The Path Of Shelley's Winged Thoughts

2347 words - 10 pages

The Path of Shelley's 'Winged Thoughts'

Writing much of his poetry on the Continent, away from England where his readership lived, and dying only three years after the composition of much of his best work, Percy Bysshe Shelley had little control over the transmission of his poetry. At the time of its initial publication, “Ode to the West Wind” appeared as part of a larger volume, entitled Prometheus Unbound, also the name of its signature, featured poem which overshadowed “Ode to the West Wind.” Following Shelley’s untimely death, his wife, Mary Shelley, dedicated herself to organizing and publishing Shelley’s work, and is largely responsible for the transmission of Shelley’s work that ...view middle of the document...

Shelley’s notebooks and preserved manuscripts provide much information about the composition history behind ‘Ode to the West Wind.” In mid-October, 1819, Shelley walked along the river Arno, located near Florence, watched the autumn wind rustle and sweep the leaves strewn about the ground, and drew inspiration for the composition of “Ode to the West Wind.” Shelley’s own note included with the published version of the poem states, “This poem was conceived…one a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains.” (Wu, 859) His notebooks show the meticulous level of observation with which Shelley studied this scene; one page of preliminary notes contains a drawing of a winged seed, a natural entity with the potential to be moved across the earth by the spring wind, as his own words from the poem would move, could Shelley achieve the highest form of transmission available to the seed.

The manuscripts and notebooks reveal the evolution of structure and content that occurred before Shelley composed his ode in its finalized five-sonnet form. The original notebook copy of “Ode to the West Wind” is particularly difficult to decipher due to the Italian writing, entitled Una Favola, running horizontally from top to bottom of the page underneath the drafts of the poem. Of the variations to the text which transpired, the reconfiguration of the final line, and the terms of address indicating an audience, stand out as some of the most significant. The concluding line of the poem in its initial form read, “When Winter comes Spring lags not far behind.” (Rodgers, 228) By the final draft that Shelley sent to his publisher, the line had morphed into, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Ending the poem with a question instead of a statement has the affect of incorporating the reader into the poem more by making him consider how to answer the question based on the image of the Wind presented in earlier stanzas. The rhetorical nature of the question also adds a closing element of optimism to the poem.

An additional significant compositional change occurred with the omission of the terms “Oh friends,” and “Dear friends” in the final draft. Study of Shelley’s notebooks show that in the preliminary drafts of “Ode to the West Wind” Shelley wrote, “Oh friends, if when my ___ has ebbed away/ One spark be unextinguished of that hearth/ Kindled in…” (Forman, 172) The finalized version has no trace of Shelley addressing an audience referred to as “friends.” The result is a much more personal poem for the poet/narrator wherein Shelley is addressing the divine force on his own, and the reading audience becomes a collective witness of a poet’s desperate, private moment. “Ode to the West Wind” was never published on its own, but in August of 1820 was first published in London, as part of larger volume entitled Prometheus Unbound. The feature poem of this volume was a...

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