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Ode to the West Wind

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English Literature

Shelley’s 'Ode to the West Wind' has been interpreted and re-interpreted by a wide range of critics. This suggests that Shelley’s Ode has multiple layers and requires some background knowledge of Shelley’s life and times to fully understand his intention in composing the ode.

Before looking at the poem more closely, it is worth looking at where Shelley wrote it, and his life situation at the time.

'Ode to the West Wind': at a glance

Written by

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1757-1827)

Form/StyleFour stanzas & a couplet / Romantic poetry
MeterIambic pentameter
Rhyme schemeItalian terza rima (ABA BCB CDC DED EE)
Literary DevicesSimiles, symbolism, personification
Poetic DevicesEnjambment, alliteration
Frequently noted imageryWind, leaves, death, ghosts
ToneContemplative, imploring, commanding
ThemesThe power of nature; revolution and change
MeaningThe sorrows of life are followed by hope; also: renewal, revolution and change

When was 'Ode to the West Wind' written?

Shelley wrote the Ode while living in Italy. In late 1819 the Shelleys had moved to Florence. The ‘Ode to the West Wind’ was written soon after this move.

After the drying south wind of summer, the west wind sweeps across Italy from the Atlantic. Shelley was inspired after witnessing the power and raging storm caused by the west wind in the forest of Cascine.

The period 1818-1819 was a particularly crowded one (like much of Shelley’s life), and overshadowed by personal tragedy. The Shelleys had moved to Italy in 1818, together with their son William and daughter, Clara. There had been two reasons for the move: Shelley’s health was one and Lord Byron’s daughter was another.

Byron’s mistress, Claire Clairemont (and Mary Shelley’s step-sister) had given birth to a baby girl (Allegra) Alba. The Shelleys undertook to accompany mother and child to Venice where Byron was currently living.

A rushed journey across Italy at the height of summer took its toll on baby Clara, who died suddenly at Este. This was followed in June of 1819 by William’s death from malaria in Rome. Their mother, Mary Shelley, was both pregnant and struggling with depression. The Shelleys were in Florence by October, and on the 12th of November Percy Florence, Mary Shelley’s only surviving child was born.

At some point after their arrival in Florence, Shelley witnessed the force of the west wind in the forest, and the storm it brought with it.

'Ode to the West Wind': annotations and analysis

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,

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 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 headOf some fierce Maenad, even from the dim vergeOf the horizon to the zenith's height,The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirgeOf the dying year, to which this closing nightWill be the dome of a vast sepulchre,Vaulted with all thy congregated mightOf vapours, from whose solid atmosphereBlack 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?

Ode to the west wind, A forest scene with P B Shelley | StudySmarterThe changing seasons StudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

'Ode to the West Wind': summary

At first glance ‘Ode to the West Wind’ would appear to be about the forces of nature and the power of the wind. It is also about the changing seasons and the arrival of spring. By using the vocabulary of nature, Shelley invites the reader to contemplate decay and renewal, both in nature and in humanity.

Form and structure

'Ode to the West Wind' is made up of five sections (called cantos). Each canto is made up of a total of four three-line stanzas or tercets, followed by a couplet (two rhyming or near-rhyming lines).

Tercet:

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,

Couplet:

‘Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!’

Meter

'Ode to the West Wind' uses iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter is a line of verse containing ten syllables. An iamb is a metrical foot where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. When the iambic foot repeats five times, it is called the iambic pentameter.

Shelley adopts a mostly iambic pentameter. Occasionally some of his lines are more than ten syllables long: this is an example of loose iambic pentameter, which means the line has approximately ten syllables.

Try counting the syllables in the first three lines below. How many are there per line? Now try reading them out loud and see where the stress falls.

Poetic devices

Shelley uses the following poetic devices in his poem.

Enjambment

Usually, poems have natural breaks at the end of each line.

In the opening line of Canto 1: ‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,’ there is a natural break at the end of the line.

