‘Ode to the West Wind’ was written in Cascine Woods, outside of Florence, Italy, and published in 1820. It focuses on death’s necessary destruction and the possibilities of rebirth.
In this poem, Ode to the West Wind, Percy Shelley creates a speaker that seems to worship the wind. He always refers to the wind as “Wind” using the capital letter, suggesting that he sees it as his god. He praises the wind, referring to its strength and might in tones similar to the Biblical Psalms which worship God. He also refers to the Greek God, Dionysus. The speaker continues to praise the wind and to beseech it to hear him. When he is satisfied that the wind hears him, he begs the wind to take him away in death, in hopes that there will be a new life waiting for him on the other side.
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Summary of Ode to the West Wind
In the first lines, the speaker addresses the wind and describes how it creates deadly storms. it drives away the summer and brings with it the cold and darkness of winter. He imagines what it would be like to be a dead leaf lifted and blown around by the wind and he implores the wind to lift him “as a wave, a lead, a cloud!” The speaker sees the wind as a necessary evil, one that eventually means that spring is on the way.
Themes in Ode to the West Wind
Shelley engages with themes of death, rebirth, and poetry in ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ From the start, Shelley’s speaker describes the wind as something powerful and destructive. It takes away the summer and brings winter, a season usually associated with death and sorrow. It’s not a peaceful wind, he adds, but despite this, the speaker celebrates it. It is necessary for the circle of life to progress. Without death, there is no rebirth. The wind serves an important role in preserving this. Poetry is one of the less obvious themes in ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ The speaker seems to allude to a process of creation in the text, one that involves him personally. This might, considering the format, be the creation of poetry.
Structure and Form of Ode to the West Wind
‘Ode to the West Wind’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley is written in terza rima. This refers to an interlocking rhyme scheme. The first stanza is written in the pattern of ABA while the second uses the same “B” rhyme sound and adds a “C.” So it looks like BCB. This repeats throughout the text until the final two lines which rhyme as a couplet. Despite the pattern, there are several half0rhymes in this piece. FOr example, “everywhere” and “hear” in lines thirteen and fourteen.
The majority of ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is written in iambic pentameter. This means that most of the lines contain five sets of two beats. The first of which is unstressed and the second which is stressed. This pattern does change in some lines more than others. This is particularly evident in the first stanza where all the lines are irregular.
Literary Devices in Ode to the West Wind
Shelley makes use of several literary devices in ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ These include alliteration, personification, and apostrophe. The latter is an interesting device that is used when the poet’s speaker talks to something or someone that either can’t hear them or can’t respond. In this case, the speaker starts out the poem by talking to the “West Wind” as though it can do both. In addition to this, the poet also personifies the wind or gives it human abilities that forces or animals don’t naturally have.
Alliteration is a common type of repetition that appears when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “lie” and “low” in line one of stanza three of canto one as well as “steep sky” in stanza one of canto two.
Enjambement is another common technique. It occurs several times in ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ For example, the transition between lines two and three of stanza one, canto one as well as lines two and three of stanza three, canto one.
Analysis of Ode to the West Wind
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,
In the opening stanza of Ode to the West Wind, the speaker appeals to the wild West Wind. The use of capital letters for “West” and “Wind” immediately suggests that he is speaking to the Wind as though it were a person. He calls the wind the “breath of Autumn’s being”, thereby further personifying the wind and giving it the human quality of having breath. He describes the wind as having “unseen presence” which makes it seem as though he views the wind as a sort of god or spiritual being. The last line of this stanza specifically refers to the wind as a spiritual being that drives away death and ghosts.
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
This stanza of Ode to the West Wind describes the dead Autumn leaves. They are not described as colorful and beautiful, but rather as a symbol of death and even disease. The speaker describes the deathly colors “yellow” “black” and “pale”. Even “hectic red” reminds one of blood and sickness. He describes the dead and dying leaves as “Pestilence stricken multitudes”. This is not a peaceful nor beautiful description of the fall leaves. Rather, the speaker seems to see the fall leaves as a symbol of the dead, the sick, and the dying. The wind then comes along like a chariot and carries the leaves “to their dark wintry bed”, which is clearly a symbol of a grave.
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
The speaker continues the metaphor of the leaves as the dead by explaining that the wind carries them and “winged seeds” to their graves, “where they lie cold and low”. He then uses a simile to compare each leaf to “a corpse within its grave”. But then, partway through the second line, a shift occurs. The speaker says that each is like a corpse “until” the wind comes through, taking away the dead, but bringing new life. The use of the word “azure” or blue, to describe the wind is in sharp contrast to the colors used to describe the leaves.
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:
With this stanza of Ode to the West Wind, the speaker describes the wind as something which drives away death, burying the dead, and bringing new life. It brings “living hues” and “ordours” which are filled with new life.
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!
Here, the speaker again appeals to the wind, calling it a “wild spirit” and viewing it as a spiritual being who destroys and yet also preserves life. He is asking this spirit to hear his pleas. He has not yet made a specific request of the wind, but it is clear that he views it as a powerful spiritual being that can hear him.
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,
Again, the speaker addresses the wind as a person, calling it the one who will “loose clouds” and shake the leaves of the “boughs of Heaven and Ocean”. This reads almost as a Psalm, as if the speaker is praising the wind for its power.
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Again, the speaker refers to the wind as a spiritual being more powerful than angels, for the angels “of rain and lightening” are described as being “spread on the blue surface” of the wind. He then describes these angels as being “like the bright hair” on the head of an even greater being.
