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Enchanted Archive: Influence, Dissemination, and Media Transformation in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”

  • Roman Sympos [1]

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  • Roman Sympos [1]
    University of Nephelokokkygia

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The library of the future must also be a place that will preserve the knowledge and understanding of written culture in the forms that were, and still are today, very much its own.

Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codex to Computer 24 [2]

If, as Roger Chartier fears, we are building the electronic archive at the risk of “doing violence to the texts” we would preserve in it, “separating them from the original physical forms in which they appeared and which helped to constitute their historical significance,” we might do well to look to the poets as repositories of this ever more arcane knowledge (Chartier 22). Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is a particularly eloquent relic of our literate and archival origins, and of the anxieties of transmission that inevitably arise in a period of sudden media transformation, such as the one Shelley himself lived through.  [3] Tracing the poem’s theme of influence by means of its most prominently developed trope, we can discern the distinct features of what Chartier considers the only true precedent in the history of writing for our “present revolution” in textual transmission: “the substitution of the codex for the volumen–of the book composed of quires for the book in the form of a roll,” in late antiquity (Chartier 18).These features assume interpretable form in the poem’s response to the entropic impact of material mediation on the interpretability of the archive itself, and on traditional notions of poetic influence.

Shelley’s “Ode” is not only about influence, but also displays its influences, like stigmata, as signs of its creator’s hoped-for apotheosis to the ranks of his great predecessors. Among the most important of Shelley’s natural images for this process are autumn’s “leaves dead” flying headlong before the West Wind in the poem’s first stanza: “driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” (2-3), they betray the disseminating and, through the “winged seeds” (7) accompanying them, inseminating power of influence. These spectral leaves, which as Kim Blank observes reappear in each succeeding stanza, represent the souls of the dead, including the souls of dead poets, as well as the pages bearing their works along to future generations (486). [4] Among these great precursors Shelley would number himself–at least, this is the prayer he makes in the last sonnet-stanza: that the winds of history will “[d]rive” and “[s]catter” “over the universe” his own falling and “withered leaves,” these fragile sheets of paper bearing his “dead thoughts,” and thereby “quicken a new birth” (58-66) in the minds of readers yet to come. The poet has reason to hope his prayer will be answered, for the same wind has driven and scattered the “dead thoughts” of his precursors in just this manner.

The “Ode” bears witness to this process. Shelley’s trope of dead leaves has itself been inseminated by at least four “winged seeds” of influence, as critics have long recognized (Reiman and Powers 221n3). [5] Lying “cold and low,/ Each like a corpse within its grave” (7-8), these germs of past literary life await only the “clarion” call of the informed reader’s mind to unfold their “living hues and odours” (10, 12). The youngest and oldest of these sources, in Milton (Paradise Lost 1.299-304) and in Homer (Iliad 6.146-8), do not concern us here. The other two, however, in Dante and Virgil, do more than simply enrich the geographical relevance of the poem’s Italian scene of composition. They also link the poem’s theme of influence to a signal transformation in the format of the book and the nature of the archive heralded by public ritual events and private writing practices in early imperial Rome. [6]

Shelley’s laminated allusion places us immediately at the boundary of life and afterlife. As Dante, guided by Virgil, approaches the banks of the Styx, he is moved to describe the crowds of dead souls awaiting passage on Charon’s ferry: “As in autumn when the leaves begin to fall,/ one after the other (until the branch/ is witness to the spoils spread on the ground),/ so did the evil seed of Adam’s Fall/ drop from that shore to the boat, one at a time,/ at his signal” (Inferno 3. 112-17). What the Christian poet took to be the end appointed for sinners alone, however, Shelley reconceives as the fate of all humankind. As G. M. Matthews (199) first pointed out, [7] the lines immediately following Shelley’s reference to these arboreal “ghosts”—“Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,/ Pestilence-stricken multitudes” (4-5)–are color-coded to represent not only the traditional hues of autumn, but also the four races of humankind: the Asian (yellow), African (black), Caucasian (“pale” or white), and Amerindian (red). In this respect, Shelley draws upon a more universal template for humankind’s legible afterlives offered by Dante’s Roman precursor in the Aeneid. As Virgil’s Aeneas and Aeneas’s own guide, the Cumean Sybil, approach the banks of the Styx, they behold the “phantoms” (umbras, literally “shadows”) of “Mothers and men, bodies of great-souled heroes,/ Their life-time over, boys, unwedded maidens,/ Young men whose fathers saw their pyres burning,” all the dead, without moral distinction, who “come thronging,” “[t]hick as the forest leaves that fall in autumn/ With early frost” (Aeneid 6.324-39).

