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by Dan Leach
|This article is reprinted from the Fall 1996 issue of FIDELIO Magazine.
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Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Motivführung
by Dan Leach
From the beginning of mankinds existence, as a truly human culture, Man has struggled to express the seemingly inexpressiblethe idea which lies beyond the realm of the senses, yet is nevertheless real and palpablein language. In fact, language is the very product, the footprint, of this fluid, ever-changing process, in which we re-create ideas, which exist as entirely spiritual or immaterial entities in one human mind, in another mind. This process of re-creating an idea which has no pre-existing associations or predicates in the mind of another, is called Metaphor.1
Metaphor is the only way in which anything new can actually be communicated, or anything really true or profound be said, since, if it is new, it does not yet have any associated words which trigger the idea in another mind. The communication of an idea must be re-created in the other mind, out of the pre-existing material of language, in the same way it was created in the first place. This is the essence of all truly great Artof music, painting, drama, sculpture, and especially poetry; it is also the essence of all creative discovery in science. In this sense, all science is profoundly poetic, and all great poetry is scientific, properly understood.
We shall endeavor here to discover, or rediscover, as the case may be, some of the scientific principles of metaphorical thought in poetry and its relation to music, especially the method of thorough composition, or Motivführung, discovered by Haydn, and further developed and perfected by Mozart and Beethoven.2 It is the method of Motivführung, which allows the mind to grasp the creative principle underlying the entire piece as a unity.
As is the case with music proper, all poetry that is worthy of its name, derives its power from precisely this rendering intelligible the creative process itself. When we experience a new idea in our mind, communicated through the ironic juxtaposition of words which represent either sense objects or pre-existing ideas, we are experiencing the essence of our humanitythat we are not creatures of sense only, mere grovelling animals, doomed forever to a fixed range of thought. The very experience of an actual idea in this strict, Platonic sense, especially if it is beautiful, that is, rendered according to universally lawful principles of order and harmony, is uplifting. For it elevates us to a higher level of thought, and shows us the creative potential within our own minds.
This is often accomplished with seemingly simple, almost banal, images as the raw material; but it is precisely the unspoken, unwritten idea created through the metaphor, not the things, or predicates used to create it, that is the true subject. To demonstrate this, it is appropriate here to cite an example from Lord Byron, a poet who, although talented in creating beauty, was not motivated by a desire to make its creation intelligible, and degenerated into creating it merely for titillating effectsthe very essence of Romanticism. Later, we shall see a higher, more noble concept in the poetry of Keats and Shelley; but, for now, Byrons She Walks In Beauty will suffice to make the point.
We see here, in the first stanza, the ironic juxtaposition of two sensual imagesone of the night, with its calm, and peace, and soft lights, and the other of a human being, a woman, whose eyes, and in the following stanzas, whose heart and soul, are compared to this sensual image. What is achieved, albeit on a very simple level, is an idea which communicates a higher spiritual truth about this person, than could a mere description of her qualities. This is why all poetry is musical in form: it has meter; lines with a certain number of syllables; rhythm; a characteristic metric within the line (here, it is iambic quadrameter, or lines of four feet, each consisting of one short syllable, followed by one long); and melody, or vowel and consonant sounds, arranged in ordered patterns which resonate on the mind, and thus create the ironies. These resonating vowel sounds are not only the rhymes at the end of the lines, but also internal rhymes within the lines, across lines, and even across stanzas. Only music can communicate real ideas, because only in this way can the ironies, in which lies the true subject matter, be generated.
Strophic poetrypoetry which repeats a certain form, such as in the first two lines of this poem, in the same form, only with a variation, as in the second two lines, (night and skies, then bright and eyes), is the form most suited to do this. In fact, music derives its form from strophic poetry, the vowel sounds corresponding exactly to pitch values of the well-tempered musical scale,3 and the interval created between two tones, when juxtaposed to another interval in this strophic manner, generating the musical ironies out of which an idea,(a Platonic One) arises, which is not contained in the notes, or intervals(the Many)themselves.
Let us look at a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which, although ostensibly on the same subject as Byrons, is of an entirely higher order. Although this is immediately evident from its effect on us, emotionally, it is by endeavoring to make intelligible the reason why, that we come closer, hopefully, to an understanding of our subject.
