The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Shelley—& What Nations & People Want

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of Good Will Is in Poetry, the 1972 lecture in which Eli Siegel—amazingly, logically, and very importantly—shows the relation between the economist Adam Smith and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. As I have described in previous issues, Mr. Siegel explains that both Smith and Shelley were writing about something we need mightily now, in our economy and our lives. That something is good will. Mr. Siegel defined good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” And in a series of lectures he made clear that economics can no longer proceed successfully without it. He wrote in the ’70s—and the last decades have sustained this:

There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.

A Poem & Justice

In the final section of the present lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind.” It is seemingly a nature poem; and of course, it's partly that. But Mr. Siegel explains that from beginning to end, the poem represents Shelley’s passionate feeling that England has to be owned differently, the earth has to be owned in a way that is just.

Occasionally critics have felt there were aspects of the poem that had to do with Shelleys desire for justice. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 5th edition, mentions “political hopes” as present in some fashion. Yet the fact that Shelley was speaking not just about hopes but about a force for justice; and how thoroughly the poem is about this force, not just a passage or two but every line; and what the force is and means—Eli Siegel was the critic to show. At the same time, the poem is also about the personal life of Shelley and everyone.

The Fight in Us Too

“Ode to the West Wind” is one of the most famous works in the English language. But how much it has to do with ourselves every day, is something which needs to be seen. Mr. Siegel comments on the poem in issue 151 of this journal, as he explains what “the large fight [is] in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now.” It is “ the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality.” To describe that fight, he quotes from Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and Shelley. This is from the section about Shelley:

Percy Bysshe Shelley expresses his contempt for the reality he customarily met, in these concluding lines of Stanza IV of “Ode to the West Wind":

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed

One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud. a shameful, disabling, though ever so cunning victory. Therefore, as soon as Shelley has told us that a “heavy weight of hours” has chained him, he looks for help, for something else, from the West Wind. This help is in the beginning of Stanza V:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The West Wind, then, is Shelleys means of dealing with both contempt for the world and contempt for himself.

We want to look down on the world, despise it, see it as not good enough for us, as something which burdens and disgusts us, but which we can manipulate. That desire is contempt, and even Shelley had it. We also want to value the world, be stirred by it, be keenly and kindly interested in it. That desire is respect. Shelley had it tremendously. And therefore he wanted, tremendously, his contempt to be countered.

Contempt has been huge in the history of economics. It has made for the feeling that most human beings exist to supply some few others with profits; that the world's wealth should belong much more to some persons than others; that you have a right to see another person, not in terms of what he deserves, but in terms of how much money you can make from him. Shelley hated this way of seeing and the terrible effect it had on men, women, and children throughout England . He wanted the sneering dullness of contempt defeated in him, and he wanted the contemptuous way England was owned defeated too. The West Wind stands for what will defeat both.

A Year of Poetic Objection

I   remember a class in which Mr. Siegel placed “Ode to the West Wind” as having been written at the same time, in 1819, as a group of poems in which Shelley overtly and furiously objected to the way England was owned and run. They are a means of seeing the objection that is present not overtly, but richly and grandly, in “Ode to the West Wind.” So I’ll quote from some of those poems here.

In these lines from “The Mask of Anarchy,” also of 1819, Shelley describes the situation of so many people in England:

'Tis to work, and have such pay

As just keeps life from day to day 

In your limbs. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

'Tis to see your children weak 

With their mothers pine and peak, 

When the winter winds are bleak—


They are dying whilst I speak. 

'Tis to hunger for such diet

As the rich man in his riot 

Casts to the fat dogs that lie 

Surfeiting beneath his eye.

That some people should be rich and others poor was, Shelley felt, completely immoral. He felt this state of affairs had to be altered, beautifully altered. His wife, Mary Shelley, wrote of him in relation to the objecting 1819 poems:

His warmest sympathies were for the people....He looked on all human beings as inheriting an equal right to possess the dearest privileges of our nature; the necessaries of life when fairly earned by labor, and intellectual instruction. His hatred of any despotism that looked upon the people as not to be consulted, or protected from want and ignorance, was intense.

In “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley describes what freedom for the people of England would be. What he says is something nations today need to see: there can't be freedom until theres justice—until all people can live well on this earth we all should own. “Thou” here is Freedom:

For the laborer thou art bread 

And a comely table spread, 

From his daily labor come

In a neat and happy home. 


Thou art clothes, and fire, and food 

For the trampled multitude; 

No—in countries that are free 

Such starvation cannot be 

As in England now we see.

Another poem of 1819 is “Song to the Men of England,” on which I commented some weeks ago. There is the line “The seed ye sow, another reaps.” That persons should work and someone else get the wealth they produce, Shelley saw as robbery.

Also written at the same time as “Ode to the West Wind” is the sonnet “ England in 1819.” It has, for example, these lines: “Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / But leech-like to their fainting country cling.” Shelley is saying that persons running the government dont want to be aware of what the people endure, but instead exploit them for the rulers' own purposes, like bloodsuckers. The poem has this phrase about economics based on profit: “A people starved and stabbed.” And this, about the fake piety of Englands rulers: “Religion Christless, Godless.”

He Rewrote the National Anthem

In 1819 Shelley also rewrote the national anthem, “God Save the King.” His version said that the only monarch should be Liberty—she is the real Queen, but the English powerful have assassinated her. His anthem about Queen Liberty begins:

God prosper, speed, and save, 

God raise from Englands grave 

Her murdered Queen!

