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Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley: An Analysis

The Poem

I

  • O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
  • Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
  • Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
  • Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
  • Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
  • Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
  • 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, and fill
  • (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
  • With living hues and odours plain and hill:
  • Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
  • Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

II

  • Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
  • Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
  • Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
  • Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
  • On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,
  • Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
  • Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
  • Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
  • The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
  • Of the dying year, to which this closing night
  • Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
  • Vaulted with all thy congregated might
  • Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
  • Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!

III

  • Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
  • The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
  • Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams,
  • Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
  • And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
  • Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
  • All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
  • So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
  • For whose path the Atlantic’s 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!

IV

  • If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
  • If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
  • A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
  • The impulse of thy strength, only less free
  • Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
  • I were as in my boyhood, and could be
  • The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
  • As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
  • Scarce seem’d a vision; I would ne’er have striven
  • As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
  • Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
  • I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
  • A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
  • One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

V

  • 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 wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
  • And, by the incantation of this verse,
  • Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
  • Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
  • Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
  • The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
  • If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Starting with the Poem

Written in 1819, Ode to the West Wind captures the essence of Shelley’s principal objective – to bring about a decisive change in commonplace society through the infusion of new ideas of poetry. Shelley was an optimistic radical, who had a firm belief in his capacities to modify society. Consequently, the poem becomes his much-needed mouthpiece; it helps him to invoke the mighty west wind solely, to employ its tempestuous powers in spreading his “dead thoughts” over a placid generation.

Background

Shelley wrote this poem when he was in Florence, Italy; the poem’s publication in his four-act play, “Prometheus Unbound,” in 1820, holds his claim of having composed it on a rough windy day while sitting near the Arno River. Historically, the poem is preceded by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which thousands of working-class citizens, demanding parliamentary reform were killed by royal soldiers at a rally in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester. Shelley, an ardent supporter of human liberty, wrote “The Masque of Anarchy” and “Ode to the West Wind,” in response to the tragedy. However, being dethatched from the political happenings in England, he could do little, a fact that resonates with the looming helplessness, discernable throughout the poem.

Critical Analysis

Form Ode in terza rima (the three-line rhyme scheme used by Dante in Divine Comedy)
Structure Five stanzas of fourteen lines each
Rhyme Scheme aba bcb cdc ded ee
Tone Consists of an inspiring tone throughout

The Themes

The Mighty Force of Nature, as “Destroyer and preserver.”

In visualizing the wind as an “enchanter,” and later as an agent responsible for making the clouds shake as the disheveled hair of Maenad, Shelly gives an impression of the immense power of the wind, a potent being capable of arousing a stir. In hailing the wind as a carrier and depositor of “dead leaves” to their “wintry bed,” thereby aiding them to await the arrival of their resurrector, the spring wind, he depicts how the wind is both a “destroyer” and a “preserver.”

Interrelated with the above explicit ideas, is the poet’s subtle hint towards a larger issue – his firm faith in the arrival of an apocalypse, to redeem England from her then dismal stature. The wind is then, a positive force bent upon driving away all that is against advancement; the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” referring to outdated, orthodox and unproductive ideas. The same idea is echoed in the personification of the “Mediterranean” as someone equally dynamic, who while being asleep, dreams of collapsing “old palaces and towers.” Here, the poet’s indirect suggestion of the then mighty powers of England, as decadent and useless is rather obvious, with the trembling of the “old towers” reminding the impending fall of their deceased ideas.

Death and Decay

Throughout the poem, there are enough instances that evoke the presence of death. Firstly, the west wind in being “Autumn’s being” forecasts the approach of the season of death and barrenness – winter. Next, it is called by the poet, a “dirge” – a funeral song, marking the year’s closure. Finally, Shelly describes himself as having fallen “upon the thorns of life” and “bow’d” as well as “chain’d” by time, thereby highlighting the irreversible reality of man’s infirmity.

Poetry as Means of Resurrection

It is ultimately his poetry, his inspiring ideas that relying on the wind’s potential, would bring about the much-required change in sluggish society. Consequently, there is every reason to hope, to look forward to days of spring.

Literary Devices Used

Symbols

The west wind symbolizes as:

  • a “breath of Autumn”
  • a “Destroyer and preserver”
  • a “dirge”
  • an “uncontrollable” force capable of effecting change
  • the poet’s “trumpet” that would scatter his prophecies

The dead leaves suggest rusty practices and customs

The closing night stands for the “dome” of a big tomb

Winter symbolizes all that’s perishing and is on the verge of death

Images and Imagery

In line 4, one can almost view the pale multicolored leaves

In line 6, 7 and 8, the wind is depicted as driving a chariot, carrying the seeds to their grave

In lines, 11and 12, when the poet compares the sprouting of seeds with the movement of a flock of sheep, one gets a picturesque view of the ushering of spring

In lines, 16 and 17, the rain clouds are firstly portrayed as loose leaves and then in lines, 20, 21, they are compared to the untidy hair of “Maenad”

In lines, 24 and 25, when Shelly calls the cloudy sky, the vault of a tomb, one gets the impression of a tumultuous storm

Figures of Speech

Apostrophe

In line 1, the poet addresses the west wind as “O wild West Wind”

Simile

In lines 2‑5, the dead leaves are compared to ghosts

In line 11, the “sweet buds” are compared to “flocks”

In lines 5‑12, the poet makes use of an extended simile to compare seeds to corpses

In line 16, “lose clouds” are said to be like “earth’s decaying leaves”

Metaphor

In line 1, the west wind is compared to “breath of Autumn’s being”

In line 15, the west wind is said to be a “stream”

In lines 18-23, the storm clouds are said to resemble Maenad’s Locks

In line 23, the west wind is said to be a dirge

In line 56, the poet compares himself to a “lyre”

Personification

In lines 5­‑7, the west wind is personified as a charioteer

In lines 29‑30, the Mediterranean is personified as someone who’s dreaming

Paradox

In line 14, the west wind is called both “Destroyer and preserver”

Alliteration

There are several instances of alliteration such as:

Line 1, “wild West Wind”

Line 5, “Pestilence-stricken multitudes”

Line 14, “hear, O hear”

Line 59, “The tumult of thy mighty harmonies”

To have a line by line explanation of the poem, you may go through the summary.

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