How much more are we uplifted! There is a higher spiritual quality breathing forth from this poem, that is entirely lacking in the other. First, there is change, a noticeable ordered progression from one stanza to the next, each of which represents a completed thought, which accomplishes in six lines what Byron took three stanzas to do, and still really didnt do.
In stanza I, a beautiful metaphor is created, expressing the idea that beauty is not some static quality which we merely record through our senses, but arises out of some deeper quality that animates the physical. This simple metaphorthe spirit animating the body as the limbs move the clothesis presented strophically, so as to create a strong echo with the image of the water. The ocean and motion couplet is a theme which is developed on a higher level in succeeding stanzas.
In stanza II, we again have a metaphor for this spiritual motion, only this time it is the soul being moved, like winds fanning a fire. The Platonic One created in the first stanza, is now the basis for the generation of a higher, richer irony, where the same wind that fans the fire that can gaze the wisest into madness, nevertheless rests on her soul, like zephyrs on the billow. The tension thus created between the apparently unattainable, other-worldly nature of ideal beauty, and the souls longing for it, is beautifully captured in this ironic juxtaposition of these two metaphors, of motion and rest. The fact that this richer irony grew out of a simpler one, yet is consistent in its imagerythe ocean of the first stanza now becoming the zephyrs on the billowgives this poem a special thoroughness, which is central to the principle of Motivführung, as we shall see.
The second stanzas central ironythe paradox created by the two metaphorsand the tension associated with it, is now the basis of stanza III, and is developed to an even higher level. Here, we have ideal beauty making one pale and faint; only now, a new idea is introduced: the soul is faintest when it experiences this as music. For the first time, the poet speaks of himself, and of his relationship to this force whose highest form is expressed in music. To fully appreciate the power of this metaphor, however, it was necessary for us to go through the process of ascending levels of metaphors in the previous stanzas.
Stanza IV contains the germ of the idea of Motivführung which Shelley later develops to an unparallelled richness in his Ode to the West Wind. Here, in rapid succession, are a series of metaphors, each of a higher order of cardinality, or conceptual power, because each sums up, or subsumes, a process of development implied by the poems previous stanzas. Dew passively evaporating in the wind; the sea being stirred into motion by the wind; and then birds flying frantically before the storm; all are invested with a significance far beyond their apparent literal, or symbolic, meaning; they are true metaphors. The idea subsuming all of themAs aught mute yet deeply shaken, seems to perfectly express this tension between the peace and serenity of the eternal, and the energy and motion associated with the creative force. The concluding couplet provides the closure which makes clear that from the beginning of the poem, the subject was never really a woman, but this relationship between Beauty and the Artist, the creative process, and how to make this intelligible to the reader. In each stanza, the metaphor lies, in a sense, outside the process by which it was created. Only in the succeeding stanza, when that One in our minds is used as an element to create a further development, is it named.
In the last several years of his life, Shelley reached a level of compositional richness and profundity, as had John Keats before his death, that is unparalleled in the English language.* The great odes of Keats, the Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn, for example, taken together with Shelleys Ode to the West Wind and To a Skylark, and a few others, constitute a revolution in compositional method in English language poetry comparable to Haydn and Mozarts famous Motivführung revolution. That such a revolution was born in the same intense atmosphere of intellectual excitement and dialogue of creative minds, is entirely lawful. Biographies of both Keats and Shelley, as well as their friend and benefactor, Leigh Hunt, all speak of gatherings at Hunts home, where the poets would engage in all-night musical performances and discussions of Mozart, improvisational poetry writing contests, discussions of translation projects, as well as the latest political developments.
The technology for communicating a density of ideas, developing in an ordered process, and inducing the mind to perceive the creative principle which generates them, was pioneered in the Fourteenth century by the fathers of the Golden Renaissance, Dante Alighieri and Petrarch. In fact, the sonnet, as well as the canzone and other forms, was developed by them, combining certain troubador song forms with a rich Platonic philosophical outlook. Shelley, in particular, steeped himself in this Italian poetry, and must have inspired Keats with a love of it, for Keats adopted, in some of his most beautiful sonnets, the Italian form.
