Ode to the West Wind
Ode to the West Wind
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1819
“Ode to the West Wind” was first published in 1820 in Shelley’s collection Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, With Other Poems. In his prefatory note to the poem, Shelley wrote: “This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, [Italy] and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapors which pour down the autumnal rains.” His description gives the location of the poem, but says nothing of the strained emotional circumstances in which it was composed. Four months before Shelley began writing “Ode to the West Wind” in October 1819, his son William had died; the year before, he had lost his daughter Clara. His wife Mary had consequently suffered a nervous breakdown, and he himself was plagued by ill health, creditors, rumors of illegitimate children, and the failure of his political hopes. To top it off, the public had been largely indifferent to or critical of his writings.
Where was the poet to gain his inspiration? For this particular work, Shelley found his answer, literally, blowing in the wind—specifically, the wind that marks the end of summer, and ushers in autumn and the rainy season. As the poem makes clear, the west wind is a destructive force, driving off the remaining leaves and darkening the sky with torrential rains, but it is ultimately beneficial and an important part of Nature’s regenerative cycle. And it teaches a lesson: as life is resurrected from death, revolution arises from stagnation, and creative power is revived from artistic sterility. The
whole poem is a single, sustained apostrophe, an address to the wind itself. The first three stanzas are devoted to a formal invocation. The wind is characterized and praised for its effects on earth, sky, and sea. Humanity only enters the picture in stanza IV, in which the speaker begins what he calls a “prayer” (line 52) to the wind, asking to be mastered by it. In stanza V, the speaker increases his demands: he moves from wanting to be struck by the wind’s force (like a lyre), to desiring to be the wind’s force itself (“be thou me”).
The eldest son of Sir Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley, landed aristocrats living in Horsham, Sussex, Shelley was born on August 4, 1792. First attending Syon House Academy for two years, Shelley entered Eton College at the age of twelve in 1804, and finally moved on to University College, Oxford, in 1810. His idiosyncratic, sensitive nature and refusal to conform to tradition, compounded with his hobby of performing scientific experiments, earned him the name “Mad Shelley.” During his years as a student he pursued a wide range of interests; he experimented in physical science, studied medicine and philosophy, and wrote novels and poetry. By the time he entered Oxford he had already published a wildly improbable Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810), written a large part of another, St. Irvyne (1811), and co-authored two collections of verse. Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (1810), written with his sister, continued in the Gothic mode, while Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810), co-authored with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, was a collection of treasonous and erotic poetry disguised as the ravings of a mad washerwoman who had attempted to stab King George III. In his second term at Oxford, Shelley turned to philosophical concerns with his The Necessity of Atheism, a pamphlet challenging theological proofs for the existence of God. Teaming up with Hogg, he published the tract, distributed it to the conservative clergymen and dons of Oxford, and challenged them to a debate. Instead, Shelley and Hogg were immediately expelled in March of 1811, an event that estranged Shelley from his family. Undeterred by the fact that he had no financial support until he came of age, in 1811 he eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen-year-old schoolmate of his sisters. For three years they moved around England to avoid creditors; at the same time they became actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, writing radical pamphlets in which Shelley set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. He and Harriet enthusiastically distributed these tracts among the working classes, but with little effect.
The year 1814 was a pivotal one in Shelley’s personal life. Despite their faltering marriage, he remarried Harriet in England to ensure the legality of their union and the legitimacy of their children. Unfortunately for Harriet, Shelley became a frequent guest of the radical English philosopher William Godwin, whose book Political Justice greatly influenced Shelley’s political ideas. Shelley fell in love with Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, and they eloped to Calais on July 27, 1814. Upon Shelley’s return to England, he entered into a financial agreement with his family that ensured him a regular income. When Harriet declined to join his household as a “sister,” he provided for her and their two children but continued to live with Mary.
In the summer of 1816, while travelling in Europe, Shelley met Lord Byron and developed an enduring friendship that proved an important influence on the works of both men. Shortly after Shelley’s return to England that fall, Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley took advantage of this situation and legalized his relationship with Mary on December 30, 1816. He sought custody of his children by Harriet, but the West-brook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit, convincing the court that Shelley was morally unfit for guardianship. In 1818 Shelley relocated his family to Italy, spending time in Leghorn, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Pisa, and Lerici. Shelley and Byron, who was also living in Italy, became the nucleus of a circle of ex-patriot writers that became known as the “Satanic School” because of their defiance of English social and religious conventions and promotion of radical ideas in their works. Despite the death of his two children and a disintegrating marriage, Shelley was generally content in Italy. On July 8, 1822 Shelley and his companion Edward Williams set sail from Italy, but their boat capsized in a squall off the coast of Lerici. Ten days later their bodies washed ashore. Shelley’s body, identified by an open volume of John Keats’s poems found in his pocket, was cremated on the beach in a ceremony conducted by his friends Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Edward John Trelawny. His ashes (except for his heart, which Byron reportedly plucked from the fire) were buried near Keats’s grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.
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,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O Thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
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 odors plain and hill;
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, oh, hear!
Thou on whose stream, ’mid the steep sky’s
Loose clouds like Earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery 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 sepulcher,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled 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: O hear!
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 skyey speed
Scarce seemed 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 chained and bowed
One too like thee; tameless, and swift, and proud.
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?
- “Great Poets of the Romantic Age.” Audio cassette. Audiobooks, order #4351.
- “Great Poets of the Romantic Age.” Audio compact disc. Audiobooks, order #4352.
- “Penguin English Verse, Volume 4: The Romantics.” Audio cassette. Penguin books, ISBN #0-140-86133-5
In this first of the five sections of the poem, the speaker begins to define the domains and the powers of the West Wind. While stanza II addresses the wind’s influence on the sky, and stanza III discusses its effects on the sea, stanza I describes the wind’s effects on the land. The autumn breezes scatter dead leaves and seeds on the forest soil, where they eventually fertilize the earth and take root as new growth. Both “Destroyer and Preserver” (line 14), the wind ensures the cyclical regularity of the seasons. These themes of regeneration and the interconnectedness of death and life, endings and beginnings, runs throughout “Ode to the West Wind.”
The wind is, of course, more than simply a current of air. In Greek and Latin—languages with which Shelley was familiar—the words for “wind,” “inspiration,” “soul,” and “spirit” are all related. Shelley’s “West Wind” thus seems to symbolize an inspiring spiritual power that moves everywhere, and affects everything.
