Breathing Immortality: Shelley’s Vitalization of Negative Spaces

Famously interrogating the problematic perception of “solitude and silence” as “vacanc[ies]” in the last lines of his contemplative poem “Mont Blanc,” Percy Bysshe Shelley, though never declaring so explicitly, clearly assigns certain vital values to the commonly understood “absences” (143-144). Alluding to these cognitively inaccessible realms that only dwell in imagination, Shelley’s poetry deliberately crafts these “negative spaces” to suggest the invisible spirituality that casts its power upon the world of matter. Though celebrated as the optimistic radical of the Romantic era for his emphasis on resurrection and human intellection, Shelley ingeniously formulates his poetic language in a way that draws attention to what is missing in the picture and therefore evokes the awareness of one’s own ignorance inside the audience. Such awareness, or revelation of one’s imperfection, stimulates a Romantic impulse toward the absolute excellence; yet all is provoked by the seemingly trifling nothingness. Shelley, though still struggling against the classical paradoxes of Romanticism as part of the younger generation, strives to explore the ambiguous space between the materialistic and spiritual in his poetry. Through the magnification of perceptive absences, such as visual absence i.e. “solitude” and audial absence i.e. “silence,” Shelley defines a specific form of vitalization that resembles poetry’s effect on the human mind, an inherently Romantic process that attempts to unify the spirits with the material. Whether intuitive or not, the main driving force for this vitalization process is also something not readily observable – the wind – which symbolizes the greater poetic spirit that breathes life into its recipients, thus transcends matter back and forth between existence and nonexistence. The absence is the ultimate origin and destination of human intellection, with the boundary between the spiritual and the materialistic transcended by wind.

In some of Shelley’s most well-known works, the negative spaces can be divided into the “linguistically negative” and the “conceptually negative” in spite of its perceptive difference. The “linguistically negative,” as the term itself suggests, is crafted with language that is purposefully negating its original meaning through the utilizations of the Latin prefix and suffix. In a few simple lines from “Ode to Heaven” from Prometheus Unbound (1820), the negations of space take place for (perhaps take out the word ‘for’ here)  multiple times:

“….On an unimagined world:

Constellated suns unshaken,

Orbits measureless, are furled

In that frail and fading sphere,

With ten millions gathered there,

To tremble, gleam, and disappear

                     (52-57, emphasis mine).

Addressed directly to heaven, a space no human eye has witnessed, the poem told in voices of the Spirits still emphasizes the unfathomable nature of this concept. According to Oscar Firkins’s studies on the power in Shelley’s poetry, such spaces exist in abundance: “immeasurable main” and “unbounded atmosphere” from Alastor, “shoreless sea” and “bottomless void” from Prometheus Unbound, “illimitable plain” (of ocean) and “the depth of unbounded universe” from Queen Mab, and the list goes on (quoted in Firkins 13, emphasis (perhaps you mean ‘emphasize’ here, not sure mine). Reacting to such phrasing, Firkins describes the lyrics as “characteristic and decisive,” but the effect of this negation should not be considered nearly as personal (13). This play of language, not complicated or perplexing either, readily conveys the limitation of the affirmative, the absolute, and the controllable, which is at the same time to recognize the awe of the unfathomable. Unlike Wordsworth, who discerns the very institution of language as the “shade of the prison-house” that “closes” upon the “growing Boy,” the language’s ability to define, to Shelley, is not nearly as formidable as its inability to verbalize (Intimations of Immortality V. 10-11). In other words, every piece of language expression is created with the function to limit a certain concept, while the very act of negation is in itself a liberation. Instead of lamenting over the confinement of the prison-house i.e. the artificial space constructed by the human and thus easily manipulatable, Shelley decisively acknowledges the space outside of the prison-house, though it is filled with ambiguity and unbeknownst, mystical elements. This declarative negative space, even if I may still be hesitant to call it such, is the Shelleyan sublimity. The strive toward this sublimity is a well-addressed Romantic concern, yet the quest may very likely be contemplative and solitary.