Of the poems from which Ive quoted and other overtly objecting poems Shelley wrote in 1819, Mrs. Shelley says: “In those days of prosecution for libel they could not be printed.” That is, someone criticizing persons in power could find himself in prison. Yet within those poems are some of the feelings which, Mr. Siegel shows, helped make for Shelleys much greater poem “Ode to the West Wind.”

Again, what a nation is looking for, a person is looking for. Like Shelley, every person is looking for a West Wind, which can criticize us, bring to life the best in us. I think Aesthetic Realism is the intellectual equivalent of that West Wind. It is the encouraging, critical, friendly logic that enables a person to be truly him- or herself.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Shelley Calls for Change

By Eli Siegel

Usually we don’t have words about great poems at the same time as about great books, but I’m going to relate the best short poem of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind,” to Adam Smith, and say some more about what it may mean.

Toward the end of his note to the poem, Shelley writes:

The phenomenon alluded to at the conclusion of the third stanza is well known to naturalists. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathizes with that of the land in the change of seasons.

So the word Smith used, sympathize, is used here, only its a sympathy of the bottom of the sea with the land.

Where the poem is like Smith, and like others, is in the feeling that the West Wind was both destructive and creating again; that is, it drove all the leaves away, changed them, for the purpose of having new leaves, for the purpose of having life honored. And when Smith was pondering over the import of The Wealth of Nations, that there should be more friendliness among nations, something like free trade, he also—Ill try to give evidence for this—felt that a new breeze, a new way, ought to be in commerce and in industry. He heard ideas about it from the physiocrats, including Quesnay and Turgot, in France. These are very likable people, and there was good will in them. They saw all wealth as beginning with the land.

How Can We Cleanse Things?

If we look at Shelley’s poem in its greatness, we will see something like this: How can we cleanse things, how can we criticize things, so that there can be something new?

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumns being, 

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead 

Are driven...

When Shelley has the West Wind take those dead leaves and drive them, hes thinking of certain notions that could be renewed, seen better, could be more alive.

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...

Drive them, and then give them a chance to be quiet and let them come forth anew. So theres a making one of the opposites of fierceness and gentleness.

Smith uses the phrase “an invisible hand.” He describes how people privately go after things, but in the meantime, without their knowing it, the “invisible hand” has them work to change the state of the world or country. “An invisible hand” sounds melodramatic, but its in The Wealth of Nations. Does this have any relation to what Shelley is getting at?

In Shelleys poem there seems to be something rude going on—driving, and all—but theres also preserving:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; 

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!

Though “Ode to the West Wind” is not about any change in the world among people, I still see it as Shelleys most insurrectionary poem, because the wild West Wind is the same as that which is going to end the profit system.

There are spread 

On the blue surface of thine aery surge, 

Like the bright hair uplifted from the head 


Of some fierce Maenad,... 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The locks of the approaching storm. 

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!

Shelley is saying, I love thy energy, O West Wind, because it can make poverty, being crippled, disease, injustice, worry in England less! He likes “the locks of the approaching storm"—he felt England was too slow. He says, “Thou dirge / Of the dying year” that might seem sad, but the rain and fire and hail that will burst—theyre still out for something good.

Criticism of Complacency

In the third section, the wind interferes with complacency and incorrect luxury in the oceans:

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay, 

Lulled by the coil of his crystalline stream...

The Mediterranean was quite comfortable, but this West Wind wakened it.


For whose path the Atlantics 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!

The complacency going on underneath the water will be affected by the West Wind. This being able to affect the unconscious is sought by Shelley. The passage means: no matter how deeply you go into your unconscious, you can still be reached.

Shelley gets hope from the fact that the wind can waken the blue Mediterranean and affect those sea-blooms and oozy woods that are so complacent down there. He has looked at the England of then, and he feels England certainly needs to see something. Adam Smith didnt tell all his feelings, but he felt there should be another attitude by the world to trade, industry, commerce. Ill try to give evidence from The Wealth of Nations as I quote from it further.

Shelley says that he wants a lift, something impelling him: “Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! / I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” He uses the phrase “The tumult of thy mighty harmonies.” There are certain sentences in Adam Smith that have a mighty harmony, saying that nations should be more considerate of each other; also, one should be more considerate of colonies. The Wealth of Nations was published in the year of the Declaration of Independence, and Smith is discreet, but one can see that he felt the colonies were largely right.

The West Wind Has a Message

The West Wind is seen as having a message. It’s not exactly about the wealth of nations, but it is about the ethics of nations. Shelley says, “Make me thy lyre,” and, “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” There is a work of Shelley’s, early, that he sent abroad—he was busy with it in Ireland—"Declaration of Rights.” It has a statement that goes along with statements of Smith: “Government is devised for the security of rights. The rights of man are liberty, and an equal participation of the commonage of nature.” So there are two things: one is abstract, liberty; and the other is the right to have.

He wanted to send the pamphlets he wrote across Ireland, and here he says:

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth 

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, 

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Once more: this poem seems very different, but it has a kinship to what made Smith write The Wealth of Nations. Smith felt that commerce should be used to have people kinder, friendlier. He doesn't say this explicitly, but there is evidence; and as I go on I shall give that evidence, I believe. In the meantime, there is the relation between Adam Smith, 1723-1790, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822. It is good to know what the relation is.