It was out of this atmosphere of intensive study of the classics, impassioned dialogue with his collaborators on creative method, and a burning republican zeal to communicate to Mankind an awareness of their own creative powers, and thus enable them to be truly free, that Shelley produced his greatest poems. Perhaps none is greater than the Ode to the West Wind [See Box]. It never fails to evoke tears of intense sadness and longing, yet a triumphant transcendence of mortality which is universally recognized. How this is accomplished, is an inquiry which, even if never fully satisfied, is well worth the effort, so rich in poetic treasure is it.
As we read, or hear recited, the five stanzas of this Ode, Shelley accomplishes a transformation within our souls comparable to that achieved in a great tragedyexcept, we are enabled to overcome the tragic, not merely through the poets saying make me thy lyre, etc., but because we have actually reproduced, in our own minds, the process of overcoming death through creativity which the poet went through to create this poem. We are made to identify with the creative process as our own truest self, our humanity, as the poet has.
But, imagine how empty, almost childishly naive it would be, to hear the last stanza by itself, without first having gone through the whole poem. Obviously, then, much to the contrary of the linguisticians and information theorists, words are not mere symbols of sense objects, or packets of discrete units of information. These words are imbued with a power which transcends their literal meaning, for they evoke a memory, a re-creation in the mind, of a series of transformations we have been brought through, to arrive here. These transformations are ordered, each stanza developing according to its own apparent internal order, followed by a discontinuity separating the stanzas, which leads to a new process of development on a higher level. It is only at the end, that we see the higher ordering process which subsumes the others; the reason they seem to make sense. The musical rigor with which Shelley does this, makes this poem one of the greatest works of art in any form.
There is a driving energy which seems to accelerate toward the ending couplet of each stanza, which is not only the product of the thought content, but also inherent in the form, which is called terza rima, the Italian three-line rhyme scheme, pioneered by Dante, whom Shelley was translating at the time he wrote this.
In each group of three lines, or tercet, the first and third lines rhyme, and the middle lines ending becomes the rhyme for the first and third lines of the next group of three. This produces a continuous unfolding, which accelerates in the third and fourth group of three, as Shelley does not end the lines with punctuation, as he does in the first two groups, but lets the forward motion drive on, through the line endings, creating an almost urgent tension when compared to the first part. The vowel sounds have also shifted from the dark and somber tones such as in thou, Autumn, and ghosts (which are counterposed to the flat, lifeless quality of the short vowel in breath, dead, red, pestilence, and so on), to the still sonorous and dark cold and low, and blow; but containing within them, like a seed, the word until, which leads to the much brighter sounds: fill, hill, and Spring, dreaming earth, sweet buds, etc. Thus, we have established in our minds ear, so to speak, definite tonal relationships; the one corresponding to death, loss, mortality; the other to rebirth, regeneration, and hope.
The development of these musical themes drives on to the paradoxical ending couplet, expressed as destroyer and preserver. The musical development of this stanza has been brought to a point of singularity, an apparent discontinuity which, it is not clear until the end of the poem, is part of a higher continuity. In reciting this poem, as in performing a piece of music, it is crucial to remember the ending, so that it determines the beginning, creating the resonances in the first stanza which enable the process as a whole to be transparent in the end.
Stanza II begins, by immediately situating the metaphor which subsumes the entire previous process of development in stanza I, as the seed-crystal of a new, higher level metaphor. Now the earths decaying leaves are compared to the clouds which, like them, appear to be driven into wild disorder by this awesome, destructive force. The energy which drives this stanza onward, mirrors the exhilaration, the paradoxical excitement we feel at the approach of an intense storm. Friedrich Schiller, in his essay On the Sublime, called this phenomenon the Sublime of Nature, where we are made to feel small, physically, by some awe-inspiring natural object or event, such as a mountain, the ocean, or the night sky; yet, the experience of our minds ability to comprehend it as a concept, is a sensuous experience of our humanity, of our superiority, spiritually, over Nature.
But, what is Shelley really talking about here? Is it merely a storm? No, it is Death! We have been, quite literally, uplifted to see this process of death and the potential of rebirth (for it is only implied in this stanza), reflected from the earth and its living processes, into the sky, the great, extended inorganic universe. The musical qualities by which this is achieved are, again, remarkable. Once again, there is a development, generally, from darker vowels (tones of a lower musical pitch), to ones of, if not brighter quality, at least greater intensity. They are of a higher frequency, in physical terms. So what we have here, is a process which mirrors, on one level(the formal)the process we saw in the first stanza, exactly as does a musical composition when, say, a modulation into a different key takes place, while the continuity of the intervals between the notes is preserved. The mind perceives the change, not as arbitrary, but as lawful change. As we saw in To Sophia, Shelley again employs the musical principle of stretto at the end of this stanza: does not Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear! seem to capture the essence of this entire stanza? And it also contains the spark, quite literally, of a metaphor which is the key to the last stanza, and should be recited accordingly.