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
In this stanza of Ode to the West Wind, the speaker compares the wind to a “fierce Maenad” or the spiritual being that used to be found around the Greek God, Dionysus. Remember, this is the being that was also described as having hair like angels. Thus, the wind is described as a being like a god, with angels for hair. These angels of rain and lightening reveal that a storm is on the way.
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
The speaker then explains that the storm approaching is the impending doom of the dying year. The use of ‘sepulcher’ is interesting too since this is referring to a small room/monument, in which a person is buried in, typically Christian origin. To refer to something like this could suggest that Shelley wants to trap and contain all of the power of nature inside the tomb, for it to ‘burst’ open in stanza 5. As well as this, a sepulcher is an isolating way of being buried, which could indicate Shelley wants to move away from all his miseries and be finally at one with nature.
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!
The speaker then describes the wind as the bringer of death. He has already described it as the Destroyer. Here, he describes it as one who brings “black rain and fire and hail..” Then, to end this Canto, the speaker again appeals to the wind, begging that it would hear him.
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
To begin this Canto, the speaker describes the wind as having woken up the Mediterranean sea from a whole summer of peaceful rest. The sea, here, is also personified.
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
With this stanza of Ode to the West Wind, the speaker simply implies that the sea was dreaming of the old days of palaces and towers and that he was “quivering” at the memory of an “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
The speaker continues to describe the sea’s dreams as being of slower days when everything was overgrown with blue “moss and flowers”. Then, he hints that something is about to change when he mentions to Atlantic’s “powers”.
Stanzas Four and Five
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 grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
This stanza of Ode to the West Wind is in reference to the sea’s reaction to the power of the wind. At the first sign of the strong wind, the sea seems to “cleave” into “chasms” and “grow grey with fear” as they tremble at the power of the wind. Again, this stanza reflects a Psalm in the worship of a God so mighty that nature itself trembles in its sight.
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
Here, the speaker finally brings his attention to himself. He imagines that he was a dead leaf which the wind might carry away or a cloud which the wind might blow. He thinks about what it would be like to be a wave at the mercy of the power of the wind.
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The speaker stands in awe of the wondrous strength of the wind. It seems to act on “impulse” and its strength is “uncontrollable”. He then mentions his own childhood.
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven
Here, the speaker seems to wonder whether the wind has gotten stronger since his childhood, or whether he has simply become weaker. He thinks that when he was a boy, he may have been about to “outstrip” the speed of the wind. And yet, his boyhood “seemed a vision”, so distant, and so long ago. The speaker is clearly contrasting the strength of the wind to his own weakness that has come upon him as he has aged.
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!
Here, the speaker finally comes to his request. Until now, he has been asking the wind to hear him, but he has not made any specific requests. Now, he compares himself to a man “in prayer in [his] sore need” and he begs the wind to “lift [him] as a wave, a leaf, a cloud”. He longs to be at the mercy of the wind, whatever may come of it. In the final line, he refers to himself as one who is in the final stages of his life when he says, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed”. Just like the wind swept away the dead leaves of the Autumn, the speaker calls for the wind to sweep him away, old and decaying as he is.
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
The speaker says that the weight of all of his years of life have bowed him down, even though he was once like the wind, “tameless…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
Again, the speaker begs the wind to make him be at its mercy. He wants to be like a lyre (or harp) played by the wind. He wants to be like the dead leaves which fall to the ground when the wind blows.
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
In this stanza of Ode to the West Wind, the speaker asks the wind to come into him and make him alive. This is yet another reference to the wind as a sort of god. In some religions, particularly the Christian religion, there is the belief that to have a new life, one must receive the Holy Spirit into his bodily being. This is precisely what the speaker is asking the wind to do to him. He realizes that for this to happen, his old self would be swept away. That is why he describes this as “sweet though in sadness”. But he asks the spirit of the wind to be his own spirit and to be one with him.
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
The speaker asks the wind to “drive [his] dead thoughts over the universe” so that even as he dies, others might take his thoughts and his ideas and give them “new birth”. He thinks that perhaps this might even happen with the very words he is speaking now.
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The speaker asks the wind to scatter his thoughts as “ashes and sparks” that his words might kindle a fire among mankind, and perhaps awaken the sleeping earth.
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
The speaker has used spiritual and biblical references throughout Ode to the West Wind to personify the wind as a god, but here he makes it a little more specific. When he says, “The trumpet of prophecy” he is specifically referring to the end of the world as the Bible describes it. When the trumpet of prophecy is blown, Christ is believed to return to earth to judge the inhabitants. The speaker asks the Wind to blow that trumpet. Because of the speaker’s tone throughout Ode to the West Wind, it would make sense if this was the speaker’s own personal trumpet, marking the end of his life. He wants the wind to blow this trumpet. With the last two lines of Ode to the West Wind, the speaker reveals why he has begged the wind to take him away in death. He says, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” This reveals his hope that there is an afterlife for him. He desperately hopes that he might leave behind his dying body and enter into a new life after his death.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Ode to the West Wind’ should also consider reading some of Shelley’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘Adonais,’ ‘Mutability,’ and ‘Ozymandias.‘ The latter is a very memorable poem, one that’s often studied in schools around the world. It describes a long-abandoned and broken statue in the desert, one that looks out over a domain that no longer exists. in ‘Adonais,’ Shelley writes a tribute to fellow poet John Keats who died at the age of twenty-five. In ‘Mutability,’ Shelley takes everyday elements of life, from wind, to the sky, and emotions, and compares them to human nature and the facts of life.