BARS Blog

BARS Blog

News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Romantic Reimaginings: Auden, MacNeice, Yeats, and Shelley’s West Wind

Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email ebryan@lincoln.ac.uk.

Today on the blog, Amanda Blake Davis discusses Auden, MacNeice, Yeats, and Shelley’s West Wind.

B. Shelley, fair copy of Ode to the West Wind Shelfmark: MS. Shelley adds. e. 12 (pp. 62-63) Credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford (via Shelley’s Ghost <http://shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/fair-copy-of-ode-to-the-west-wind>)

‘Like Yeats’s poetry’, Edna Longley writes, ‘MacNeice’s descends from the non-Wordsworthian branch of Romanticism’,[1] and one of MacNeice’s greatest Romantic influences is Shelley, who is invariably filtered through Yeats.  Following Yeats, for whom Prometheus Unbound was ‘a sacred book’,[2] MacNeice exalts Prometheus Unbound as ‘one of my sacred books’ and recounts how he ‘swilled the rhythms of Shelley, the sweet champagne of his wishful thinking and schoolboy anger, his Utopias of amethyst and starlight’.[3]  ‘What we wanted was “realism”’, MacNeice writes of the ‘Auden Group’, ‘but—so the paradox goes on—we wanted it for romantic reasons’.[4]  MacNeice publicly disavows Shelley in his study of Yeats through his tracking of the older poet’s own building and scattering of a pseudo-Shelleyan system of symbols,[5] and Harold Bloom, criticising MacNeice’s ‘prejudices’ against Yeats’s indebtedness to Romantic tradition, claims that ‘[t]o MacNeice, Romanticism is a poetic disease of which Yeats cured himself’.[6]  But Bloom overlooks the Shelleyan west wind that blows through MacNeice’s poetry, as it does in Yeats’s.  If Romanticism is indeed a ‘poetic disease’, it is one that enlivens the modern poets’ verse with fevered energy.  ‘Shelley’s restless west wind blows through Autumn Journal’, Madeleine Callaghan writes, ‘allowing MacNeice to alter and renew Romantic preoccupations, and imbue them with a distinctly modern sensibility’.[7]  Shelley’s west wind, at once ‘Destroyer and Preserver’, sings through MacNeice and Yeats’s poetry as an ‘unseen presence’ that drives and energises the modern poets’ verse (Shelley, Ode to the West Wind, 14 and 2).[8]

Yeats locates Shelley’s artistry in ‘words written upon leaves’,[9] harnessing Shelley’s west wind and its revitalisation of poetic utterance.

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

 

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

(Shelley, Ode to the West Wind, 63-67)

Yeats’s ‘poetic breathings are sustained by his lifelong engagement with Shelley’s poetry’, Michael O’Neill writes, noting how ‘Yeats tempers subjectivity with symbolism in poems such as “The Secret Rose”, which ends with an image deeply suffused with Shelleyan inflections’.[10]  In ‘The Secret Rose’, Yeats awaits

The hour of thy great wind of love and hate.

When shall the stars be blown about the sky,

Like the sparks blown out of a smithy, and die?

Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,

Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose?

(Yeats, ‘The Secret Rose’, 28-32)[11]

Harold Bloom confirms that ‘Yeats’s wind among the reeds has both Irish mythological and occult sources, as usual, but its main source is in Shelley’s winds of destruction-creation, which blow through all of his poetry’.[12]  The searching doubt of Yeats’s questions in ‘The Secret Rose’ gestures away from a resolutely Shelleyan hope, and O’Neill notes that ‘whereas Shelley’s sparks will rekindle hope in the minds of his readers, Yeats’s sparks will be extinguished (he half-hopes, half-fears) as “thy great wind blows”’.[13]  Yeats ‘does not return to the Romantics for a system of belief’, O’Neill stresses, ‘[b]ut he draws on their practice for hints about how to dramatize conflict’, identifying in his poetry ‘a counter-current of feeling, a reluctance fully to unleash the forces of millennial destruction’.[14]  Self-reflectively, Yeats writes of Shelley, ‘I found that he and not Blake, whom I had studied more and with more approval, had shaped my life’.[15]  Months before his death, Yeats made a pilgrimage to Shelley’s birthplace, Field Place, in an apparent act of reconciliation and respect for the Romantic poet’s lasting influence, finding ‘A beautiful old house, one part Tudor, kept in perfect order and full of fine pictures (two Wilsons).  We also went to the church where the Shelley tombs are, a great old church defiled by 1870 or thereabouts, stained glass, and pavements not at all as Shelley saw it’.  ‘Before I leave’, Yeats wrote, ‘I shall visit the pond (not that near the house) where Shelley sailed paper boats’.[16]  Shelley’s influence, like the breathings of his west wind, circulates through Yeats’s works and thoughts, extending its energies to later post-Romantics like Auden and MacNeice.

