Shelley—& What Nations & People Want
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the conclusion of Good Will Is in Poetry, the 1972 lecture in which Eli Siegel—amazingly, logically, and very importantly—shows the relation between the economist Adam Smith and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. As I have described in previous issues, Mr. Siegel explains that both Smith and Shelley were writing about something we need mightily now, in our economy and our lives. That something is good will. Mr. Siegel defined good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” And in a series of lectures he made clear that economics can no longer proceed successfully without it. He wrote in the ’70s—and the last decades have sustained this:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
A Poem & Justice
In the final section of the present lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind.” It is seemingly a nature poem; and of course, it's partly that. But Mr. Siegel explains that from beginning to end, the poem represents Shelley’s passionate feeling that England has to be owned differently, the earth has to be owned in a way that is just.
Occasionally critics have felt there were aspects of the poem that had to do with Shelley’s desire for justice. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th edition, mentions “political hopes” as present in some fashion. Yet the fact that Shelley was speaking not just about hopes but about a force for justice; and how thoroughly the poem is about this force, not just a passage or two but every line; and what the force is and means—Eli Siegel was the critic to show. At the same time, the poem is also about the personal life of Shelley and everyone.
The Fight in Us Too
“Ode to the West Wind” is one of the most famous works in the English language. But how much it has to do with ourselves every day, is something which needs to be seen. Mr. Siegel comments on the poem in issue 151 of this journal, as he explains what “the large fight [is] in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now.” It is “ the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality.” To describe that fight, he quotes from Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and Shelley. This is from the section about Shelley:
Percy Bysshe Shelley expresses his contempt for the reality he customarily met, in these concluding lines of Stanza IV of “Ode to the West Wind":
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
...Contempt...is a shameful, disabling, though ever so cunning victory. Therefore, as soon as Shelley has told us that a “heavy weight of hours” has chained him, he looks for help, for something else, from the West Wind. This help is in the beginning of Stanza V:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The West Wind, then, is Shelley’s means of dealing with both contempt for the world and contempt for himself.
We want to look down on the world, despise it, see it as not good enough for us, as something which burdens and disgusts us, but which we can manipulate. That desire is contempt, and even Shelley had it. We also want to value the world, be stirred by it, be keenly and kindly interested in it. That desire is respect. Shelley had it tremendously. And therefore he wanted, tremendously, his contempt to be countered.
Contempt has been huge in the history of economics. It has made for the feeling that most human beings exist to supply some few others with profits; that the world's wealth should belong much more to some persons than others; that you have a right to see another person, not in terms of what he deserves, but in terms of how much money you can make from him. Shelley hated this way of seeing and the terrible effect it had on men, women, and children throughout England . He wanted the sneering dullness of contempt defeated in him, and he wanted the contemptuous way England was owned defeated too. The West Wind stands for what will defeat both.
A Year of Poetic Objection
I remember a class in which Mr. Siegel placed “Ode to the West Wind” as having been written at the same time, in 1819, as a group of poems in which Shelley overtly and furiously objected to the way England was owned and run. They are a means of seeing the objection that is present not overtly, but richly and grandly, in “Ode to the West Wind.” So I’ll quote from some of those poems here.
In these lines from “The Mask of Anarchy,” also of 1819, Shelley describes the situation of so many people in England:
'Tis to work, and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
'Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak,
When the winter winds are bleak—
They are dying whilst I speak.
'Tis to hunger for such diet
As the rich man in his riot
Casts to the fat dogs that lie
Surfeiting beneath his eye.
That some people should be rich and others poor was, Shelley felt, completely immoral. He felt this state of affairs had to be altered, beautifully altered. His wife, Mary Shelley, wrote of him in relation to the objecting 1819 poems:
His warmest sympathies were for the people....He looked on all human beings as inheriting an equal right to possess the dearest privileges of our nature; the necessaries of life when fairly earned by labor, and intellectual instruction. His hatred of any despotism that looked upon the people as not to be consulted, or protected from want and ignorance, was intense.
In “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley describes what freedom for the people of England would be. What he says is something nations today need to see: there can't be freedom until there’s justice—until all people can live well on this earth we all should own. “Thou” here is Freedom:
For the laborer thou art bread
And a comely table spread,
From his daily labor come
In a neat and happy home.
Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude;
No—in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see.
Another poem of 1819 is “Song to the Men of England,” on which I commented some weeks ago. There is the line “The seed ye sow, another reaps.” That persons should work and someone else get the wealth they produce, Shelley saw as robbery.
Also written at the same time as “Ode to the West Wind” is the sonnet “ England in 1819.” It has, for example, these lines: “Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / But leech-like to their fainting country cling.” Shelley is saying that persons running the government don’t want to be aware of what the people endure, but instead exploit them for the rulers' own purposes, like bloodsuckers. The poem has this phrase about economics based on profit: “A people starved and stabbed.” And this, about the fake piety of England’s rulers: “Religion Christless, Godless.”
He Rewrote the National Anthem
In 1819 Shelley also rewrote the national anthem, “God Save the King.” His version said that the only monarch should be Liberty—she is the real Queen, but the English powerful have assassinated her. His anthem about Queen Liberty begins:
God prosper, speed, and save,
God raise from England’s grave
Her murdered Queen!
Of the poems from which I’ve quoted and other overtly objecting poems Shelley wrote in 1819, Mrs. Shelley says: “In those days of prosecution for libel they could not be printed.” That is, someone criticizing persons in power could find himself in prison. Yet within those poems are some of the feelings which, Mr. Siegel shows, helped make for Shelley’s much greater poem “Ode to the West Wind.”
Again, what a nation is looking for, a person is looking for. Like Shelley, every person is looking for a West Wind, which can criticize us, bring to life the best in us. I think Aesthetic Realism is the intellectual equivalent of that West Wind. It is the encouraging, critical, friendly logic that enables a person to be truly him- or herself.