These lines ostensibly suggest that, like a sorcerer might frighten away spirits, the wind scatters leaves. But one might also interpret “leaves dead” as forgotten books, and “ghosts” as writers of the past; in this sense, the winds of inspiration make way for new talent and ideas by driving away the memories of the old.
The colors named here might simply indicate the different shades of the leaves, but it is also possible to interpret the leaves as symbols of humanity’s dying masses. In this analysis, the colors represent different cultures: Asian, African, Caucasian, and Native American. This idea is supported by the phrase “Each like a corpse within its grave” in line 8 that could indicate that each person takes part in the natural cycle of life and death.
Here, the wind is described as a chariot that carries leaves and seeds to the cold earth. This comparison gives the impression that the wind has some of the aspects of those who are associated with chariots—gods and powerful rulers.
The leaves are personified as people within their graves, an image that harkens back to lines 4 and 5, where the leaves are considered as diseased “multitudes” of people.
In Greek and Roman mythology, the spring west wind was masculine, as was the autumnal wind. Here, the speaker refers to the spring wind as feminine, perhaps to stress its role as nurturer and life-giver. She is pictured as awakening Nature with her energetic “clarion,” which is a type of medieval trumpet.
At the conclusion of the first stanza, the speaker identifies the wind as the powerful spirit of nature that incorporates both destruction and continuing life. In fact, these two processes are said to be related; without destruction, life cannot continue. At the end of line 14 is the phrase “Oh hear!” that will be repeated at the end of stanzas 2 and 3. This refrain emphasizes sound, which seems appropriate given that wind, an invisible force, is the poem’s central subject.
In stanza II, the wind helps the clouds shed rain, as it had helped the trees shed leaves in stanza I. Just as the dead foliage nourishes new life in the forest soil, so does the rain contribute to Nature’s regenerative cycle.
This passage has been heavily attacked by critics like F. R. Leavis for its lack of concreteness and apparently disconnected imagery; others have cited Shelley’s knowledge of science, and the possibility that these poetic phrasings might indeed be based on natural fact. The loose clouds, for example, are probably cirrus clouds, harbingers (or “angels” as it is put in line 18) of rain. As the leaves of stanza I have been shed from boughs, these clouds have been shaken from the heavier cloud masses, or “boughs of Heaven and Ocean” (line 17). In Latin, “cirrus” means “curl” or “lock of hair”; it is thus appropriate that these clouds resemble a Maenad ’s “bright hair” (line 20) and are referred to as the “locks of the approaching storm” (line 23).
When Shelley was in Florence, he saw a relief sculpture of four maenads. These worshipers of the Roman god of wine and vegetation, Bacchus (in Greek mythology, Dionysus) were wild, dancing women with streaming hair. Here, the speaker compares the appearance of the cirrus clouds streaked across the horizon with the maenads’ blown tresses. This image seems especially appropriate in that Bacchus/Dionysus is associated with the natural world and the wind and clouds are primary elements of nature.
The wail of the wind is compared to a song of grief, as if it were mourning the “dying” year. As the year draws to a close, Nature prepares for the funeral. The coming night is described as a “sepulcher,” a burial tomb that will be marked by lightning and hail from a storm. This last day will end in darkness, under storm clouds.
In stanza III, the West Wind wields its power over the sea; but unlike the first two stanzas, this one is introduced by an image of calm, peace, and sensuality. The Mediterranean Sea is pictured as smooth and tranquil, sleeping alongside the old Italian town of Baiae. Once a playground of Roman emperors, Baiae sunk as a result of volcanic activity and is now the bed of a lush underwater garden. But the wind can also “waken” (line 29) the sea and disturb the summer tranquility of the waters by ushering in an autumn storm.
In 1818, Shelley himself had sailed past the Bay of Baiae; in a December letter to Thomas Love Peacock, he enthusiastically describes the “ruins of its antique grandeur standing like rocks in the transparent sea under our boat.”
Beginning at the end of line 36, the speaker disrupts the peace of the seascape and reminds the West Wind of its power to churn up wild, white-capped surf.
The lush sea foliage, which is “sapless” because the plants are underwater, is aware of the wind’s ability to destroy; remembering the havoc of cold weather storms, the vegetation is drained of color, as a person turns pale with fear, or as plant life on Earth fades in the fall. In a note to these lines, Shelley wrote: “The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathizes with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is consequently influenced by the winds which announce it.” The natural cycles of death and regeneration thus continue even underwater, with the aid of the West Wind.
After three stanzas of describing the West Wind’s power, which are all echoed in the first three lines of Stanza IV, the speaker asks to be moved by this spirit. For the first time in “Ode to the West Wind,” the wind confronts humanity in the form of speaker of the poem. No longer an idealistic young man, this speaker has experienced sorrow, pain, and limitations. He stumbles, even as he asks to be spiritually uplifted. At the same time, he can recall his younger years when he was “tameless, and swift, and proud” like the wind. These recollections help him to call on the wind for inspiration and new life. In this manner, the poem suggests that humans, too, are part of the never-ending natural cycle of death and rebirth.
In line 47, the speaker begins to explain that, as an idealistic youth, he used to “race” the wind—and win, in his own mind. But now, as an older man, he could never imagine challenging the wind’s power.
In these well-known lines often mocked by Shelley’s detractors, the patterns of sea, earth, and sky are recalled as the speaker asks to be raised from his sorrows by the inspirational West Wind. He seems almost Christ-like in his suffering, the “thorns of life” recalling the crown of thorns worn by Christ during the crucifixion.
The Christ-like image of the speaker continues here; his life experiences have been heavy crosses for him to bear and have weighed him down. And yet there still seem to be sparks of life and hope within him. He can still recall when he possessed many of the wind’s powers and qualities.
If Stanza IV is the explanation of why the West Wind is being invoked, Stanza V is the prayer itself. The requests of the speaker seem to gather speed much as the wind does; while he begins by asking to be moved by the wind, he soon asks to become one with this power. As a breeze might ignite a glowing coal, the speaker asks for the wind to breathe new life into him and his poetic art. With his last question, the speaker reminds his audience that change is on the horizon, be it personal or natural, artistic or political.
