Ode to The West Wind: by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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Ode to the West Wind 

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, O 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 airy surge,
 Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
 
Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge
 Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

 Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
 Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O 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 Baiæ'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!

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.
O! 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 is the greatest of Shelley's lyrics. Stopford Brooke says about the poem "In it, as in the Prometheus, and still more splendidly all his powers and poetic subjects are wrought into a whole. The emotion awakened by the approaching storm sets on fire other sleeping emotions in his heart, and the whole of his being bursts into flame around the first emotion."
Ode to the West Wind

Summary & Analysis

Introduction

      Ode to The West Wind was written in the autumn of 1819, in the beautiful Cascine Gardens outside Florence, and was published with Prometheus Unbound in 1820. Shelley's own note on the composition of the poem is important and must be quoted: "This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once wild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began, as I foresaw, at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions." Ode to the West Wind is universally accepted as one of the best poems in English literature. The poem is remarkable for its theme, range of thought, spontaneity, poetic beauty, lyrical quality, and quick movement similar to that of the wind itself. This Poem, along with the The Cloud and The Skylark, mark an abiding monument to Shelley's passion for the sky. Shelley himself writes: "I take great delight in watching the change in the atmosphere."

Summary

      The Wind Blows on the Land, Leaves and Seed: The West Wind is the breath of Autumn. Dead leaves, black, yellow and red in colour, fly before the wind, as the ghosts fly before a magician. The West Wind scatters the flying seeds. The seeds lie under the ground and when Spring comes, they grow into flowers of different colors and fragrances. The West Wind destroys dead leaves and preserves (saves) useful seeds. (Stanza 1)

      The Wind Blows Clouds in the Sky; and Sings a Dirge of the Dying Year: The West Wind scatters the clouds in the sky. The clouds seem like leaves of the intertwined branches of the trees of Heaven and Ocean. The stormy sea and the sky seem to be meeting. The clouds flying with the storm look like the hair of fairies flying in the wind. These clouds are the signals of the coming storm and rain. The sound of the Wind is like the funeral song of the year. The year is dying (about to finish). The night is like the dome (curved roof) of the grave of the dying year. The members of the funeral procession are vapor, hail, rain and lightning. (Stanza 2)

      The Power of the Wind on Water: Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean: The calm Mediterranean was sleeping. The music of the glassy waves lulled the ocean to sleep. It was dreaming of towers and palaces reflected in its water. The West Wind creates furrows on the smooth waters of the Atlantic Ocean. At the bottom of the Atlantic grow plants and vegetation. These plants are dry, without sap though they live in water. When the West Wind blows in autumn, the plants on the land wither; the plants at the bottom of the ocean also fade and die. (Stanza 3)

      Personal Reaction: The poet wishes, he were a dead leaf or a cloud flying with the wind or a wave feeling the power of the wind. Or he wishes, he were a boy again, when he thought that he could beat the wind by running races. But these are not likely to happen. So he appeals to the storm to lift him:

Oh, lift me, a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

      He is like the Wind; tameless and swift and proud. The poet's sense of oppression and constraint is related to the wind's freedom and strength. He would like to be a dead leaf, a cloud, and a wave to be swept along by the wind's power. (Stanza 4)

      From Personal to Universal: The Wind blows through the jungle and produces music out of the dead leaves. Shelley requests it to create music out of his heart and to inspire him to write great poetry, which may create a revolution in the hearts of men. He wants the Wind to scatter his revolutionary message in the world, just as it scatters ashes and sparks from a burning fire. His thoughts may not be as fiery as they once were, but they still have the power to inspire men. He tells the Wind to take the message to the sleeping world, that if winter comes, spring cannot be far behind. In optimistic note he declares that bad days are followed by good days. (Stanza 5)

Critical Analysis

      The poem is an inspired lyric: Here we find a harmony that swells like the surge of the mighty west wind. There is a rapid succession of images that leaves dead are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing", the wind is the dirge of the dying year, the breath of Autumn's being. These images testify of Shelley's love of the world of the abstract and the intangible. Such expressions as Make me thy lyre even as the forest is" or "Be thou spirit fierce, my spirit" are charged with emotional fervor. With the instinctive truths of a fervid imagination, he creates myths and relations so fitting that he is said to have imported "Hellenic thought in English". His myth-making power is evident when he personifies the west wind as destroyer and preserver, and describes how the blue Mediterranean is lulled by the coil of its crystalline streams. In fact, emotion, expression, and harmony blend marvelously into a thing of beauty in this poem.

      The architectural design of the poem makes it one of the finest lyrics of English literature. The poem is divided into five stanzas of regular pattern with an overture, refrain, and climax. The first three stanzas describe the impact of the west wind on earth, sky, and the sea. In the fourth stanza, the poet turns from the external world to his inner self. The poet prays for complete absorption into the west wind. The last stanza ends on a note of hope and triumph.

      Symbolism: Most of Shelley's poetry is symbolic. Shelley makes use of symbolism by means of his normal use of images including the personified forces of life and nature. He looks upon the West Wind as a personified force of nature and finds in it various symbolic meanings to suit the purpose of the poem. The West Wind drives the last signs of life from the trees, and also scatters the seeds which will come to life in spring. In this way the Wind appears to the poet as a destroyer of the old order and a preserver of the new, i.e., a symbol of change. The Wind also symbolizes Shelley's own personality. When he was a boy he was one like the Wind: "tameless, and swift, and proud". He still possesses these qualities but they lie suppressed under "a heavy weight of hours". The affinity of temper between them prompts the poet to appeal to the Wind to save him from his present plight:

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed.