In stanza III, we have one of the most beautiful examples of sublime melancholy in English poetry. Schiller, in his essay Naive and Sentimental Poetry, speaks of the use of lost beauty, lost love, or a lost golden age of humanity, to evoke the emotional state of longing for the eternal, for the Good. Here, it is evoked in a unique, almost unconscious way. Again, we are transported, lawfully, into a new metaphorical dimension; consistent with, and growing out of, the previous set of images, yet initiating a new process of development. With the second stanzas overriding image, the Platonic One generated by it, in our minds, we now hear the Thou, which begins the stanza in a different way than in the first or second. It has been transformed, and now is not only the destroyer and preserver, but also contains within it all the force and energy associated with the second stanzas evocation of a sublime exhilarating feeling, even toward death and destruction. It is important here to remember, that, as is the case in all great poetry, these things are not to be taken literally, as some have suggested. Shelley did not have some Romantic fixation on death. Rather, the tension created by this developing, in successive phases of the theme, as compared to the One which subsumes the entire poem, is essential to the ultimate comprehension of, and emotional identification with, that idea.
One should recite the entire sentence starting with Thou who, through faints picturing them! with special attention not only to the rich, sensuous beauty of the music, but with a muted reverence for the moral beauty of the idea presented. For we now have the wind awakening a sleeping ocean, which is dreaming of a lost civilization. Thus, metaphorically, this process of awakening, of regenerating, has connected to the highest objectivehumanity. That is the special power of this beautiful passage. That is why the sense faints picturing it. But the tension that has been building between the process of Becoming, with its paradoxes, each being superseded by another, higher set, and that seemingly ineffable, unspoken One which lies somehow above and beyond the process, now causes a sudden shift in mood, in tonal quality, and even in the subject.
Suddenly, the imagery reflects the death-darkness modality, literally from top to bottom; even the ocean floor grows gray with fear, bringing to a sort of closure the entire metaphorical development up to now. One cannot imagine any other process beyond here, in this mode, so complete seems the metaphorical development. Yet, we are left so utterly suspended with a sense of incompleteness, because of the still unaddressed One which lies outside the development.
So, what does Shelley do here? In a manner very similar to Beethovens review, in the beginning of the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony, of the themes of the first three movements, the poet, for the first time in his own voice, identifies the themes of the first three stanzas, and where the tension is coming from. For, even the crassest nominalist who may have imagined that Shelley had been talking about the wind previously, would now begin to suspect that perhaps something more profound is being addressed. What could better capture the agonizing paradox of the relationship of Mans mortal, time-bound existence, to the infinite freedom of universal creativity itself, than this stanza? To call up the memory of childhoods innocent joy in this connection, adds a compelling universal appeal, as we all share in this sense of lost innocence; only, Shelley has here raised it to a profound level. If one can recite, or hear the concluding couplet of this stanza, without being nearly choked with tears, one hasnt understood a thing of the poems true meaning.
The key to the transition which makes possible the final, remarkable stanza, unparallelled in poetry, is the word, prayer, for that is what it is. The poet undergoes, and takes us through, a kind of psychological deaththe death of the ego, in stanza IV. This allows him to not merely be uplifted by the creative force, but to totally identify with it! With the deep autumnal tones we heard in the first stanza now totally transformed in their emotional content, we have reached a musical, as well as metaphorical, closure.
The lines Make me thy lyre, through Be thou me, impetuous one, are intensely uplifting enough, but the last two tercets and concluding couplet of this poem express a higher cardinality than even the whole previous process, which is the essence of the true One of Shelleys poemthe Good which subsumes the ordered process of Becoming. Here, in the most selfless and agapic way, the creative artist does not merely describe the act of giving beauty to mankind, but actually does it. It is the way in which we are transformed, which scatters the ashes and sparks of creativity to ourselves and future generations. This is what overcomes death. And the triumphal tone of this ending cannot fail to remind us, again, of the Ninth Symphony; for it is born of the same love of humanity which inspired Beethoven, Schiller, and all the true creative geniuses of historys Platonic-republican movement.