The lyre referred to in line 57 might be the Eolian lyre or harp, its name derived from Eolus, god of the winds. This lyre is a box with strings stretched across an opening. When the wind moves through it, the eolian harp emits musical sounds. Many Romantic writers, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his poem “The Eolian Harp,” used the instrument as a symbol for the human imagination that is played upon by a greater power. Here, the speaker asks to be the West Wind’s lyre, its means of music and communication.
Here, the speaker seems to accept his sorrows and sufferings; he realizes that the wind’s power may allow him to add harmony to autumn’s music. He is still sad, but he recognizes a sweetness in his pain: he is part of a natural cycle, and will have a chance to begin again as both man and poet. The speaker’s growing strength is hinted at by the powerful exclamations in lines 61 and 62.
The wind blew leaves over the forest floor, fertilizing the soil; now, the speaker asks the wind to scatter his timeworn ideas and writings across the earth in hopes of inspiring new thoughts and works. Note the word play on “leaves,” which can be found either on trees or in books.
In “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley wrote that “the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.” In asking the wind to fan—and hopefully arouse—the dying embers of his words, the speaker seems to be echoing this idea.
These lines recall the angel’s “clarion” of line 10, awakening the earth from wintry slumber. The speaker here asks to become the poet-prophet of the new season of renewal.
Shelley originally framed the last two lines as a statement; phrased as a question, the poem ends on a note of expectancy rather than affirmation. The speaker has made his case and plea to assist the wind in the declaration of a new age—but he has not yet received an answer. Along with his audience, he breathlessly awaits a “yes,” delivered on the wings of the wind.
Cycle of Life
This is a poem about renewal, about the wind blowing life back into dead things, implying not just an arc of life (which would end at death) but a cycle, which only starts again when something dies. The dead leaves are stirred to new life, dormant seeds fly, the vapid clouds regroup into an approaching storm, the quiet ocean is shaken awake, dead thoughts quicken new birth, and the poem’s speaker, who had lost his enthusiasm and inspiration, is revived and given a new interest in life. The central metaphor of this poem is the seasons of the year: Autumn in the first stanza and Winter and Spring in the last, with a glancing reference to summer in the middle. Shelley’s choice to begin a poem about renewal in the Autumn, when the whole world is not yet dead but moving toward its death-state, is unusual, but effective: having the speaker bear in mind the rebirth that does not come in the next season but in the season after that is a way of emphasizing how much faith he has in the process of nature. That faith is even more impressive when we realize that the speaker has a shadow of doubt that the cycle will repeat itself indefinitely, as indicated by the fact that the last line says “if Winter comes,” not when. Winter never fails to come, of course, but if we take this statement as an indication of how he thinks the seasons reflect his mental state, we can see that he is not certain of what is going to happen next and only hopes that it will follow the cycle of life.
Return to Nature
Throughout “Ode To The West Wind,” the speaker’s relationship with the wind changes—at different times one then the other is inspired or submissive, used like a tool or the user. The poem starts as an invocation, as the speaker calls upon the wind, mentioning its wonderful accomplishments, begging the powerful wind for its attention. The first three stanzas sing the glory of the wind and its ability to create life where there was none, from the top of the sky to the bottom of the sea. In the fourth stanza the speaker finally comes out with what all of these praises have been leading up to: a partnership, so that he can be the wind’s companion in flying all over the world, the way he did when he was young. At this point the speaker is entirely submissive and his ode is “a prayer my sore need.” In the final stanza, though, the relationship is redefined several times: first the speaker asks to be a lyre, an instrument to be used at the wind’s will; then he asks to become one with the wind, inviting it to be his spirit; and finally it is he who is using the wind as an instrument, “The trumpet of a prophecy.” Critics have pointed out that the inconsistency here goes beyond the normal stretch of imagination that we can accept as “poetic license.” It is perfectly understandable for the speaker to ask several different things of the wind after he has heaped praise upon it for three stanzas, but the difference in physics between being the wind and being the wind’s instrument cannot be excused.
The speaker of this poem implies that he has come to suffer some serious oppression lately: “A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee; tameless, swift and proud.” Critics love to look for details within Shelley’s life that would give him a reason to feel this way, but for the sake of understanding the poem it is sufficient to say that he feels confined by the responsibilities of growing up, and that is why, when he looks back on his boyhood, he idealized himself as flying
Topics for Further Study
- Write the West Wind’s response to Shelley, in the form of a letter. Should it be a business letter? A thank-you note? A postcard? Be sure to mention points Shelley brought up in his address to the West Wind.
- The speaker of this poem observes winter’s approach and wishes to become one with the powerful wind that brings it. Compare this poem to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” also included in Poetry for Students. Explain what each narrator thinks about God and nature, and how this affects the tone of each poem.
- How does the speaker’s vast knowledge of meteorology and geography help convince you of his point?
across the sky. If this feeling of increasing limitations is the basis of the poem, then it is no wonder that it is addressed to the west wind with all its might. Appropriately for the daydreams of an adult who feels he deserves better, who is in “sore need” because he never gets to have fun anymore, the wind’s freedom is imagined not only in its ability to go anywhere but also in the freedom to create and destroy. The wind that is recognized for its ability to stir leaves and clouds also has a dark side: it brings autumn, and “black rain, and fire, and hail,” and it has a voice that is so powerful that it can make the plants at the bottom of the ocean “grow grey with fear / And tremble and despoil themselves.” To a speaker who felt less oppressed, the wind’s freedom might be appreciated as a magnificent, magical force, but here the very uses that the wind makes of its freedom are described in terms that equate freedom with power and destruction.
The poet laureate William Wordsworth called Shelley “one of the best artists of us all; I mean in workmanship of style.” But even Shelley’s most loyal admirers acknowledge that Shelley’s poetry presents special stylistic difficulties. The form of “Ode to the West Wind,” for example, is Shelley’s own invention, combing elements of the sonnet with the Italian three-line rhyme scheme known as terza rima. Like the sonnet, most lines of the ode contain ten syllables and the meter is generally iambic—one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—though Shelley tends to vary the meter and line length on occasion. Each of the five numbered sections in the poem contains fourteen lines—the length of a sonnet—so the ode is, in a sense, five sonnets combined together. The terza rima rhyme pattern employed in the poem utilizes end-rhymes that create an interlocking scheme that can be diagrammed as aba bcb cdc ded ee.