The solitary quest of a poet towards the absolute excellence may well fit into the “conceptually negative” discussion, most suitably exemplifying Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude (1816). As Albert Gerard defines this work in his collective studies of the poetics of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, Alastor belongs to the category of “dialectical poems” along with Tintern Abbey and The Eolian Harp (159); such poems are written with the purpose of self-exploration and are by essence extremely individualistic. In Alastor, the heroic figure, the “Poet,” manifests this individualism by persistently carrying solitude with him: “He lived, he died, he sung, in solitude,” calling out the creative process of composition, sharing the nature of a life cycle, as something coming into existence at the absence of others (60). Consequently, solitude is conceptually negative in a visual sense, and, similarly, so is the concept of silence in a (replace ‘a’ with ‘an’) audial context. Under the dominance of these conceptually negative perceptions, the Poet is drawn into an erotic dream vision in his sleep, from which he wakes up horrified, with his vision “swallowed up,” brain “vacant,” and sleep compared to “dark flood suspended”(189-191). This awakening occurs almost at the cost of self-recognition, as if the dream i.e. the spiritual is engulfing the consciousness i.e. the materialistic, and the verge of awakening is where the Poet “overlaps the bounds” (207). From this moment, the passive notion of negative space is revolutionized by its activeness and power, eagerly inviting the Poet to unity but it cannot help “swallowing” him; according to Gerard’s reading, the Poet eventually “resolves himself into nothingness” and “becomes a prey to solipsism, solitude, and sterility” (156-157). As the passage suggests after the Poet’s heart “paused” and “fluttered,” a space filled with conceptual as well as linguistic negativity has consumed the Poet as his life vanishes and blends into the the (delete extra ‘the’) negative space: “But when heaven remained / Utterly black, the murky shade involved / An image silent, cold, and motionless” (658-661, emphasis (use word ‘emphasize’ mine).

In Spencer Hall’s reading, articulated in his “Beyond the Realms of Dream: Gothic, Romantic, and Poetic Identity in Shelley’s Alastor,” the death scene of the Poet begs the question of the destination of this quest, whether his wish is to annihilate himself or to transcend himself (13). This defining difference between annihilation and transcendance, according to Hall, is the distinction between a Gothic narrative and a Romantic quest (11). Said to have a mind “most deeply saturated with Gothic diablerie” among all other Romanticists of his contemporary (word missing here?), Shelley undergoes a transition period that embarks him on his Romantic journey, which arguably starts from the composition of Alastor (Devendra Varma, qtd in Hall 10). Though the argument of annihilation might sound more compatible with the Poet’s death and union with the negative space, his body belongs to the world of matter after all. The trace of transcendence, emerging from the despair of a failed quest, is observable in the very last line of Alastor: “Birth and the grave, that are not as they were” (720), implying the materialistic markers of a human life, at the sacrifice of the solitarily-inspired, spiritually-driven Poet, are forever transformed into a spectrum of “matter-spirit continuum” (Gerard 6).

As alluded to earlier, the negative spaces are not dead or static – yet they are not intrinsically active either – because of a vitalization process inspired by a similarly invisible force, the wind. However, before leaving the discussion of Alastor behind, a distinction between the Poet persona and Shelley i.e. the actual poet must be made, for the former beseeches a unity with the negative spaces while the latter is more concerned with the agency behind the uniting process. Shelley’s own quest in the negative spaces, though also very likely accompanied with solitude and silence, is actually after the invisible motion of air. The symbol of wind, unobservable by spiritual essence, is much conveyed through its effect on other matters. Drawing from M. H. Abrams’s understanding of “breeze” as a Romantic metaphor, the wind itself carries a mission to resurrect, alongside the poet’s subjective process of returning to community after periods of solitude, much resembling the uplifting transition from winter to spring (40). With due respect to such idea on a level of textual observance, Shelley’s wind, at least in this analysis, explores the dualities of existence and exerts power of transcendence, an inherently Romantic stimulus that is exploited differently case by case.

Corresponding to Abrams’s notion of the positive wind, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty presents a spring breeze from the poet’s childhood in an intricate interaction with the maturer negative space of darkness. Constructed in a way that reverses the chronological order, Shelley first establishes a negative space of “darkness” absorbing the flickering of matter, “a dying flame,” and then pleads to the intellectual beauty for it to “depart not” as the “shadow” fall upon the speaker (45-47). This “shadow,” having long haunted the speaker since he was a boy, was brought upon him by an uplifting spring wind (56, 59). This spring wind, breathing vitality into the surrounding of the “yet a boy” speaker, inexplicably corresponds with the “ghost” of which the boy speaker pursues at the beginning of the stanza; since the boy adventures to the “listening chamber, cave, and ruin,” spaces which should be silent otherwise (49-50). The wind, activating these deserted spaces of human intellection into a grotesque intimidation, brings the boy out to the scenery of nature and life – “All vital things that wake to bring / News of buds and blossoming” – then suddenly strikes him with the revelation of the trifle existence of intellectual creation, and hence has the unfathomable, colossal “shadow” fall upon this young boy. The awareness of this “shadow,” or to say the consciousness of intellectual limitation, is brought by the force of wind and forever revolutionizes the boy’s epistemology to an extent that the “shadow” still haunts him as an adult. The wind in this Hymn, subtextually exercises its dual manipulation on the human mind, both brings the exaltation in discovery of perceptive beauty and casts epiphany on the recognition of negative sublimities. Both an inspiration and a disappointment, wind in Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is a Romantic symbol that breathes life into death, but also simultaneously breathes experience into innocence with intensity. In an non-declarative way, the wind only manifests its visually absent existence in presence of the speaker’s epiphany, the blossoms in the garden, and the hollow voices through the ruin.