That Shelley should develop a creative method which parallels the Motivführung revolution in musical composition, is entirely lawful. For, to elevate us to such a high level, the artist must first re-create in our minds a series of metaphors, make us aware of their ascending development, and then make intelligible, transparent, the process which generated them. Only in this way can the mind come to know its own potential for creativity, and it is the zeal to communicate that, out of love of mankind, which drives the artist.
We cannot consider in this place the history of Shelleys political activities, the danger he posed to the oligarchy of his time, and, therefore, the strong likelihood that his early death was brought about by assassination.4 But, of his commitment to the uplifting of Man through Art, to a condition of moral freedom, as was Schillers commitment, there can be no doubt. One of Shelleys last projects was, in fact, to study German, so that he could translate Schillers Die Räuber (The Robbers) into English. One can only imagine what might have been unleashed, if his and Schillers spirits had been united and spread throughout the English-speaking world.
Shelleys tragic death at age thirty, and Keats at twenty-four, occurred before either had fully matured in his creative powers. With the exception of the counter-efforts of the American Edgar Allan Poe, English poetry has been in degenerate decline ever since. But, by mastering the method so beautifully exemplified in the precious gems they bequeathed usin the context of our fight to create a new Renaissancewe may indeed fulfill Shelleys prophecy, to spark a new generation of creative geniuses.
1. For the concept of Metaphor, see Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr.s Fidelio Metaphor series: On the Subject of Metaphor (Vol. I, No. 3, Fall 1992, pp. 17-50), Mozarts 1782-1786 Revolution in Music (Vol. I, No. 4, Winter 1992, pp. 4-29), and On the Subject of God (Vol. II, No. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 17-48); see also Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., How Hobbes Mathematics Misshaped Modern History, Fidelio, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 6-30. This issue is featured in the Symposium on the Creative Principle in Art and Science, Fidelio, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter 1994, which includes The Fraud of Algebraic Causality (Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr.); Beauty as a Necessary Condition of Humanity (Helga Zepp LaRouche); Some Simple Examples of Poetic Metaphor (Kenneth Kronberg); African-American Spirituals and the Classical Setting of Strophic Poetry (Dennis Speed); and What Mathematics Can Learn from Classical Music (Bruce Director).
2. On the principle of Motivführung, see Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., Mozarts 1782-1786 Revolution in Music, op. cit. See also, Helga Zepp LaRouche, The Question of Motivic Thorough Composition in Schillers Poetry, Fidelio, Vol. IV, No. 4, Winter 1995.
3. See A Manual On the Rudiments of Tuning and Registration. Book I: The Human Singing Voice, ed. by John Sigerson and Kathy Wolfe (Washington, D.C.: Schiller Institute, 1992), pp. 159-170, for an in-depth discussion of this question. Modern experimental physics proves what was implicitly known to classical composers: that the vowel sounds in human speech have characteristic musical equivalents, based upon the formant structures of the sounds, which can be mapped onto the well-tempered scale. The pattern of vowel relationships, then, defines a musical score, or implied score, which Schubert, for one, used as the raw material for his songs.
4. See Edward Trelawny, Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author, Vol. 1 (New York/London: Benjamin Blom, 1878). Trelawny, who was a friend of both Shelley and Byron in the last year or so of Shelleys life, describes an incident many years after Shelleys death, of a death-bed confession by a pirate, who claimed to have been hired to ram Shelleys boat, causing it to sink. That Shelley had powerful political enemies is indisputable, and Trelawny reports that on his death, an investigation of possible homicide was conducted, but never brought to a satisfactory conclusion. He does indicate, however, that many believed Shelley to have been assassinated by those leading forces in the British oligarchy threatened by his ideas and political activities.
* Unparalleled because, although the dramas of Shakespeare unquestionably represent the high-point of conceptual power in the use of the English language previously attained, each of Shakespeares sonnets, when taken separately, presents only one idea arising out of a series of paradoxes; and it is only with the entire series of sonnets, that we begin to understand the generative principle subsuming all of them. Edgar Allan Poe clearly understood this issue, when he wrote in The Rationale of Verse, that a long poemone which cannot be read in a single sittingdoes not, actually, exist: It becomes something else.
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