Percy Shelley’s Ode to Agricultural Reform
From the poets of the Romantic era Percy Shelley is considered one of the most radical. Shelley was defined by his personal beliefs, which made both him and his poetry notorious, like his unapologetic atheism and multiple marriages. Another one of his overlooked beliefs also slipped into his poetry, his thoughts on agrarian politics. In the article “Percy Shelley’s Radical Agrarian Politics” Michael Demson highlights Shelley’s thoughts on England’s agricultural system and it’s social injustices. Shelley’s ideas on the subject also seeped into themes of his poetry like “Ode to the West Wind.” This poem explores more than natures power. It explores spreading the wind of reform and revolution across England.
Shelley was arguing against was the result of the Agricultural Revolution in England. Due to the massive increase in population growth changes had to be made in how food was produced. The change that Shelley focused on the most was the land enclosures. The shift from open farms to closed large farms owned exclusively by wealthy landowners left many common people with no land and no choice but to become farm laborers or move into more urban areas. In a letter Shelley wrote in 1812 he says, “Cambria … is the last stronghold of the most vulgar & common place prejudices of aristocracy. –lawyers of unexampled villainy rule & grind the poor whilst they cheat the rich; the peasants are mere serfs & are fed & lodged worse than pigs, the gentry have all the ferocity & despotism of the ancient barons without their dignity & chivalric distain of shame or danger. The poor are as abject as Samoyeds the rich as tyrannic as Bashaws” (Demson 1). This unfair monopoly that Shelley describes is just one of the things that he calls for a change in.
Another way to understand Shelley’s thoughts on the aftermath of the Agricultural Revolution is to see what his fellow Romantics thought of the subject. Demson says that Romantic was influenced by the “Robison Crusoe myth” termed by Ian Watt. Robinson Crusoe, a novel published before the Romantic era in 1719, was about a man who spent much of his time on an isolated island. The book became something of a cultural myth in England. Demson quotes Watt in saying that this “’back to nature’ theme, with its ‘simpler economic structure and its associated rural setting’, did much to elevate Crusoe to his status as a ‘culture-hero’ in the eyes of Rousseau and the Romantics” (Demson 2).
But what makes this “Robison Crusoe myth” a myth is that in the novel Crusoe wasn’t interested in simply living on the island and getting back to nature. He was constantly seeking ways to gain at the expense of others. Crusoe remained the colonial imperialist Brit to the core. In Demson’s article he explains how fellow Romantic writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s agrarian political thoughts influenced Shelley’s. Quoting Rousseau he says, “As long as they remain nomadic, cultivating land only to the extent that they feed themselves, people remain free, but as soon as they plant crops in a manner t generate a surplus, as Crusoe did, they create economic dependencies that inevitably lead to political inequality: ‘slavery and misery […] germinate and grow with the crops’” (Demson 2). Shelley was heavily influenced by other Romantic writers like Rousseau and Godwin and their ideas were often shared. The “Robinson Crusoe Myth” made him see the injustices of the capitalistic agricultural system in England.
Shelley’s ideas about agriculture can be seen through his poetry. In the poem “Ode to the West Wind” what most people focus on is Shelley’s attempt to show the power of nature through its beautiful and epic aesthetic imagery. The beauty and power isn’t all Shelley is trying to reveal in the poem though. Demson says, “’Ode to the West Wind’ does not directly address any material agrarian politics. Nevertheless, this fantasy of martyrdom is in several respects a refutation of Crusoe’s divinely sanctioned self-interest. The poet of the ode lacks any self-interest, does not think in finite terms, and abandons the drive for self-preservation… Moreover, seminal imagery remains pervasive in the ode and comes to represent not divine providence and the virtue of prudent economics, but just the opposite, the poet’s selflessness. Instead of counted and cultivated, seeds are blown recklessly about by the West Wind in the manner in which he himself wishes to be” (Demson 11).
All of Shelley’s ideas about the “Robinson Crusoe myth” and how that extended to his beliefs for a change in England’s farming system are in “Ode to the West Wind.” In the last stanzas are calling for a change, a social and political change that stems from his ideas on Agrarian Politics. The Romantic era was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and a social critique on Age of Enlightenment and Shelley contributed to that call for change not only in his circle but to the wider public through his poetry.
Demson, Michael. “Percy Shelley’s Radical Agrarian Politics.” Romanticism. Vol.16.Issue 3 (2010): 279-292. Print.
Shelley, Percy. “Ode to the West Wind.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature,fifth edition. New York; Longman. 2012. 889-891. Print.
Severn, Joseph. Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound. Digital image.Wikipedia.org. Public Domain, 2009. Web.