I WRITE this on the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s death: an anniversary that has prompted in me many memories and grateful reflections of all that his verse has meant to me over the years.
Shelley first burst into my life when, as an ardent, romantic, and poetry-loving teenager, I “discovered” him and fell in love not only with his poetry, but also with his whole persona, as I understood it then: the free spirit, borne before the wind, uttering poems of lyric beauty as though they were entirely spontaneous compositions, given and inspired, the “profuse strains of unpremeditated art”, which he attributed to his skylark. He was the Shelley of André Maurois’s Ariel, the human embodiment of the spirit Ariel in The Tempest, a creature of air and fire, scarcely touching the earth, until, in his tragic death at sea, he himself “suffered a sea-change into something rich and strange”.
Then, as I matured a little, and turned my attention through and beyond poetry to history and politics, it was the radical Shelley, the Shelley of Queen Mab and The Masque of Anarchy who became my guiding spirit: Shelley the champion of radical freedom in the face of political oppression; the Shelley who could switch from a highly wrought Platonic ode to the rousing song of a revolutionary ballad, and call on the oppressed to
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.
Later still, as I enjoyed and endured the raptures, but also the complexities and ambiguities, of love and loving, the Shelley who moved me was the poet of the divided and yet still exuberant heart — the poet who expressed so perfectly that ardent longing for the unattainable which is at the heart of all our desire:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.
And, when I came to faith, the faith that Shelley had specifically rejected in his early pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, I found, surprisingly, as C. S. Lewis also did, that Shelley was still at my side, still speaking to and for my heart; for he, too, had intuited that, somewhere in all our earthly loves and longings, there is a desire for the heavenly; there is a “worship the heart lifts above, And the Heavens reject not”.
And now I find that “Ode to the West Wind”, perhaps his greatest poem, which my mother used to recite to me as a child, and which I used to shout to the winds myself with all the ardour and abandon of my teenage years, still stirs me in my sixties. But now it has given me words not only to address the west wind, but the words of a prayer to the Holy Spirit: not merely “the breath of Autumn’s being”, but the breath, the energy, the inspiration of my loving and redeeming God:
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
. . . Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!