Despite this highly controlled structure, the poem also reflects the uncontrolled spirit of the wind. The feeling of the whirling breeze is depicted in the many run-on lines—phrases that begin on one line and extend to the next. See, for example, lines 2-3, 6-7, 8-9, 9-10, and 10-11. To keep the difficult rhyme scheme of terza rima moving, Shelley includes several slant or near rhymes, such as “everywhere” and “here” (lines 13 and 14) and “sepulchre” and “atmosphere” (lines 25 and 27). A blustery quality is added with the use of consecutive accented syllables, as in the four accents of “O wild West Wind” (line 1) or the two in “leaves dead” (line 2). The sweep and power of the wind is also evoked by Shelley’s use of alliteration and assonance, even through the run-on lines. “Dark wintry bed / The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low” (lines 6-7), for example, utilizes alliteration in the repeated “w” sounds; assonance moves the reader quickly from “wintry” to “winged,” “cold” to “low.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born to a wealthy English land-owning family in 1792, three years after the storming of the Bastille marked the height of the democratic revolution in France and just months before revolting French peasants beheaded King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. These incidents are significant to Shelley’s life because they mark the highlights of ongoing political turmoil that swept across Western civilization at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries like the west wind, directly influencing the course of the poet’s life and thought. In his life time, he saw the people of France struggle against Napoleon Bonaparte, who took control on the heels of the revolution and was eventually declared Emperor; England, Italy, Russia and smaller countries staving off the French empire’s attempts to control them; Britain and America fighting the War of 1812; and the British peasantry struggling the landowning aristocracy. In addition to his poetry, Shelley was involved throughout his life with writing essays and political pamphlets that generally favored the common man, the small farmers who were increasingly repressed by strict government laws. Some of his political works were “An Address to the Irish People” and “A Declaration of Rights,” in which he listed thirty-one articles of his political beliefs, such as number 12: “No man has a right to do an evil thing that good might come.” His pamphlets on religious beliefs were even more extensive, starting in 1811, when he and classmate William Hogg printed and distributed The Necessity of Atheism, hoping to stir up an open debate about the existence of God with their professors and their classmates; instead, they were expelled from Oxford. Throughout his career Shelley wrote about issues of the day, either directly or in thinly-disguised poetic allegory. He was most concerned with individualism, with getting each person to be responsible for thinking for him-or herself, rather than deferring to some higher social or religious authority. In addition to the chaos of international politics and class relations, intellectuals everywhere were exploring new possibilities of human freedom. They saw man, like the scientist in Frankenstein, by Shelley’s wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, as a creator, with an almost frightening, God-like ability to come up with new ideas.
It was the age of Romanticism, a period in literature and the other arts that encouraged each individual to break with tradition and follow her or his unique vision. Starting in the late 1700s with the poetry of William Wordsworth, who had been an active observer of the French Revolution, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose opium-induced dreams expanded the standards of the imagination, poetry had taken a turn from objectivity toward the subjective viewpoint of the author. Romanticism was the mood of poets who rejected traditional religions and looked for God in nature, because nature was something that a person could experience directly. Romantic poets followed traditional forms, or, as Shelley did in “Ode To The West Wind,” they sewed together a new form using parts of the old: it was for the creative genius to decide
Compare & Contrast
- 1819: The first paddle wheel steamship, the Savannah, crossed the Atlantic ocean in 39 days. The ship carried no passengers because people feared that the pressurized steam engine might explode.
1825: An English inventor developed the steam-powered locomotive.
1843: The first propeller-driven, iron-hulled ship crossed the Atlantic.
1939: The first helicopter designed for mass production was invented.
1957: The first satellite, Sputnik I, was launched into space.
1969: The first man walked on the moon.
- 1819: Parliament passed a series of repressive laws known as the Six Acts to stop farmers who had been protesting against the Corn Laws. The Six Acts put limits on public meetings and on journalistic reporting and gave police greater authority to search people and seize their property.
1846: The Com Laws were repealed. They had kept corn prices low, which impoverished many farmers and made them seek work in the cities: as a result of this surplus labor, England became a main force in the Industrial Revolution.
1945: Destitute because of the damage incurred in World War II, Britain elected a Labor Party government, which nationalized banks, railroads, utilities and industry, and implemented a welfare state.
1979: Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain. Over the next eleven years her administration stopped inflation from rising and privatized many of the industries that had been in government control since 1945.
Today: England’s healthy economy has made it a central force in the European Economic Community.
what was best. The leading figures in English Romantic poetry, in addition to Wordsworth and Coleridge, were Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats, who were both friends of Shelley’s. These are the names that are usually mentioned, but there are a good number of lesser-known Romantic poets, as well as painters and philosophers and writers from every country on the globe. In America, the major Romantic poets are Wordsworth, Longfellow, Dickinson, Poe, and Whitman.
The Romantic movement in England quieted down when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1836, eventually bringing peace to the political scene and which prompted an outbreak of stability in the arts. Poetry became more formal, more socially respectable, as the country settled down to make money in the growing industrial climate. Shelley, Keats, and Byron, who had lived extravagant lives and written grandly about their beliefs and fantasies, were forgotten or out of favor in the last half of the nineteenth century, but they experienced a resurgence in the beginning of the twentieth.
Shelley’s works had a very limited sale during his lifetime, and for years after his death, his name was kept alive mainly by radical sympathizers and through his ties with his friend and fellow poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron. Thanks to the praise and admiration of such important literary figures as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, and to his wife Mary Shelley’s efforts to bring forth collected editions of his works (she published his Posthumous Poems in 1824, and Poetical Works, complete with explanatory notes, in 1839), Shelley had become almost as well known as Byron by 1850. Since that time, he has secured a place among the major English Romantic poets—though his reputation as man and artist has been attacked nearly as often as it has been praised.
The founding of the Shelley Society in 1886 was a testament to the poet’s wide popularity in nineteenth century England. By republishing many of Shelley’s out-of print works, producing his play, and establishing the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, the Society helped ensure that Shelley’s work remained accessible to the general public. Critical opinion of Shelley, however, was beginning to spiral downward in the late 1800s: just two years after the Shelley Society was founded, the literary critic Matthew Arnold inspired a reevaluation of Shelley’s work with his famous denouncement of the poet as “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” Criticism of Shelley’s lack of concreteness, control, and common sense continued through the first half of this century, with the support of such reknowned critics as T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis.