On voices, Shelley famously explicates in his A Defence of Poetry that “Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alterations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre” (qtd in Firkins 92). Readers of Romantic poetry are familiar with this metaphor and are readily aware of the homogeneousness of the world of matter, since among all “instruments,” humans and trees and hollow ruins alike, none is intrinsically inspired until the “wind” approaches, penetrates, and articulates through the exploitation of the matter. Therefore, taking advantage of its invisible motions, the natural wind is an unfathomable concept for any matter to internalize, as well as an emergence from the negative space. Instead of enticing the poet into its trap like other negative spaces exemplifying the dream realm in Alastor, the wind can be free of charge when it invades the poet’s materialistic space and eventually his intellectual space, where the spiritual force and the materialistic force may coexist in harmony. In the case of the Poet in Alastor, his materialistic existence does not survive the spiritual invasion while his intellection is transformed successfully; though the abstract mind and the concrete body do not manage to coexist in his lifetime, the entirety of his being, especially viewed after his death i.e. completion of life, is perceived as something of transcendental value. In Shelley’s case, the Poet’s journey is too dramatic and idealized; though heroic and eulogize-able, this tragedy is realistically undesired. Alternatively, Shelley turns to the quest after the wind, chasing it instead of being driven by it, even though the eventual unity with this negative concept is inevitable.

Among Shelley’s various allusions to wind, the ones in Ode to the West Wind are among the most intensive in dematerializing the matter and vitalizing the imperceptible. Reverting the metaphoric relation between “Spirit” and “wind” from the neoclassical tradition, in which the Spirit is a metaphor for the wind, Shelley introduces this “West Wind” to be a metaphor for the “Wild Spirit” (Gerard 176; 1, 13). This Spirit is introduced in the very opening of the first canto by proclaiming it an advocate for the negative spaces: “Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead / Are driven,” “Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou / who chariotest to their dark wintry bed” (2-3; 5-6). A disturbing image of dead leaves animated at the absence of their lives, the Autumn wind brings their material staticness  to a spiritual motion, turning them into “ghosts” and implanting a posthumous energy that renders the leaves beyond their material demise (3). Even though an Autumn wind, an archetypically solemn “Destroyer,” is like its “azure sister of Spring” in a sense that it has the same ability to transcend the life form of a matter. While in the case of a Spring wind, it breathes a materialistic life into the materialistic death (“seeds” like “corpse within its grave”), the Autumn wind breathes a spiritual life into the materialistic death; but by activating this dead, paltry matter, the Autumn wind would eventually deteriorate the matter into non-existence over the course of autumn and winter, hence literally dematerialize them until the revitalization of life in spring (7-8). A similar trope is applied to the atmosphere in the second canto, this time a harbinger of tempests and a “dirge // of the dying year,” constructing a “solid atmosphere” that “burst[s]” out “Black rain, fire, and hail” (23-24; 28). The atmosphere, especially at night, is a conceptually imperceptible, negative space; as the wind solidifies the atmosphere at “this closing night” with atmospheric matters of “vapours” i.e. clouds, the strength within these inorganic matters, answering the calls from the wind, is vitalized, exercised, and revolutionized (23; 27). “A continuous process of change,” claims Gerard in his “The Unextinguished Hearth” on the Ode, “inevitably involves both destruction and rebirth;” both destruction and rebirth requires an inaccessible space, from which and to which the matter would travel at the vehicle of wind (192).