As noted above, the theme of influence adumbrated by Shelley’s “leaves dead,” with its ghostlier Dantean and Virgilian demarcations, is linked at the end of the poem with the material mechanisms of publication and dissemination–the manufacture of paper “leaves” inscribed with “dead thoughts” (63), including the pages on which Shelley’s poem itself is printed. Here particularly, the threads of filiation running back through Dante to Virgil not only reveal the forward path of literary influence from Virgil to Dante and to Shelley himself. They also include the particular clew of material mediation leading us back to the religious rituals of Virgilan Rome and to harbingers of the first major transformation of the book format in antiquity:

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 withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

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?


Much in this stanza is drawn, either directly or indirectly, from Aeneas’s consultation with the Cumaean Sybil in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 6, lines 47-116, or from its prolepsis in Book 3, lines 450-68. Like Homer’s Odysseus, whom Circe helped to find his way to Hades in order to ask of Tieresias the itinerary for his journey homeward (Odyssey Books 10 and 11), Aeneas has arrived at the cave of the Sybil, priestess of Apollo, to learn the way to Tartarus, there to consult with the soul of his dead father Anchises regarding his own destiny on the shores of Italy. Like Shelley supplicating the West Wind, Aeneas (also an exile) utters a prayer for guidance, inspiration, and reassurance concerning his future (6.62-85). Like the “fierce Maenad”  [8] of Shelley’s second stanza (21), the Sybil in turn goes “reeling through the cavern, wild, and storming” under the unrelenting power of Apollo. Pressing like a “rider” taming a wild horse to his will (87-88, 114-5), the god seeks, as it were, to “be through” her “lips [. . .]/ The trumpet of a prophecy,” to make her his “lyre, even as the forest is” for Shelley’s Maenadic West Wind (Hogle 185). [9]

Here at the end of the “Ode” one of Shelley’s favorite metaphors of inspiration, the Aeolian harp, undergoes a sylvan metamorphosis informed not only by Coleridge’s example in “Dejection: an Ode” (99-107), [10] but also by Virgil’s two passages on the Cumaean Sybil and her mode of prophecy. Her cave is located in the “forest called Avernus, where the leaves/ Rustle and stir in the great woods” (3.451-2), responding to a wind that, at the height of the Sybil’s frenzy in Book 6, will come rushing through “the hundred doors” (91) of her cavern. There the “hollow vaults” will serve as “amplifiers” to her “warnings,/ Riddles confused with truth” (112-4). The most significant detail of the Cumaean Sybil’s mode of prophecy for our purposes, however, is to be found in its surprisingly tenuous mode of physical transmission and dissemination. This process is described in Book 3 by Helenus, son of Priam, who also explains to Aeneas the best way to prepare for it:

You will find a priestess, in her wildness singing
Prophetic verses under the stones, and keeping
Symbols and signs on leaves. She files and stores them
In the depth of the cave; there they remain unmoving,
Keeping their order, but if a light wind stirs
At the turn of a hinge, and the door’s draft disturbs them,
The priestess never cares to catch them fluttering
Around the halls of rock, put them in order,
Or give them rearrangement. Men who have come there
For guidance leave uncounselled, and they hate
The Sybil’s dwelling. [. . .]
[. . .] plead with her to tell you
With her own lips the song of the oracles.


Following Helenus’s instructions, Aeneas asks the Sybil to “chant the sacred verses/ With your own lips; do not trust them to the leaves,/ The mockery of the rushing wind’s disorder” (6.83-5).