More recently, Shelley’s works have received attention from critics who are intrigued by the poet’s complexities: the subtleties of his language, the intricacies of his cultural allusions, the inexhaustible nature of his social, political, and philosophical concerns. “Ode to the West Wind,” which is considered one of Shelley’s finest lyrics and among the supreme achievements of his rhetorical art, has been the subject of much reevaluation; where earlier critics had seen vagueness, others now see opportunities for many and varied interpretations. In his important book, Shelley’s Myth-making, Harold Bloom discusses Shelley as a passionately religious poet who formulates his religion by the actual writing of his poems. “Ode to the West Wind,” in Bloom’s opinion, is actually a poem about this process of making myths. Earl R. Wasserman expands upon this point in Shelley: A Critical Reading, seeing the poem as Shelley’s justification of the moral role of art. In his article for Philological Quarterly, G. K. Blank argues for yet another point of view: “Ode to the West Wind” is, quite simply, a great poem about the, desire to be a great poet.
The complex form of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” contributes a great deal to the poem’s meaning. Shelley himself calls it an ode, which is a poem of praise. Indeed, in the most simple terms, the poem’s aim is to praise the west wind. The poem is also made up of five individual sonnets. A sonnet’s theme is often related to romantic love. “Ode to the West Wind” has little to do with romantic love, but indirectly speaks of love or mutual sympathy in a more general sense. We recognize the poem as containing five sonnets because of the way Shelley distinguishes its sections and by the number of lines and the rhyme scheme in each section. A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines that follows a strict and predictable pattern of rhyme. This predictability gives Shelley’s poem some power to stabilize the disorderly wind-blown leaves and the intellectual uncertainty of which the poem speaks. In addition to the presence of the ode and sonnet structures, over the course of the poem the speaker refers to several other kinds of poetic forms. Among these are a “dirge” (a song of mourning), a “prayer,” and a “prophecy.” By including these assorted poetic forms, Shelley indicates just how crowded with meaning this poem is. He also encourages us to look beyond the surface of the poem to discover what the poem is made of and what it is about.
First and foremost, Shelley’s poem is an ode. An ode typically begins with an apostrophe. An apostrophe, in the technical poetic sense, is a direct address to a person, inanimate object, or abstract idea that is dead or absent. The poet speaks to this person or thing as if it were present and alive and asks it to be present for the poet’s tribute. The poet may request that it (or he or she) pay attention to and inspire the poet’s words. Shelley’s poem opens with an apostrophe, as the poet calls out, “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.” The poet apostrophizes the west wind in order to name the object of his praise and to convey that he is overwhelmed by feeling. The capitalized interjection “O” generally indicates an apostrophe and points to a burst of emotion. The poet’s use of an exclamation mark also measures the strength of the poet’s feeling. Toward the end of the poem, the poet’s passion will climax in a well-known shriek: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” Although the poet speaks throughout in a public voice and imagines that what he says has public significance, his exclamations also demonstrate that he is, personally, deeply moved and that on one level, this is a very private poem.
The poet explicitly names the west wind only once more at the end of the poem. In between, he directly addresses it using the pronoun “thou” instead of “you,” a common practice in poetry during Shelley’s time. The archaic “thou” lends the poem a quality of formality that is only appropriate because, above all else, an ode always maintains a formal and serious tone. In the first section, the poet describes the west wind as the “breath of Autumn’s being,” making it clear that it is this wind that gives life and motion to the fall season. This wind stirs up the colored, dead leaves, separating from them seeds that it forces into the ground, or into what the poet calls “their dark wintry bed.” Those are the seeds that will lie underground all winter and then bloom in the spring when the sky will be azure blue and the west wind’s “sister” will blow the new buds into the air. The poet looks forward to this change of seasons, when the land will sprout new life, but he is well aware that in the present autumnal moment, the natural world is slowly dying into winter. The west wind is both “Destroyer and preserver,” which is to say that it ensures the seeds are preserved until spring when they can bloom, but that first it must destroy the leaves and the rest of the landscape in anticipation of winter.
It is not until the end of the first section that the poet names the request implied by his initial apostrophe. The poet asks of the west wind, “hear, Oh hear!” It seems as if he wants the wind to pay attention to his poem. The poet personifies the west wind by speaking to it as though it were a person and by granting it human attributes, such as the ability to breathe and to drive a chariot. But these are figures of speech, and the poet knows that the wind is a force of nature without any capacity for hearing and without any real concern for human affairs. The poet appeals to the west wind anyway, showing by the emotion and repetition in “hear, Oh hear!” that he knows it is a futile request. He will repeat this request at the end of the next two sections, indicating again with an exclamation point his anxiety that the wind cannot hear his praise.
The poet indirectly compares his voice to that of the spring wind’s “clarion.” A clarion, or war trumpet, refers to one level of the poem’s meaning. The poem’s descriptions of nature and of seasonal
What Do I Read Next?
- John D. Jump, an internationally acclaimed English scholar, published a handy reference guide in 1974 called The Ode. It traces the poetic form back to its earliest days in ancient Greece and up to modern times.
- John Keats was Shelley’s friend and contemporary in the Romantic movement, and their works are often discussed together. The Modern Library’s publication of The Complete Poetical Works of Keats and Shelley allows readers the chance to compare the two authors and get a feel for the time they worked in. This book also comes with explanatory notes about Shelley’s poems written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
- Shelley’s book A Defence of Poetry is considered one of the great theoretical works on poetry—it is not something that people read to learn how to write, but it tells us much about what the poet thought he was doing. It is included in many collections of Shelley’s works, and also in its own 1973 volume with “A Letter to Lord Ellenborough.”
- Contemporary poet Stephen Spender has called Richard Holmes’ 1975 book Shelley: The Achievement“the best biography of Shelley ever written.” Shelley’s life was extraordinary, and this 800-page book covers every small detail of it.
- Another great poet, T.S. Eliot, a central figure in the Modernist movement which appeared just about 100 years after Romanticism, included a chapter about Keats and Shelley in his 1933 collection of Harvard essays called The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism
cycles symbolize, among other things, the cycles of individual human life and of collective human history. Thus the war trumpet which will sound in the spring may point to a beneficial political revolution which will occur after a wintry period of the deterioration of society. There is much more evidence for such an interpretation of the poem than can be considered here. At the least we should recognize that, even though on the surface Shelley’s poem seems only interested in relating to nature, it has a certain level of political significance as well. While the spring wind sounds a “clarion,” the west wind of fall sings a “dirge / Of the dying year.” The autumnal wind is a “dirge” or mourning song for the seasonal death of the natural world. When night falls, the clouds will seal nature in darkness, like that of a “sepulchre” or tomb. In a way, Shelley’s poem is a dirge, grieving for the decay of nature in autumn. In the fourth and fifth sections, the poet expresses his sadness at having lost his childhood imagination. Thus, the poem may also be a dirge for the poet’s loss of the less complicated visions of youth.
