I’ve been writing a lot about wind farms and landscape recently (though not much of it has yet found its way onto this blog), and now I’d like to concentrate on the wind itself. The wind has been harnessed as a free source of energy for as long as people have travelled by sail, and Don Quixote is the first recorded anti-windfarm campaigner that I know of, though admittedly he was under the impression that the forty windmills he charged at were giants swinging their arms. But until the Romantic poets revolutionised attitudes towards nature, writers tended to bring the wind into their work as a kind of stock character. Along with the village fool, the lecherous old man and the naïve young lover, there is the cruel winter wind, the wild tempest, and the gentle summer breeze. They play their parts reliably, wreck ships on desert islands, caress Arcadian shepherds, howl around a witches’ coven, and so on. But when Samuel Coleridge was listening to an Eolian harp (something like a wind chime) in August 1795, the wind suddenly came to stand for something much more sacred. It represented to him the ‘one life’ that connects all things.
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps,
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each, and God of all?
(The Eolian Harp, 36-40)
The wind became the breath of God, breathing life into everything on earth, connecting all living things, the source of all ideas and inspiration, the ‘idle flitting fantasies / [that] Traverse my indolent and passive brain – /As wild and various as the random gales’ (EH 32-34). The wind is no longer a passive actor, but an agent.
In Lyrical Ballads, a collaboration of Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Wordsworth picks up this theme when musing on Nature in Tintern Abbey.
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man -
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things
(Tintern Abbey 96-105)
This is Wordsworth’s ‘road to Damascus’ moment, when he becomes an acknowledged ‘worshipper of nature’ (156) as a part of God. He entreats his readers to ‘Let the misty mountain-winds be free/To blow against thee’ (138-9). There is a resonance here, though no doubt unintentional, with the popular Irish blessing, ‘May the road rise to meet you,/ May the wind blow always at your back,’ etc. However the contrast is stark – the blessing is a prayer that God will keep you safe from wild weather, whereas for Wordsworth it is in the wild weather that God is found.
Percy Shelley went further still. For him, the wind, and all of nature, was not just sacred, but political and revolutionary. In his Ode to the West Wind, Shelley enlists the support of the wind in the struggle for the rights of man against the repressive forces of the state.
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!
(Ode to the West Wind 61-7)
This is a far cry from the wind being a free supply of green energy. If the wind is a resource to Shelley, then it is a respected, sacred being to be called upon like a Greek god. However not all the Romantic poets saw the wind as a benevolent spirit. In Beachy Head, Charlotte Smith’s wind is totally ambivalent to the suffering of man. She mocked the Coleridgean idea of a ‘soul-reviving gale / Fanning the beanfield’ (BH 677-8), which perhaps alludes to lines in The Eolian Harp. Smith uses a common Worthworthian figure, a hermit, but whereas Wordsworth’s characters learn to become at one with a benign pantheistic Nature, Smith’s spends his days attempting to learn to predict storms by studying the weather, and risks his life to rescue sailors from shipwrecks, with varying success, until one night he too is drowned by a meaningless storm. The ‘wild bellows’ (710) are not fanning any flames of faith or revolution, they do not bring down the judgement of a vengeful god, they are not the result of malign occult activity, they are random and meaningless.
Smith’s attitude is much more modern (post-Romantic) than any of the ‘big six’ Romantic poets. Earlier in the poem she worries about geology and fossils and how they challenge the orthodox religious creation story. She refers to Gilbert White’s notions of changes in sea levels, but scorns Science for its ‘vague theories or vain dispute’ (394). Revolution gets even shorter thrift, ‘Hither, ambition, come!/Come and behold the nothingness of all/For which you carry through the oppressed earth/War and its train of horrors’ (419-22). For Smith, there are no answers blowing in the wind. The wind is unreliable and unsympathetic to any of the schemes of man.