The “leaves” on which the Sybil writes her prophecies once grew on the branches of the forest of Avernus. Dead or dying, they have presumably been driven into the cave– there to await prophetic inscription–by what Shelley calls the “unseen presence” (2) of the wind, whose presiding deity is, traditionally, Aeolus, a wayward and unpredictable god. However, with the opening of the oracular “hundred doors” of prophecy through which Aeneas’s “answer comes” (6.91-2), the leaves are scattered, “fluttering” about like wild birds (6.85). Thus new prophecy seems to destroy the old, or confuse it by random modes of reception. Clearly, Shelley found in Virgil’s scene of writing an analogue to his own vexed relationship to publication, dissemination, and reception, a process in which his work was often read, interpreted, and evaluated through bits and pieces taken out of context. Even in this scattered and fragmentary state, however, he seems to believe that his verses might, like “[a]shes and sparks” alighting on inflammable material, yet bring about revolutionary change.

A positive antithesis to Virgil’s scene of textual dismemberment appears in two Sybilline passages from the Roman poet’s most faithful epigone, Dante. At the end of the Paradiso, as Dante approaches the ultimate Christian mystery of the triune godhead, he, too, invokes the image of the Cumaean Sybil and her haphazard filing system to express, first, the mounting disorder of his speech when trying to recall the memory of that sublime vision, and then, only twenty lines later, its original unity, which was derived, in turn, from the “Infinite Worth” (33.81) and “Eternal Light” (33.83) of God. Now incapable, in the moment he tries to describe them, of gazing directly on these things, Dante can no longer capture in words their original perfection:

And from then on my vision rose to heights
 higher than words, which fail before such sight,
 and memory fails, too, at such extremes.

As he who sees things in a dream and wakes
 to feel the passion of the dream still there
 although no part of it remains in mind,

just such am I: my vision fades and all
 but ceases, yet the sweetness born of it
 I still can feel distilling in my heart:

so imprints on the snow fade in the sun,
 and thus the Sibyl’s oracle of leaves
 was swept away and lost into the wind.

Paradiso 33.55-67

The mind of God, for Dante, is a kind of pre-verbal archive where the ultimate, unreachable Ideas of being and existence take legible, sequential form, only to fade and scatter in the wind that enters as the Sybilline doors of memory are opened. But the disorder these Ideas suffer here in the sublunary world of time and memory simply indicates that their ultimate source of unity lies, like Shelley’s Mont Blanc, “[f]ar, far above” (60) human understanding and beyond human speech altogether. “If I had turned my eyes away,” says Dante, “from the sharp brilliance of the living Ray/ which they endured, I would have lost my senses” (33.76-78):

And this, as I recall, gave me more strength
 to keep on gazing till I could unite
 my vision with the Infinite Worth I saw.
[. . . ]
I saw how it contains within its depths
 all things bound in a single book by love
 of which creation is the scattered leaves.


Expanding his Sybilline allusion from the precincts of individual memory to those of Creation, Dante, the neo-Platonic Christian apologist, deploys an image of God’s Mind as a single bound book, the paginated codex of the Word or logos into which the individual leaves of our fallen world, scattered by the entropic winds of history, will be regathered at the end of time.

These are passages that Shelley must have known and may have found useful in formulating his own conception, in the Defense, of poetic inspiration as a “fading coal” simultaneously fanned and consumed by the wind of “influence.” Like the “Eternal Light” of Dante’s vision, the “original purity and force” of this “inconstant wind” is diminished by its temporal expression at the moment it awakens the human mind “to transitory brightness”:

[F]or the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness [. . .]. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

Reiman 503-4

For Shelley, frustration at the obscurity that composition imposes on the bright “purity and force” of the poet’s “original conceptions” is compounded, in a way it could never be for Dante, by anxiety over the aleatory processes of literate transmission. Both the Florentine exile and the English expatriate lived in an age of violent political and religious disruption. But Dante and his literate contemporaries did not experience the widespread material transformations in the production and dissemination of writing that Shelley and his fellow poets faced. Dante lived in an era of archival promise, of expanding textual recovery, redaction, compilation, collection, and circulation liberated from the hoarding and policing of the scriptorium. He glimpsed the dawn of what was to become a resurgence of learning founded securely on the bound book and the secular library. Shelley, by contrast, lived in an age of mechanical print reproduction nearing cultural escape velocity. As Andrew Stauffer puts it, this massive transformation, in degree if not in kind, of textual reproduction and circulation

began with the industrial transformation of printing and papermaking, and [of] the new communicative circuits they enabled [. . .]. Yet along with the opening of new vistas of possibility came a corresponding anxiety of loss: busy in creating the flood of paper that defined them, Britons in the Romantic era were troubled by an imagined wasteland of forgotten, ruined texts. [. . .] [T]he individual writer’s papers were feared to be lost in the general welter of material, increasingly imagined as uncertain, unmanageable, and entropic.