In the first section, the poet considers the changes the west wind makes on land. In the second, he describes the relationship between the wind and the sky. In the third, the poet imagines the effects of the wind on and under the sea. Since, in the first three sections, the poet treats three of the basic natural elements—earth, wind, and water—we might expect to encounter the fourth element—fire—in the fourth section. We do not, and instead find a kind of summary of the preceding three sections as the poet compares himself first to a leaf, then to a cloud, and finally to a wave. He contrasts his situation with the natural elements, trying to regain access to his youth.
The poet recalls that when he was a boy, his imagination allowed him to believe—and not simply wish—that he could run like the wind. This is what the poet means when he says his childhood was a time “when to outstrip thy skiey speed / Scarce seemed a vision.” Now in adulthood, the poet finds himself unable to maintain his visions of completely relating to natural forces. If he could regain his youthful attitude and imagination, he insists that “I would ne’er have striven / / As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.” This is an important moment in the poem. In uttering the futile calls, “hear, oh hear,” the poet partly acknowledged that the natural world cannot be sympathetic to the human world, even though he wished it could be so. Now, in referring to his blunted imagination and “sore need,” the poet suggests that he does not have the ability to identify fully with the natural world, either. If it is true that the poet is as disassociated from nature as it is from him, then he cannot rely on understanding the progress of human events in terms of the progress of the seasons and other natural cycles.
This intellectual uncertainty continues in the fifth section. The poet makes a new request of the west wind: “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is.” A lyre is a stringed musical instrument. The poet here refers specifically to an aeolian lyre that makes harmonious sounds when the wind passes through it and vibrates its strings. The poet is asking to become this instrument on which the motion of the wind can play, just as the wind plays or blows through the forest. In this way, the poet and the wind would be intimately joined, thereby defeating the disassociation he feels with the natural world. However, the poet does not want to abandon his human form and become the wind, but just the opposite. He cries “Be thou me, impetuous one!” and shows that he wants the wind to become a poet.
For the moment, the poet returns to the idea that human development and nature follow parallel cycles. If the seasons correspond to the ages of human life, spring—being a time of new birth—is childhood, summer is young adulthood, autumn is middle age, and winter—being the time nearest death—is old age. The poet suggests that he is in the autumn of his own life (although Shelley is only 27 when writing this poem), since he says “my leaves are falling like” those in the forest. However, human beings, unlike trees, do not die in winter only to be re-born in spring. Human death is permanent. The poet tries to counter his sadness at the thought of dying with an optimistic vision of spreading his “words among mankind.” His calls his thoughts “dead” not to admit that they will have no life after he is gone, but to liken them to the autumn leaves. Thus, the poet’s thoughts can be stirred up and their seeds planted to grow again and influence other people, even after the poet himself has died.
In order to blow his thoughts far and wide, the poet figuratively puts the west wind in his own mouth, encouraging it to “Be through my lips to unawakened earth / / The trumpet of a prophecy!” In the first section, the poet spoke of the spring wind’s “clarion.” With this mention of another trumpet, the poem returns to an earlier image. This thematic parallel between the poem’s beginning and end represents the cycles which are the subject of the poem. We should note, however, that the poem reverses the order of the seasons as represented by the two horns: it mentions the spring clarion first, and the autumnal trumpet of prophecy last. This reversal gives another hint that human processes may not necessarily follow the same order as nature’s cyclical processes.
The poet’s power to change the order of the seasons in his own poem complicates his final question: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Both the meaning and the tone of this question are ambiguous. In one sense, it is a rhetorical question, to which the answer is obviously, “No, spring is not far behind winter and we can be sure that it if winter comes, spring will eventually come as well.” Metaphorically, the question is mostly hopeful, suggesting a philosophy that in order for things to improve, they must first get worse. In other words, we cannot have the rebirth of spring without the death of winter. But the question also expresses uncertainty as to whether we have any assurance that spring will follow winter, or, on the metaphorical level, that things will get better after they get worse.
We may also read the skepticism expressed in the final question as doubting whether there is any real connection between the human and the natural worlds. Seasonal change may be certain, but it does not guarantee that personal or political change must follow a parallel course. In other words, the seasons may obey their predictable cycle of change, but human events may not. And perhaps even the change of seasons is not a completely guaranteed knowledge, since the human mind and nature remain at some distance from one another. However, as the literary critic Paul H. Fry has argued, this skepticism in Shelley is a sign of optimism or hope. Doubt, perhaps paradoxically, makes hope possible, since if nothing is certain, then anything is possible. Shelley’s poem may be saying that it is best to be uncertain whether spring will follow winter and to be uncertain about the future in general. For only in uncertainty can the imagination be free to create and re-create its prophecies for what is to come.
Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following essay, Woodring gives an overview of “Ode to the West Wind.”
“Ode to the West Wind,” written by Percy Bysshe Shelley near Florence in 1819, was published with Prometheus Unbound in 1820. As one of the most frequently anthologised poems in English, it is one of a dozen lyric poems normally called upon to define the English Romantic movement.
Its particular lyric mode is prayer, a poet’s exclamatory petition to the strong west wind of October as a prodigious power known by its effects. To prominent critics of the 1930’s the poem exemplified a rhetoric of uncontrolled emotion, but it is organised as if by a public accountant paradoxically certified to approve a work structurally unique. Dante’s terza rima, in which the middle line of each tercet rhymes with the first and third line of the next, is modified in five numbered sections such that each consists of four triplets followed by a couplet. Each section, then, forms a stanza of 14 lines—a sonnet. In each sonnet, 12 lines of progressive, propulsive rhyming, aba, beb, cdc, are abruptly resolved in dd.
