Ode to the West Wind
About the Poem
Ode to the West Wind is an ode written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1819 near Florence, Italy. It was published in 1820 in London by Charles and James Ollier as part of the collection Prometheus Unbound, A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, With Other Poems. Some have read the poem as the speaker lamenting his inability to directly assist those in England because he is in Italy. At the same time, the poem expresses the hope that those who read or hear it will be inspired and influenced by its words. Perhaps more than anything else, Shelley desired that his message of reform and revolution be spread, and the wind becomes the trope for spreading the word of the change via the poet-prophet figure. Some believe the poem was inspired by the death of his son, William, in 1819. (to Mary Shelley).
After “Ode to the West Wind” was written and published, his son Charles (to Harriet Shelley) died in 1826. Shelley was influenced by the resulting pain. The poet’s role as a voice of change and revolution is exemplified in the poem. Shelley undoubtedly had the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819 in mind when writing this poem. “The Mask of Anarchy,” “Prometheus Unbound,” and “England in 1819” his other poems written at the same time, address the same issues of political change, revolution, and the poet’s role.
The poem begins with three cantos that describe the effects of the wind on the earth, air, and ocean. Shelley addresses the wind directly in the last two cantos, asking for its power to lift him like a leaf, a cloud, or a wave and make him its companion in its wanderings. He asks the wind to take his thoughts and spread them throughout the world so that his ideas can awaken the youth. The poem concludes on an optimistic note, stating that if winter days are here, spring is not far behind. Here is the complete summary of Ode to the West Wind:
Summary of Ode to the West Wind
The speaker of the poem asks the West Wind to bestow upon him a new spirit and the ability to spread his ideas. To invoke the West Wind, he lists a series of examples of the wind’s power: sweeping away autumn leaves, sowing seeds in the earth, bringing thunderstorms and the natural world’s cyclical “death” and stirring up the seas and oceans.
The speaker wishes the wind could have the same effect on him as it does on leaves, clouds, and waves. Because he is unable to do so, he requests that the wind play him like an instrument, bringing out his sadness through its own musical lament. Perhaps the wind can even assist him in spreading his ideas throughout the world; even if they are not powerful in and of themselves, his ideas may inspire others. The wind’s sad music will become a prophecy. Autumn’s West Wind ushers in a harsh, barren winter, but is not winter always followed by a spring?
According to the speaker, the shadow of an unseen Power floats among human beings, occasionally paying a visit to human hearts—manifested in summer winds, moonbeams, the memory of music, or anything else of mysterious grace. Addressing this Spirit of Beauty, the speaker inquires as to where it has gone and why it leaves the world in such a state of desolation when it departs—why human hearts can feel such hope and love when it is present but such despair and hatred when it departs. He asserts that religious and superstitious concepts—”Demon, Ghost, and Heaven”—are nothing more than mortal poets’ and wise men’s attempts to explain and express their responses to the Spirit of Beauty, which alone, the speaker asserts, can bring “grace and truth to life‘s unquiet dream” “Love, Hope, and Self-Esteem’ come and go according to the Spirit is whims, and if they stayed in the human heart permanently, rather than coming and going in an unpredictable manner, man would be “immortal and omnipotent.” The Spirit inspires lovers and nourishes thought, and the speaker begs the spirit to remain even after his life has ended, fearful that death will become “a dark reality” without it. The speaker recalls that as a child, he “sought for ghosts” and travelled through caves and forests in search of “the departed dead”; but it was not until the Spirit is shadow fell across him – as he pondered “deeply on the lot / Of life” outdoors in the spring – that he encountered transcendence. “I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!” he recalls. He then vowed to devote his life to the Spirit of Beauty; now he asserts that he has kept his vow – every joy he has ever known has been connected to the hope that the “awful Loveliness” would liberate the world from slavery and complete his words.
The speaker observes that afternoons become more solemn and serene, and that autumn brings a lustre to the sky that summer does not. The speaker prays to the Spirit, whose power descended upon his youth like that of nature, to bring “calm” to his “onward life” — the life of a man who worships the Spirit and all forms that contain it, and who is compelled by the Spirit is spelt to “fear himself, and love all humankind”
The poem Ode to the West Wind consists of five cantos written in terza rima. Each canto consists of four tercets (ABA, BCB, CDC, DED) and a rhyming couplet (EE). The Ode is written in iambic pentameter.
Analysis of Ode to the West Wind
The speaker invokes autumn’s “wild West Wind” which scatters dead leaves and spreads seeds in preparation for spring’s nurturing and pleads with the wind to hear him as a “destroyer and preserver” The speaker refers to the wind as the “dirge / Of the dying year,” and describes how it creates violent storms, imploring it once more to hear him. The speaker claims that the wind awakens the Mediterranean from his summer dreams and cleaves the Atlantic into choppy chasms, causing the ocean’s “sapless foliage” to tremble, and he begs the wind to hear him a third time.
The speaker asserts that if he were a dead leaf that the wind could bear, a cloud that the wind could carry, or a wave that the wind could push, or even if he were, as a child, “the comrade” of the wind’s “wandering over heaven,” he would never have needed to pray to the wind or invoke its powers. He begs the wind to lift him “as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!” “for though he is like the wind at heart, untamable and proud” he is now chained and bowed by the weight of his hours upon the earth.
The speaker requests that the wind “make me thy lyre,” that he be his own Spirit, and that he propel his thoughts across the universe “like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth.” He petitions the wind, through the incantation of this verse, to disperse his words throughout humanity, to serve as the “trumpet of a prophecy.” Speaking both of the season and of the effect his words hope to have on mankind, the speaker asks, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
In the wispy, fluid terza rima of “Ode to the West Wind” Shelley ventures far beyond the scope of “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” incorporating his own art into his meditation on beauty and the natural world. Shelley magically invokes the wind, describing its strength and dual role as “destroyer and preserver,” and requests that the wind sweep him out of his slumber “as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!” The poet then takes an extraordinary turn in the fifth section, transforming the wind into a metaphor for his own art, the expressive capacity that propels dead thoughts across the universe like “withered leaves” in order to “quicken a new birth” that is, to hasten the arrival of spring. The spring season is used as a metaphor for a “spring of human consciousness, imagination, liberty, or morality” – all of the things Shelley hoped his art would contribute to achieving in the human mind. Shelley asks the wind to be his spirit and simultaneously transforms it into his metaphorical spirit, his poetic faculty, which will play him like a musical instrument, much like the wind strums the leaves of the trees. The thematic implication is significant: while the older generation of Romantic poets saw nature as a source of truth and authentic experience, the younger generation saw nature primarily as a source of beauty and aesthetic experience. Shelley establishes a direct connection between nature and art in this poem by employing powerful natural metaphors to convey his ideas about the strength, significance, quality, and ultimate effect of aesthetic expression.