paragraph 3

“The literature of the period,” Stauffer continues, “registers its unease with its own archival future in ways that illuminate the vexed relationship of Romanticism to materiality.” This particular unease was almost entirely unknown to trecento Florence. [11]

Regardless of the two poets’ different experiences and expectations of the archive, each would have found it difficult to imagine the Virgilian Sybil’s “[p]rophetic verses” recorded in “[s]ymbols and signs on leaves” as anything other than a book in codex form. The prophecies’ being subsequently “file[d] and [s]tored” in “the depth of the cave” of the Sybil would appear to be an equally unmistakable image of the library or archive. Thus the “chant” (84) of the prophetess “in her wildness singing,” which for Shelley would have included the oral transmission of ancient poetry before the appearance of writing in post-Homeric Greece, is enchained or “en-chanted,” spell-bound into silent paralysis, by the physical signs of its leafy legibility. The promise of permanence and stability offered by the literate spell of the archive is, however, a delusion. Much as Wordsworth in ThePrelude ([1805] 5.42-49) expresses his astonishment and dread at the fragility of the paper vessels in which our literary heritage is passed from one generation of readers to the next, so Shelley conveys, in his allusion to the Sybilline de-filing system, his awareness of the vulnerability of his own “incantation” (65) to the wayward transformations of the printed archive.

But if what Virgil was envisioning in the Cumaean Sybil’s mode of prophetic transmission was indeed, like Dante’s vision of the scattered leaves of God’s Creation, the dismemberment of a book in the now-familiar form of the codex–that is, a sewn volume of gatherings and quires of cut paper sheets bound between hard covers–then the scene of Aeneas’s enlightenment in Book 6 would not only represent the tipsy instability of poetic prophecy and its dissemination under the impact of literacy and the archive, but also assume the form of prophecy itself, foretelling one of the most important transformations in the ancient history of the book: the change from scrolls, or volumina (sing. volumen), to codices as a means of literate transmission. For the codex was not widely used as a means of recording the written word for public dissemination until the third or fourth century CE, some three or four hundred years after Virgil’s death. Moreover, its popularity as a mode of textual propagation was driven mostly by early Christian evangelical rather than pagan secular interests, as Colin Roberts and T. C. Skeat observe (38-44).

The original of the codex, however, a tablet (Gk: deltos, Latin: tabluae) of erasable, wax-covered pieces of wood “held together by a clasp or by cords passed through pierced holes,” is as old as Homer (Iliad 6.168, cited in Roberts and Skeat 11). According to Roberts and Skeat, the Latin term codex at first designated simply “a plurality of tablets or [. . .] multi-leaved tablets” of this kind (12). [12] Eventually, the Romans replaced wooden boards with parchment or papyrus leaves, creating “the parchment note-book” or membranae, perhaps as early as the late Republic (the mid-first century BCE), but certainly by the reign of Augustus, when Virgil was composing the Aeneid. The most persuasive evidence of this development appears in the work of Virgil’s contemporary, Horace, who in Ars Poetica, 386-90, refers to the membranae–perhaps unbound, but probably sewn together–that poets typically employed “for rough drafts of literary works,” according Roberts and Skeat. It is quite possible that Virgil himself resorted to membranae when composing and revising his poetry, for the use of such notebooks was a “well-established practice” by his day (Roberts and Skeat 11, 15, 20). [13] He was highly unlikely, in any case, to have been ignorant of them.

There is also evidence to be drawn from the history of the cult of Apollo and Diana at Rome, for which the description of the Cumaean Sybil is meant to offer an etiological explanation. Virgil indicates as much when he has Aeneas promise the Sybil that he will build a temple to the twins gods in his new city, “and for the Sybil/ A great shrine in our kingdom, and I will place there/ The lots and mystic oracles for my people/ With chosen priests to tend them” (79-82).

