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A Poem for the Week — Ode to the West Wind

O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

Percy Bysshe Shelley, dead at thirty, was a romantic torn by conflicting impulses. A rebel, he devoted much of his life to the struggle for political and personal freedom. Yet his ardent poetry expresses yearning for a golden age when humans would cease to strive against each other.

Part of the nineteenth-century English Romantic movement, along with Lord Byron and William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley believed that poetry was the direct expression of one’s soul, a path toward revealing the invisible world to others. The Romantics lived with a sense of drama, their lives intense but short.

Shelley was expelled from school for advocating atheism. Unfazed by what might have been seen as calamity, he set out to reform the world. His “Prometheus Unbound” is a portrait of revolt against oppressive laws and customs.

Prometheus Unbound. A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts…
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
London : C and J Ollier, 1820
First edition, second issue
PR5416 A1 1820

Inspired by Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Percy Bysshe Shelley began writing Prometheus Unbound in 1818, while living in Italy. Shelley had been developing the imagery and ideas for the poem for years. He had a longstanding familiarity and affection for Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, having translated it for Lord Byron. He could not, however, accept the notion that Aeschylus had bound the champion of mankind for eternity. The main character’s association with rebellion and isolation from his act of giving fire to man against the wishes of the gods symbolized for Shelley the soul of man at its highest potential.

It took him nearly two years to complete the work, having stopped writing twice after the deaths of his daughter, Clara Everina Shelley, and his son, William Shelley.

Critics were harsh, condemning the poet’s moral and political principles, although a few reviewers wrote of the beauty and genius of the language. Shelley never expected his work to be popular, but called it his « favorite poem. » He asked his publisher to send copies to his friends, including Lord Byron.

Included in the publication was some of Shelley’s best poetry : « The Sensitive Plant , » « A Vision of the Sea , » « An Exhortation, » An Ode, » « The Cloud, «  « To a Skylark, » « Ode to Liberty, » and « Ode to the West Wind. »

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!

Rare Books copy has ‘miscellaneous’ corrected on the ‘Contents’ leaf and includes rare advertising leaf at end. Bound by Root & Son in full, dark blue morocco, spine panelled in gilt in compartments, gilt dentelles to boards verso, elaborate gilt ruling to leather, top edge gilt.

Two bookplates indicate ownership by Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry and Henry H. Schwartz. Rev. Dr. Roderick Terry, Sr. (1849-1933) was a Presbyterian minister and Chaplain for the 12th Infantry of the New York State National Guard from 1890 to 1900. A book collector, he amassed a large personal library of incunabula, poetry, and historical documents. Henry Herman « Harry » Schwartz (1869-1955) served as Chief of the Field Division of the United States General Land Office in Washington state and as United States senator from Wyoming.

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!

Ode to the West Wind
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
The L-D Allen Press: Florence, Italy, 1951
Z232.5 A5 S54

Shelley wrote that he composed this poem while walking in a wood skirting Arno, near Florence, Italy “on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains.”

“Ode to the West Wind,” has been described as the most perfect of English lyrics. Shelley wrote this poem the same year he finished his Utopian vision, “Prometheus Unbound.”

Letterpress printed damp on English handmade paper with , a typeface designed by Dutch typographer Jan van Krimpen in 1928. Cover paper from the Fabriano mill, situated not far from Florence. Edition of one hundred copies. Signed by Lewis and Dorothy Allen.

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem’d a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. 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!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?


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