Enjambment instead happens in poetry when a line continues into the next line without a break. This happens in the next two lines of Canto 1:

‘Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,’

Notice how the line containing ‘the leaves dead are drive’ is unbroken and continues into the next without pause or break.

Can you spot other enjambments when you read the poem? 'Ode to the West Wind' contains several.

Alliteration

Alliteration happens when two or more words are used together which begin with the same letter. For example: burn bright, swan song, long lost.

Shelley opens 'Ode to the West Wind' with alliteration to invoke the wind and add dramatic effect:

‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being’.

Wild West Wind all begin with the same letter, ‘w’. We also have ‘breath’ and ‘being’, to mean ‘you, the essence of Autumn’.

When reading the poem, how many more alliterations can you find? What do they describe?

Literary devices

Let's look the literary devices Shelley used in his poem.

Similes

'Ode to the West Wind' is considered a very personal poem. This is particularly likely in view of Shelley's experiences in 1818/1819. It seems natural for Shelley to adopt the language of death in the poem and he does this by using similes.

Similes are figures of speech that compare two very different things to emphasise a description. For example, he fought like a lion.

In the first verse of 'Ode to the West Wind', Shelley compares dead leaves to ghosts:

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing’

The seeds that the wind blows about are compared to corpses:

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, Each like a corpse within its grave,’

He sprinkles similar references throughout, like: ‘dying year’ and ‘vast sepulchre’.

When you read the poem, how many other similes can you find? Are they all referring to death or something else?

Personification

Shelley opens the Ode by invoking the west wind, in all its strength:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, …

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!’

Notice how he addresses the wind as if talking to another person or being. By speaking to the wind this way, Shelley uses personification: he attributes human characteristics to a natural element.

He then describes the power of what he sees: tangled clouds, storm clouds, preparing to pour down, and addresses the wind again, as the messenger of death and compares the coming night to the roof of a tomb:

Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night

Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre’

Symbolism

The West Winds of decay and renewal

There are two west winds in the Ode: one for autumn and one for spring.

Even as Shelley experiences the forceful west wind of autumn, he is reminded of the gentler west winds that will herald spring; winter may have begun, he tells us, but after winter there will be a new beginning – spring shall return.

Just as the autumn west wind brings death, so does the spring west wind bring life.

Shelley drew frequently from the natural world for his symbology. His studies of clouds and his references to leaves and wind appear in several poems, e.g., 'The Cloud'.

By following a purely naturalistic approach it is possible to read the poem as follows:

  • The first part of the poem is about the task of the west wind in the natural world.
  • The second describes the movement of wind in heaven
  • The third is about the role of the west wind as a king of winds, a powerful spirit that can throw out the old and bring in the new.

Kapstein (1936)¹ suggests the poem is in five parts:

  • the power of the wind over earth.
  • the power of the wind over sea.
  • the power of the wind over sky.
  • the desire of the poet to be consumed by the wind in order to regenerate.
  • and finally, a prayer that the poet’s dead thoughts may be strewn across the world and rebirth as an influence for the good of humanity.

The wind in this context is both destroyer of the old and protector of the new, symbolizing change. 'Ode to the West Wind' can therefore also be viewed as Shelley’s view of the universe, of the eternal cycle of life and death. It is possible that Shelley was also influenced by Holbach’s System of Nature (1770), which Shelley read in 1812. (He mentions Holbach twice in letters to Mary Godwin: ‘it appears to me a work of uncommon power.’ (Shelley, letter to Mary Godwin, June 3, 1812)

Tone: Shelley's commands in 'Ode to the West Wind'

Be thou, Spirit fierce, My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!’

Is Shelley demanding to be the West Wind or is he imploring?

Pixton (1972)² suggests that the Ode is made up of commands:

  • commands that are given by a man suffering mortal anguish.
  • commands by a man who believes himself possessed of immortal power.