The ‘dirge / Of the dying year’ sung by Shelley’s west wind appears in MacNeice’s Autumn Journal as a woodpigeon ‘calls and stops but the wind continues / Playing its dirge in the trees, playing its tricks’ (Ode to the West Wind, 23-24; Autumn Journal, p. 111).[17]  Like Yeats’s harnessing of Shelley’s ‘great wind’, MacNeice’s woodpigeon voices a poetic influence that is changed but sustained.  MacNeice’s lyrical reportage in Autumn Journal chimes with Auden’s concession that

poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its saying where executives

Would never want to tamper; it flows south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

(Auden, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, 36-41)[18]

Auden ensures Yeats’s survival through his poetry, and in doing so he viscerally mouths Shelley’s west wind in Yeats’s dying transmutation, his words-as-ashes ‘scattered among a hundred cities’.  As Shelley scatters his ‘words among mankind’, so Auden’s verse ensures that ‘The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living’ (‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, 18 and 22-23).  In shifting from journalistic to poetic posture, the inward-looking MacNeice also mouths ‘The words of a dead man’ in the sound of ‘Shelley and jazz and lieder and love and hymn-tunes’ (Autumn Journal, p. 135).  Shelley’s influence plays on through the modern poets’ verse, sustained by the inextinguishable energies of his west wind.

Amanda Blake Davis is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield and a Postgraduate Representative for BARS.  Her thesis analyses P. B. Shelley’s uses of androgyny alongside his readings and translations of Plato.  Amanda’s wider research interests include influence and imitation in Romantic and post-Romantic poetry.

Twitter: @ABDavis1816

Works Cited:
[1] Edna Longley, Louis MacNeice: A Critical Study (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), p. xii.
[2] W. B. Yeats, ‘The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry’ in Essays and Introductions (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1961), p. 65.
[3] Louis MacNeice, The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography, ed. by E. R. Dodds (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 98.
[4] Louis MacNeice, Selected Literary Criticism, ed. by Alan Heuser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 149.
[5] Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), p. 44.
[6] Harold Bloom, Yeats (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 108.
[7] Madeleine Callaghan, ‘Louis MacNeice and the Struggle for Romantic Identity’ in Legacies of Romanticism: Literature, Culture, Aesthetics, ed. by Carmen Casaliggi and Paul March-Russell (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), p. 161.
[8] Ode to the West Wind is quoted from Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Major Works, ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 412-414.
[9] Yeats, ‘The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry’, p. 75.
[10] Michael O’Neill, The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Legacies and Renewals in British, American, and Irish Poetry since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 20 and 54.
[11] ‘The Secret Rose’ is quoted from W. B. Yeats, The Major Works, ed. by Edward Larrissy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 33-34.
[12] Bloom, Yeats, p. 124.
[13] O’Neill, The All-Sustaining Air, p. 54
[14] O’Neill, The All-Sustaining Air, pp. 58 and 54.
[15] W. B. Yeats, ‘Prometheus Unbound’ in Essays and Introductions (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1961), p. 424.
[16] W. B. Yeats, Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (London, New York, NY, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1940), p. 200.
[17] Autumn Journal is quoted from Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, ed. by Peter McDonald (London: Faber and Faber, 2016), pp. 99-164.
[18] ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ is quoted from W. H. Auden, Selected Poems, ed. by Edward Mendelson (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1979), pp. 80-83.

One Response to Romantic Reimaginings: Auden, MacNeice, Yeats, and Shelley’s West Wind

  1. My family always say that I am wasting my time here at net, however I
    know I am getting know-how everyday by reading thes nice articles.

    Permalink

Comments are closed.