The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

III. Shelley

§ 6. Odes

These adventures in poetic tale, however, even when highly fortunate, like The Witch, did not draw their inspiration from the depths of Shelley’s nature. They were experiments in artistry, exercises of his now ripe expressive power. But his artistry, was also summoned to the service of his political and social ideals. The revolutionary fervour which, in the previous year, had provoked his satires and squibs, now clothes itself in the intricate rhythms of the Pindaric ode. The odes To Naples and To Liberty contain splendid bursts of poetry, such as epode I B of the first, and the Athens stanza (V) of the second; but do not, as complete poems, overcome the obstacle to poetry presented by the abstract and political themes from which he set out. The Ode to the West Wind, on the other hand, originates directly in that impassioned intuition which is the first condition of poetry; the wild autumn wind sweeping through the forest possesses his imagination and becomes a living symbol of the spiritual forces which regenerate the fading or decadent life of nations, bring succour and “alliance” to forlorn heroic spirits, and scatter their burning words, “like ashes from an unextinguished hearth,” among mankind. Nowhere does Shelley’s voice reach a more poignantly personal note or more perfect spontaneity. Yet, this ode is no less his masterpiece in calculated symmetry of structure, matching here the artistry of Keats’s Grecian Urn or Autumn. The “Titan in a virgin’s form” (so Leopardi called him) finds consummate utterance in this great song, where we hear together the forlorn wail and the prophetic trumpet-blast. The symbolism, here, is too individual and too passionate to resemble the instinctive rendering of natural phenomena in terms of conscious life, which we call “myth.” But, much of Shelley’s loveliest lyric, as has often been observed, does provoke this comparison. Arethusa, and the Hymns of Apollo and Pan, are of a serene and radiant beauty almost untouched by the personal note, whether of pathos or of prophecy. And, in The Cloud, Shelley quits the guidance of Greek divinities, and, with superb and joyous ease, makes myth for himself. There is nothing esoteric in this cloud’s life; all the familiar aspects of the cloud which “changes but cannot die” are translated by a kind of brilliant poetic wit into plastic image. Hence, in part, its universal appeal. In The Skylark, closely akin in the entrancing swiftness and subtlety of its music, the temper is wholly unlike. The skylark is divine, as the cloud is immortal; but, instead of personating it, the poet looks up with wistful longing to its “clear keen joyance,” its love which had never known love’s sad satiety. The brief, quivering pulsations of the verse contrast with the superb, pacing measure of The Cloud.