Shelley demands to become that west wind – to have its power for dissemination. Just as it blows the seeds across the earth for regrowth, so too he hopes his words will fly across the world and help humanity to be reborn.

As if he is master of the west wind then, he orders it to:

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!’

Some have interpreted these lines as either a command or an entreaty. It may be that they sit somewhere in between, and that Shelley speaks as a prophet. Then, Pixton suggests : ‘in a plaintive tone, dominated by …hope and despair, utters the immortal words ‘if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’

(Pixton, Shelley's Commands to the West Wind, 1972) Pixton suggests that Shelley makes six demands of the wind that are Imperative, sometimes combined with supplication. According to Pixton, these six imperatives form the pattern of the poem.

Hint: when reading the poem, what impression do you get? Is Shelley commanding? Prophetic? Worshipping? All of these?

Reading the 'Ode to the West Wind' as a purely personal poem, it is easy to interpret his use of winter as the sorrows of life, and spring as the renewal of hope, or release from sorrow.

Yet some critics have suggested there is more to it than that. According to Cameron (1974) and to a lesser extent Fogle (1948), Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' is as much about revolution as it is about loss and hope.

Themes: Ode to the West Wind and other poems

Themes and elements of the Ode appear in several of Shelley’s other poems, for example:

  • ‘The Revolt of Islam’ (or The Revolution of the Golden City, 1817).
  • ‘Prometheus Unbound’,’ (1820).
  • To A Skylark’ (1820).

‘The Revolt of Islam’ (also known as ‘The Revolution of the Golden City’) is one of Shelley’s clearest references to the French Revolution. His preface points out the disappointment of mankind after the failure of the revolution:

The revulsion occasioned by the atrocities of the demagogues, and the re-establishment of successive tyrannies in France, was terrible, and felt in the remotest corner of the civilised world’.

(Shelley, Preface to ‘The Revolt of Islam’, 1817)

The poem itself also contains words reflecting this theme: trampled France, tyrant, dungeons, scaffold.

Its message of peaceful revolution repressed by a tyrannical ruler was considered too risky to publish. Shelley had to make revisions and change the name to ‘Revolt of Islam’ before it could be printed.

'The Revolt of Islam' also uses phrases and themes that are similar to the ones he uses in the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ a couple of years later:

The blasts of Autumn drive the winged seeds Over the earth'

In ‘The Revolt of Islam,’ the winged seeds are the ideas for the new social order that will be spread by the ‘autumn blasts’, bringing with them a new freedom, a fresh beginning.³

In the ‘Ode to the West Wind’, he again uses the phrases ‘Autumn winds’, and ‘winged seeds’, which suggest he is still thinking in terms of social change:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,...

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'

Here the Western Wind of Spring will pick up the seeds and spread them 'o'er the dreaming earth, and fill ... plain and hill’.

'Prometheus Unbound' (1820)

‘Prometheus Unbound’ is a stage drama in verse that Shelley completed in the same year as the Ode. He wrote it in response to the Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (ca. 430 B.C.). Prometheus was of interest to Shelley for the rebellious streak running through the mythology of this Titan.

Prometheus is tied to a rock by Zeus as punishment for teaching humans fire. He represents rebellion against oppression. Prometheus is tempted to give way to Zeus:

Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame Of thine ill tyranny,’

Instead, he forgives him. Prometheus is freed by other gods, and here too as in other poems, freedom is prophesied for human society.

'To a Skylark' (1820)

‘To a Skylark’ is a cry for freedom or a cry about freedom – the song of the skylark rises up into the sky in a burst of energy, and the poet begs it to ‘teach me half the gladness, that thy brain must know’. Shelley is caught up in unhappiness about the world and his own predicament. For him, the skylark represents the ultimate in freedom in its soaring flight: ‘And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.’