Autumn leaves driven in the first sonnet, clouds driven in the second, and waves driven in the third are envied in the first triplet of the fourth sonnet by a poet who would be driven as they are because the proud force of his early youth has been beaten into failure. The three prolusory sonnets on driven leaves, clouds, and waves each end in the same rhyme-sound and the same plea to the wind, “O hear!” The final sonnet pleads with the wind to enter the poet and scatter his thoughts abroad. He is Milton’s Samson ready to redeem a people. Stuart Curran has called the ode “a purgatorial song of secular Christian triumph.”
Each sonnet contains a variation on the principle that the west wind is destroyer and preserver: the autumnal wind scatters seeds for burial through the winter so that the revivifying “azure sister” of the spring may evoke buds, hues, and odours. Each also interweaves the metaphors and motifs of the others. In the second, the wind-blown commotion of the sky is a stream on which, from the tangled boughs of ocean and upper air, clouds are driven like leaves. In the third, vegetation reflected in a bay of the Mediterranean has its complement in the foliage of live coral disturbed by autumnal storms.
The repletion of metaphor accounts for erroneous impressions of decorative excess. The wind, an enchanter chasing ghosts, drives the pale and livid leaves of autumn like plague-stricken multitudes. (G.M. Matthews has noted that Shelley’s four colours for dead leaves were the four colours of contemporary anthropologists’ four races of humanity.) Like a hearse, the wind transports the corpses to their winter graves. The howling wind is the dirge of the dying year, as lengthening night closes like a vaulted dome over the year’s sepulchre. The sleeping Mediterranean (like sleeping Italy) has reflected, like dreams, the ruined villas along the shores of the Bay of Baiae; as the fierce wind intruding from the Atlantic disturbs those dreams, its cleavage into billows brings a sympathetic response in the “sapless foliage” undersea. The invention of a diving box with windows, making
“Like electricity, the west wind is a cosmic power seen only in its effects on earth, sky, and sea.”
possible accounts by naturalists of soft coral, provided a factual basis for Shelley’s evocation, at once scientific and idealistic, of a harmonious universe of love.
“Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!”—the poet cries in lamentation like a prophet in travail over the deadness of his time to spiritual purpose. He offers his recenly inert self as a conduit for the power to awaken earth: “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is.” Do it by restoring me to my true self.
The second section is a meteorologist’s delight. Photographs have been offered in support of scientific description to confirm the accuracy of detail in the poem concerning autumnal storms, torn cirrus clouds (like hair uplifted “from some fierce Maenad”), water-spouts, and other phenomena of the Ligurian Sea which are utilised symbolically in the poem. The Contemporary scientific search for a single, unifying cosmic power in the force of electricity underlies Shelley’s metaphoric use of the electric cycle of ocean, vapours, clouds, lightning, thunder, hail, and rain. The search for cosmic unity links the rain cycle with the swaying and blanching of under sea growth in sympathy with billows fleeing from a cold wind. Like electricity, the west wind is a cosmic power seen only in its effects on earth, sky, and sea.
The final line, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”, encapsulates a prophetic view of history. Europe, like the poet, has been pummelled into lethargy. The revolution that began in France has failed; the long reach of the Holy Alliance suppresses freedom everywhere; Tuscany, birthplace of the poem, languishes under foreign rule. In England, homeland of the expected readers of the poem, reactionary laws and actions by a conservative government are understood by Shelley to be massacres of innocence. Such tyranny enslaves itself and ensures its own demise. The inevitability that “congregated might” will burst in black rain and hail appeals to the pacifist Shelley as a law of self-inflicted retribution, but history is replete with evidence that spring does not end a cycle that includes recurrent autumns and winters.
Source: Carl Woodring, “Ode to the West Wind,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd edition, Vol. 3, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1742-43.
Henry S. Pancoast
In the following excerpt, Pancoast discusses the symbolism of the West Wind in Shelley’s famous ode.
Why did Shelley choose the West Wind, and set it apart from and above all the rest in his great ode?
It is easy to understand why wind in the abstract,—any strong, swift, masterful wind,—must have had an especial attraction for a poet of Shelley’s temperament. He recognized that there was something in his own uncontrolled nature originally akin to a creature so “tameless and swift and proud.” Shelley, moreover, was peculiarly alive to the tireless energy, the incessant and intricate activity of force in creation, and for him the different forms in which this protean activity manifested itself had a positive personality. The dull, dense mass of matter is constantly represented by him as “plastic,”—as being outwardly changed, or shaped, or driven by force, or spirit. The cloud, in the poem which we naturally associate with the “Ode to the West Wind,” is brought before us living and acting, and our thoughts are directed to it as a force in the moving scheme of things. As a poet of Nature, Shelley is thus often dynamic when even Wordsworth is comparatively static. Shelley is absorbed in the thought of Nature at work and he views the world not merely as a visionary appearance mysteriously illuminated with the indwelling Divine life, but as the shifting expression of underlying and interacting forces, which he individualizes as personal powers.
But while this may explain Shelley’s sense of kinship to the wind, his preference for the West Wind remains to be accounted for.
We know that the “Ode” was not a purely imaginative production; it was not suggested by the thought of the West Wind in general. It was the outcome of a definite personal experience, which Shelley describes with some minuteness in his note to the poem. The “Ode” “was conceived and chiefly written,” Shelley tells us “in a wood that skirts the Arno near Florence.” A “tempestous” West Wind had been blowing throughout the day, and “at sunset” there was “a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions.” Shelley seems to have spent the greater part of the day out-of-doors, absorbed by the power and magnificence of the spectacle, and the immediate source of his inspiration is not the storm, impressive as it was, but the work of the West Wind at a certain time and place. But while it is true that the immediate inspiration is thus concrete and local, the poem gains breadth from the fact that Shelley rises from his thought of one particular manifestation of the power of the West Wind, to the conception of the power of the West Wind in general, to an appreciation of its personality and its peculiar office and place in the wider life of the natural world. It is only when we study the poem from what we may call the meteorological aspect, that we arrive at a full sympathy with the poet’s idea.
We must remember that the “Ode” was composed in a region ruled throughout the greater part of the year by the westerly winds. During the Summer, the wind often sweeps into Italy hot and dry from the South, but with the Autumnal equinox comes the West wind from the Atlantic, heavy with moisture and putting Summer to rout with storms and Autumnal rains. It is this “wild, west wind” whose coming means the end of Summer, that is first invoked. Shelley’s whole nature is roused and exalted not only by the power of the wind, or the violence of the storm; he is fascinated by the realization that he is present at a turning point in the life of the year. From his post in a wood near the Arno, he watches the West Wind gather his forces for the final victory. Through the day this “tempestuous wind whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapors which pour down the Autumnal rains.” By sunset, as the poet anticipated, all things were ready for the final contest and then followed that “violent tempest” which marked the end of Summer, the beginning of the rainy season, and the assumption of his kingdom by the West Wind, that is literally the very “breath of Autumn’s being.”
