law we know of –by every one of our closest attempts at unearthing the objective reality Walling would renounce as illusionary – fire should melt hail. Fire should consume cold, especially if it has the capacity to explode – yet in Shelley’s metaphor, there is no such melting. Even when, presumably, the source of the hail and the source of the fire were broiling that vast sepulchure, the natural laws of reality were not obeyed. Yet only when the dome explodes is that revealed. Shelley plotted this sequence of events intricately in the aim of not only presenting life as being bound by our very own perceptions – he has also asserted his belief that death is the manner by which those limitations will be escaped. The death of the subjective mind Walling describes is, in essence, the freeing from the spacial confines around it in life articulated on by Shelley. It is no wonder Shelley was pondering such truths – or un-truths – about our reality, especially given his knowledge of – and infatuation with – the Eastern world and it’s philosophies.
Shelley was known for being a voracious reader and studier of ancient and modern philosophies, and that breadth of knowledge was on full-display in works such as “Alastor,” “The Revolt of Islam,” and “Hellas” (Greenblatt 750). In “Ode to the West Wind,” however, Shelley’s narrator invokes a number of deities to “hear” him – and among them is the Hindu god Siva, the “Destroyer and Preserver” (791-792). Alongside evidence in this same poem that Shelley views time non-linearly, it is not a leap to presume that Shelley’s precise view on time is akin to the Hindu view that temporality is cyclical. As Subhomay Das, a Hindu scholar writes on the Hindu views on death; “It is time, which is accountable for old age, death and dying of his creations. When we overcome time, we become immortal. Death is not the end of the line, but a gateway to the next cycle, to birth.” That notion of rebirth through death is reflected in the final line of “Ode to the West Wind”: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” In Shelly’s own words, Winter – embodying death – is naturally followed by Spring – the embodiment of life. For death, there must be rebirth, and for Shelley, perhaps that rebirth is supposed to occur in a space beyond our current comprehension. That notion seems akin to how many perceive death as being a detachment from this reality in some sense – even eternal oblivion is incomprensible to someone living – and such thoughts are often the cause of terror in people. Perhaps that is why Shelley’s narrator is asking so many gods to “hear” him; he needs to voice that terror in order to reconcile it. Perhaps, even, Shelley’s narrator is beseeching the gods to aid him in overcoming his fear of the inevitability of his perception of time coming to an end. In Shelley’s mind, successfully overcoming that fear may spell the secret to immortality beyond the confines of mortal perception. Furthermore, Shelley’s frequent capitalization of the West Wind suggests he holds it in the same esteem as the other gods. He is invoking the West Wind – his own personal god – in the same vein as the others, and begging it to provide him some glimmer of comprehension of these issues. In this, Shelley provides a metaphor for the very reason humanity tends to deify and define truly incomprehensible forces such as time and space; gods of fertility and rebirth such as Siva and Dionysus – also mentioned in “Ode” – are faces humanity envisions so as to commune with those forces. Through that communing – through those attempts at understanding and reconciling with embodiments of those forces – as Shelley attempts to with his West Wind, as Hindus do with Siva and as the Greeks did with Dionysus, various peoples find solace in the midst of a reality defined by limitations and mysteries such as time and space.
Shelley and his Romantic peers were more than poets; they were explorers of unknowable truths – the pioneers for our recognition of the bounds of our reality. In his poems, Shelley asserts his beliefs on the non-linearity of time, pushes the limits of the very space we perceive, and demonstrates how humanity has attempted to reconcile with these incomprehensible notions. In doing so, he has given us readers a framework through which discourse on these issues may be had – it is unfortunate, then, that such transdimensonional discourse is limited by humanity’s three-dimensional dialogue.
Das, Subhamoy. “What Hinduism Teaches about Time.” ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/the-concept-of-time-1770059.
Greenblatt, Stepehen. “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Vol. 2 , no. 9 , W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. New York, pp. 750
McGlade, James “The Times of History: Archaeology, Narrative, and Non-Linear Causality.” Time and Archaeology. Routledge. 1999.
Walling, Peter T., and Kenneth N. Hicks. “Dimensions of Consciousness.”Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center), Baylor Health Care System, Apr. 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201004/.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind.” The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Vol. 2 , no. 9 , W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. New York, pp. 791-792
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias.” The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Vol. 2 , no. 9 , W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. New York, pp. 776
About the Author:
Matthew Ross is a nineteen year old author and poet residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. A college student pursuing English and Administration of Justice degrees and an advocate for the rights of animals, Ross spends his free time hiking in the nearby Mt. Diablo hills, reading, and writing. He takes great pride in the professionalism and discipline he applies to that writing. He aspires to spread his work to as many readers as possible and envisions himself as a teacher and a career writer. Under his belt are three finished novels, a breadth of short-stories, literary essays, plays, and poetry, and he is currently working on a collection of thematically and stylistically connected novellas. He is also currently considering an opportunity to produce a script for a documentary on a groundbreaking medical technology targeted at alleviating the symptoms of neurologically-traumatized soldiers, athletes, and everymen.