The Sybilline documents of ancient Rome, William Smith observes, “were probably written on palm-leaves [. . .] and it is not unlikely that the leaves of the Cumaean Sybil described by Virgil were designed as an allusion to the form of the Sybilline books” (cited in “Sibyllini Libri” 1043-4). These leaves, used as prophetic source-texts in Rome from the end of the sixth century BCE, burned in a fire at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in 82 BCE. The period that followed–it was Virgil’s own–saw an effort to collect Sybilline documents from across the empire in order to establish a new archive. Augustus himself played a key role in this transition, calling for the destruction by fire of thousands of documents deemed spurious and ordering the recopying of the genuine Sybilline texts that were fading with time.

In short, Virgil lived in a period of intense concern regarding the Sybilline archive, an era of transition from the relatively stable collection preserved since the days of Tarquinius to a new gathering of scattered, uncertain leaves. “From 76 BC onwards,” writes H. N. Bate, “the Roman collection consisted of lines which had been found to be in general circulation; some of them were taken from public collections, and some were copied down from popular oral tradition.” (cited in The Sibylline Oracles, Books III-V 13). Such a situation might well explain Virgil’s warning about the disorder that threatens the Sybil’s leaves, and his indication that the oracles taken from “her own lips” (Aeneid 3.468) would have more authority.

It is also worth noting, with regard to Shelley’s reception of this theme, that Virgil’s own work was to become part of the greater prophetic archive, in the later Roman ceremony of sortes Virgiliae modelled upon the consultation of the Sybil’s leaves. As Smith describes them,

[t]hese sortes or lots were usually little tablets or counters, made of wood or other materials, and were commonly thrown into a sitella or urn, filled with water [. . .]. The lots were sometimes thrown like dice (Suet. Tib. 14). The name of Sortes was in fact given to anything used to determine chances (compare Cic. de Div. i.34), and was also applied to any verbal response of an oracle (Cic. de Div. ii.56; Virg. Aen. iv.346, 377). Various things were written upon the lots according to circumstances, as for instance the names of the persons using them, &c.: it seems to have been a favorite practice in later times to write the verses of illustrious poets upon little tablets, and to draw them out of the urn like other lots, the verses which a person thus obtained being supposed to be applicable to him: hence we read of Sortes Virgilianae, &c. (Lamprid. Alex. Sever. 14; Spartian. Hadr. 2).


The sortes, then, exist as proto-pages, leaves torn from the continuous organizational structure of the scroll (volumen) but not yet gathered to the codex form. The inseminating “seed” of the Aeneid that took root in Shelley’s “Ode” in 1819 and sprouted in the imagery of “leaves dead” had been deposited there by a similarly detached passage of verse, a “leaf” swept up in the literary-historical equivalent of sortilege.

Virgil’s depiction of the Sybil’s leaves constitutes an anxious prophetic node in the history of the archive: it draws upon the material history of the Sibylline documents in Augustan Rome, it prefigures the uses to which the Aeneid itself will be put both in the sortes Virgiliae and in Shelley’s “Ode,” and it anticipates a fundamental change in the form of material texts, from scrolls to things made of gatherings of pages, like the parchment notebooks in use during Virgil’s lifetime. Shelley was probably ignorant of the full extent to which Virgil’s description of the Sybil in her cave heralded an important transformation of the book, although with his extensive reading in the literature of antiquity he could very well have recognized the etiological foundations of this passage in early imperial Rome’s efforts at re-establishing the Sybilline archive. His use of incendiary imagery in the last part of the “Ode” suggests he was also cognizant of the fire at Jupiter’s temple that precipitated these events, and perhaps of Augustus’s orders to incinerate all remaining spurious documents.

At the very least, Shelley’s allusion to the leaves of Virgil in “Ode to the West Wind” amounts to an imagining of literature as sortes, of reception as a process at once fragmentary, aleatory, and yet (miraculously) prophetic. The Sybilline leaves–like Virgil’s works in the sitella, like Shelley’s pages in the wind–prefigure our present-day anxiety regarding the preservation and retrieval of information in an age of media transformation. While we have come to consider that anxiety uniquely our own, Shelley’s multiply allusive “Ode” reminds us that it has its origin in “ashes and sparks” reaching us, across the span of two millenia, from the “unextinguished hearth” of the archive.

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