But the West Wind has a double significance for the poet. On the western coast of Italy it performs two strikingly contrasted missions; it ends the Summer, but it also brings in the Spring. During the early part of February, the conqueror of Summer returns to conquer Winter; it comes to bring life as, a few months earlier, it has brought death. Few passages in Latin poetry are more familiar, or more charming, than those which celebrate the return of Favonius, or Zephyrus, this favorable
“To Shelley, then, the western wind had a definite character and office. Tameless, swift, proud, uncontrollable, even fierce—it was yet above all the spirit of power.”
(faveo), or life-bringing wind of the Spring. Lucretius pays his tribute to “winged Zephyrus,” “veris praenuntius” (De Rerum Nat. 5. 737); and Vergil (Georg. 1.44.), Catullus (46.2.), and Horace (Car. I. 4. and 4. 7.) are among those who join in the chorus of praise. The moderns follow the lead of the ancients, and Chaucer pictures Zephyrus reviving the “tender croppes” with his “sweete Breethe,” or Milton looks forward to the time when Favonius will reinspire the frozen earth.
Now Shelley invokes the West Wind of Autumn, but while the dead leaves are driven before it and the storm is approaching, there rises before him a vision of the West Wind of the Spring. Shelley’s tribute to this Spring West Wind is not only charming, perhaps above all the others, in its delicate grace, and wealth of poetic suggestion, but so far as I can recall, it differs in one respect from all the rest. To him, this wind of the blue vernal heaven, is the “azure sister” of the rough wind of Autumm. She is the feminine complement of the same power, working with her “impetuous” brother by bringing to life the “winged seeds” which he has “charioted” to their Wintry beds, and so preserved. The West Wind is thus glorified above other winds, because of its office as “destroyer and preserver”; because this wind which drives the dead leaves to corruption, is akin to that other West Wind which quickens the dreaming earth to life.
Up to this point, or throughout the first division of the poem, Shelley has been chiefly occupied with the West Wind’s task on the earth, as he watched it visibly at work around him, or as he went beyond the present and imagined it coming in the Spring. The second division treats of the Wind in the heaven, and here he is still thinking of its local and apparent activity as it is present before his eyes. But in the third part, he leaves his particular point of observation, his thought passes beyond the wood with its trees stripped of leaves, its heaven of flying cloud, its signs of the coming storm, and his imagination takes a wider flight. He sees the West Wind at work on the water, as he has seen its impress on earth and sky. He sees it as in a vision troubling the water off the coast many miles to the Southward, rousing the tranquil Mediterranean from his summer dreams, and then, detaching himself more completely from its local and special manifestations, he follows it in its course across the expanse of ocean. He invokes the wind—
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms.
Is this solemn invocation addressed to a wind that merely happened to come from the West, and which therefore must have passed over the Atlantic? Does not Shelley rather recognize here, as throughout the “Ode,” the personality and the especial office of the wind he is addressing? The passage just quoted seems hardly applicable to a wind whose activities are merely local, temporal, and incidental. Winds shift and veer, but over a certain region of the North Atlantic the West Wind is King. A “turbulent ruler,” as Joseph Conrad calls him in his sailor-like study of the East and West winds in his Mirror of the Sea, but nevertheless a beneficent one. It is this masterful wind, the rain-bringing wind, that has made the British Isles and Northwestern Europe what they are; it is this wind that is the home-coming wind of Conrad’s sketch and of Tennyson’s lullaby—the “wind of the Western sea.” “The narrow seas around these isles,” Conrad writes, “where British admirals keep watch and ward upon the marches of the Atlantic ocean, are subject to the turbulent sway of the west wind. Clothed in a mantle of dazzling gold and draped in rags of black clouds like a beggar, the might of the Westerly Wind sits enthroned upon the Western horizon with the whole North Atlantic as a footstool for his feet, and the first twinkling stars making a diadem for his brow.” Shelley’s invocation to the West Wind as one whose path is across the level Atlantic, gains in meaning when we remember that the West Wind does not traverse it as an alien adventurer, as a maurader from without, he moves over it as a king in his royal progress. Circling the globe in this northern belt as he does in the southern, this region of the “roaring forties” is a king’s highway ordained and set apart for him.
To Shelley, then, the western wind had a definite character and office. Tameless, swift, proud, uncontrollable, even fierce—it was yet above all the spirit of power; the spirit that in weeping away the old brought in the new, the wind that was both radical and conservative, both destroyer and preserver; that showed us death as but a transitional phase of life. May we not say that if Shelley had written an ode to any other wind, while it might have been equally good, it would, of necessity, have been utterly different. His words apply to this particular wind and to no other, for in this matter also—
The east is east and the west is west,
And never the twain shall meet.
Source: Henry S. Pancoast, “Shelley’s ’Ode to the West Wind,’” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, February, 1920, pp. 97-100
Arnold, Matthew, “Shelley,” in Essays in Criticism, second series, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1888, pp. 205-52.
Blank, G. K., “Shelley’s Wind of Influence,” in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 475-91.
Bloom, Harold, Shelley’s Mythmaking, Yale Studies in English, edited by Benjamin Christie Nangle, Vol. 141, Yale University Press, 1959, pp. 65-90.
Wasserman, Earl R., Shelley: A Critical Reading, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971, pp. 238-51.
Bostetter, Edward E. The Romantic Ventriloquists. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1963.
This book is considered by Shelley supporters, who feel that their poet was neglected for the first half of the twentieth century, to be a fair and thoughtful critical analysis that helped establish the Romantics’ reputation in modern times.
Frye, Northrup. A Study of English Romanticism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968.
Organized thematically rather than chronologically, this book approaches the works of the authors generally associated with Romanticism, as well as more obscure authors, as a group, only looking at the most notable cases (like Shelley) briefly.
Reiman, Donald H. Percy Bysshe Shelley, updated edition. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Dr. Reiman is a leading Shelley scholar, the author, editor or compiler of over 140 volumes on the English Romantics. This short volume is detailed and to the point.