The profundity of this Ode not only lies in the vital force of the natural wind, but also in the very same notion of an intellectual breath, a similarly dualistic wind inside the poet himself. Etymologically speaking, the terms “breath,” “soul,” and even “inspiration” can be traced back to their Latin root for “wind,” spiritus (Black 803); suggesting that they are connected by linguistic history and therefore should be unsurprisingly reflected in each other. Even the ability of the natural wind that activates the silent “instruments” and prophesize a turmoil is incarnated within its human counterpart i.e. breath in this Ode: “Be through my lips, to unawakened earth //  The trumpet of a prophecy” (68-69). Again, the “unawakened earth” is yet another linguistically negative space, this time vitalized by a human breath. But, if human breath were to embody the essence of the wind, should this Ode be read as a “conversation with the self” then? I humbly propose that it should, for it on one hand recognizes the ambiguity of spiritual and material in both notions, and on the other hand it propels this strength to another level of excellence. Returning to the earlier quote from Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, the “external and internal impressions” might very likely be allusions to an externally inspiring wind i.e. the West Wind and an internally inspiring wind i.e. the poetic intellection and human breath. The external wind is of complete freedom and spirit while the internal one, literally, is still confined within a container of matter. Because the internal wind is comparable to the external wind by essence, an external wind might arguably have started off as an internal wind until it loses the confinement of matter that keeps it captive; the process of which well answers the Poet’s and Shelley’s desire to unite with the negative space and invisible force. To explain why an internal wind has the urge to unite with the external wind, an analogy to modern linguistics might help, as the internal wind resembles the concept of parole while the external resembles that of langue (Saussure 14); an internal wind is an utterance of the external wind. The utterance of internal wind (individual poem) sustains the conceptual existence of the external (collective poetic spirit), but the external wind i.e. the system is ultimately in control of the individual utterances. Nonetheless, in a linguistic sense, the parole can never become the langue – no individual agency is assumed for the utterances – while in the case of Shelley and his winds, a strong desire of unity is pronounced and the pursuit behind it has been unrelinquishable and, eventually, successful. In the famous fourth canto of the Ode, Shelley demands the wind to “lift [him] as a wave, a leaf, a cloud” (53); this is not to say that he wants to become any of these forms of matter, but rather he is asking the wind to dematerialize him the same way it dematerialized those matters: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” and, insinuatingly, die (54). Instantly after, “The heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d / One too like thee: tameless, swift, and proud,” implying that “heavy” existence of matter is slowing decaying away, revealing and unchaining the spirit, “One too like thee,” for it to join “thee(wind)” (55-56). Ironically enough, through the self-exploration in Alastor, Shelley might have been well aware of the tragic resolution of this quest; though slightly tilted in direction of pursuit, the ending is still a materialistic annihilation and spiritual transcendence. By joining his spirit to the wider spirit of poetry, the poet then becomes part of the external wind that inspires others. It would be valid then to say, the wider poetic spirit is the immortal form of Shelley’s identity as a poet; therefore the conversation is between an immortal, universal identity and a mortal, limited self, with the latter striving to become the former by seeking the absolute excellence.

Although it is said that the Romanticists like to enquire the unanswerable, it seems like Shelley has an answer to his own question about where to be content on a matter-spirit continuum; however his answer lies in an impenetrable negative space that no one has ever seen. The identification of these spaces and their agency i.e. the wind, calling the audience to notice what they do not notice, is at the same time a recognition and outline of what the intellectual beauty actually possesses. To define concept of wind, calling it an absence is not as precise as calling it an omnipresence, one that simultaneously vitalizes every aspect of the material world. Likewise, the perpetual poetic spirit infuses all intellectual human minds with inspiration in an unquenchable manner. Straining his imagination over the boundary of human recognition, Shelley is able to dedicate his own breath to join this poetic spirit that goes on to immortality. His vitalization of these negative spaces is hinting at the fact that they are forever interacting with the matter, and some of them were once matters. The ambiguity between the matter and the spirit can be simultaneously despairing and inspiring, a quality of the greater Romantic conversation that still goes on today. This fascination with the negative spaces is what drives human minds to ceaselessly contemplate, self-explore, “shriek,” and “clasp [our] hands in ecstasy” (Hymn to Intellectual Beauty 60).

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. “The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor.” English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism. Edited by M. H. Abrams, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 37-54.

Firkins, Oscar W. “Space.” Power and Elusiveness in Shelley. University of Minnesota Press, 1937, pp. 12-15.

――. “Wind.” Power and Elusiveness in Shelley. University of Minnesota Press, 1937, pp. 92-99.

Gérard, Albert S. “Souls in Ferment: Reality, Knowledge, and Romantic Art.” English Romantic Poetry: Ethos, Structure, and Symbol in Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. University of California Press, 1968, pp. 3-19.

――. “The Hopeless Quest: Shelley’s Alastor.” English Romantic Poetry: Ethos, Structure, and Symbol in Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. University of California Press, 1968, pp. 136-162.

――. “The Unextinguished Hearth: Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.” English Romantic Poetry: Ethos, Structure, and Symbol in Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. University of California Press, 1968, pp. 163-193.

Hall, Spencer. “‘Beyond Realms of Dream:’ Gothic, Romantic, and Poetic Identity in Shelley’s ‘Alastor.’” Gothic Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 1 January 2001, pp. 8-14. doi: 10.7227/GS.3.1.2

Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Except from Course in General Linguistics. Critical Theory: A Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies. Edited by Robert Dale Parker, Oxford University Press, January 2012, pp. 13-17.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 789-799.

――. “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 801-802.

――. “Mont Blanc, Lines Written on the Vale of Chamouni.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 799-801.

――. “Ode to Heaven.” The Shelley-Godwin Archive. MS. Shelley e. 3, 17r.

――. “Ode to the West Wind.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 803-804.

Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Poetry. Edited by Joseph Black et al., Broadview Press, 2016, pp. 360-363.

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