Both Fogle and Cameron tend towards the revolutionary interpretation of Shelley’s Ode. Cameron especially refers to the spirit of the French Revolution which Shelley had alluded to in other poems. In this context, the poem seems to ask the west wind to help spread Shelley’s words of hope to humanity. To do this, Shelley uses the west wind and nature as an analogy for saying: that despite the passing of the revolution, with mankind experiencing a return to Winter, surely freedom, ‘Spring’ cannot be far behind?

Hint: Which do you think applies most to Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind? How would you interpret the poem? If you were writing a poem about liberty, what would you use as metaphors?

Ode to the West Wind (1820) - Key takeaways

  • Shelley wrote 'Ode to the West Wind' in 1819
  • 'Ode to a West Wind' can be read as both personal and socio-historical
  • His ‘Revolt of Islam’ and ’To A Skylark’ share themes of liberty and change with 'Ode to the West Wind'
  • The 'Ode to the West Wind' can be seen as offering hope for a new age of liberty and social order
  • The 'Ode to the West Wind' is a lyrical poem that is both personal and socio-historical
  • The 'Ode to the West Wind' is about new beginnings, in particular, a new world order

¹Kapstein, The Symbolism of the Wind and the Leaves in Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind", 1936

²Pixton, Shelley's Commands to the West Wind, 1972

³ Cameron, Shelley: The Golden Years, 1974

Ode to the West Wind

Change, rebirth and hope for a new social order and liberty.

Lyrical; it is both personal and sociohistorical.

New beginnings and change is central to ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

Shelley wrote Ode to the West Wind in 1819.

Final Ode to the West Wind Quiz

Question

Which of Shelley’s poems compare to 'Ode to the West Wind'?

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Answer

‘Revolt of Islam’, ‘Prometheus Unbound’,’ To A Skylark’.

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Question

What is the meaning of 'Ode to the West Wind'?


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Answer

'Ode to the West Wind' is a message of hope for new beginnings.

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Question

What kind of poem is 'Ode to the West Wind'?


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Answer

It is a lyrical poem.

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Question

What is the central idea of the poem 'Ode to the West Wind' by Percy Bysshe Shelley?'

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Answer

New beginnings, in particular, a new social order is central to ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

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Question

When did Shelley write 'Ode to the West Wind'?

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Answer

Shelley wrote 'Ode to the West Wind' in 1819.

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Question

Complete: Shelley had to make revisions to ‘...’ and change the name to ‘Revolt of Islam’ before it could be printed.

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Answer

Shelley had to make revisions to ‘The Revolution of the Golden City’ and change the name to ‘Revolt of Islam’ before it could be printed.

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Question

True or false? ‘The Ode to a West Wind’ can be read as both personal and sociohistorical.


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Answer

True.

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Question

True or false? Shelley wrote the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ while living in Spain. 

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Answer

False: Shelley wrote the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ while living in Italy.

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Question

True or false? ‘Prometheus Unbound’ (1820) is a stage drama in verse that Shelley completed a year before the ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

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Answer

False: ‘Prometheus Unbound’ (1820) is a stage drama in verse that Shelley completed in the same year as the Ode.

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Question

In 1818 the Shelleys travelled to Florence where Byron was currently living. 

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Answer

False: In 1818 the Shelleys travelled to Venice where Byron was currently living. 

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Choose: In late 1819 the Shelleys moved to 


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Answer

Pisa.

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Question

True or False? The ‘Ode to the West Wind’ was written before the Shelleys moved to Florence.

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Answer

False: The ‘Ode to the West Wind’ was written soon after the Shelleys moved to Florence.

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Question

Choose: Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' is as much about … as it is about loss and hope.

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Answer

resolution

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Complete: The ‘Ode to the …. Wind’ has been considered a very … poem.


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Answer

The ‘Ode to the West Wind’ has been considered a very personal poem.

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Question

True or False? According to Pixton, Shelley uses six imperatives which form the pattern of the poem.

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Answer

True.

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