      At this hour of distress the poet can look upon the Wind as a competent savior, a symbol of aid and relief. Finally, the West Wind is treated by the poet as representing the forces that can help bring about the golden millennium, when the miseries and agonies of mankind will be replaced by all round happiness.

      Shelley as a Prophet and a Reformer: Idealism is a part and parcel of Shelley’s temperament. He is a rebel, like Byron, against the age-old customs, traditions, conventions and institutions, sanctioned only by practice and not by reason. But, unlike Byron, he is not only a rebel but also a reformer. He wants to reconstitute society in keeping with his ideals of good, truth and beauty. According to Compton-Rickett, "To renovate the world, to bring about utopia, is his constant aim, and for this reason we may regard Shelley as emphatically the poet of eager, sensitive youth; not the animal youth of Byron, but the spiritual youth of the visionary and reformer." The essential spirit of the West Wind represents this spirit of reformation in Shelley. As the West Wind scatters and destroys the dead leaves, the poet wants to expel useless customs and conventions; as the Wind helps the growth of new flowers in spring: the poet too wishes to bring about a new order beneficial to mankind. He wants the Wind to be his guiding spirit and to help in the propagation of his thoughts through the universe:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth.

      Shelley is pessimistic about the present, but optimistic about the future. He believes that regeneration always follows destruction and that a new and utopian order is certain to come when the present degenerate system is ended. His optimism about the imminent dawn of a golden age is genuine and firm and his prophecy of that millennium underlies most of his poems. In Ode to the West Wind also this prophetic note is present, and present with the greatest intensity of expression:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind!

      Myth-making: Shelley holds a unique place in English literature by virtue of his power of making myths out of the objects and forces of Nature. Clutton-Brock has discussed in detail Shelley's myth-making power as revealed in the Ode to the West Wind: "It has been said that Shelley was a myth-maker. His myths were not to him mere caprices of fancy. They expressed by the only means which human language provides for the expression of such things, that sense which he possessed, of a more intense reality in nature than is felt by other men. To most of us, the forces of nature have little meaning. But for Shelley, these forces had as much reality as human beings have for most of us, and he found the same kind of intense significance in their manifestations of beauty that we find in the beauty of human beings or of great works of art. The nature of this significance, he could not explain; but he could express it with enormous power in his art, and with a precision of statement which seems miraculous when the nature of the subject matter is considered. There is this difference between Shelley and primitive myth-makers—that they seem to have thought of the forces of nature as disguised beings more powerful than themselves but still in all essentials human, or else as manifestations of the power of such beings. But to Shelley, the West Wind was still a wind, and the cloud a cloud, however intense a reality they might have for him. In his poetry they keep their own character and do not take on human attributes, though their own qualities may be expressed in imagery taken from human being...we are not brought upon to feel anything human in the wind's power; but if we are susceptible to Shelley's magic, we are filled with a new sense of the life and significance and reality of nature".

      Personal Note: Poetry is the expression of the poet's mind. This is absolutely true of Shelley's poetry. A study of Shelley's poetry is the easiest and shortest way to his mind and personality. The fourth Stanza of Ode to the West Wind is entirely personal and autobiographical. An analogy with the West Wind helps the poet describe his own ' spirit: "tameless, and swift, and proud". The poet narrates the change, he has undergone in the course of his life. He was full of energy, enthusiasm and speed in his boyhood. But the agonies and bitterness of life—"A heavy weight of hours"—has repressed his qualities and has put him in an unbearable state. The expression of his sufferings—"I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" is intensely genuine, heart-rending, and possibly the most spontaneous of Shelley's emotional outbursts through his poems.

      Technical Excellence: Technically, this poem is one of the most perfect of Shelley's lyrics. It is nearer to music than to painting, and yet it gives us a more vivid sense of experience than we could get from any pictorial description. The meter, which is Terza rima divided into short periods, is managed with complete mastery. Shelley has made the heroic lines move swiftly so as to give the impression of the irresistible and fast movement of the wind. Desmond King-Hele remarks: "The verse technique and structure of the Ode to the West Wind could scarcely be improved: it is the most fully orchestrated of Shelley's poems, and consequently the most difficult to read aloud. The ever-fluctuating tempo and the artfully random pauses in the long lines reflect the lawless surging of the wind and its uneasy silences. This device is not overworked: the wonder is that Shelley could use it at all when grappling with the problems of the terza rima and operating within a rigid structural framework. In conformity with this framework, which seems to be in the Style of Calderon, the first three Stanzas are designed to show the wind's power in three spheres of Nature, in preparation for the prayer to the Wind, as pseudo-god, in Stanzas 4 and 5. The keynote of the first three Stanzas is balanced. Their settings, land, sky and sea, give equal emphasis to the three states of matter, solid, gaseous and liquid. Each of the four seasons has its appointed place, and there is a full range of colors—red, yellow, blue, grey and black explicitly, white and green implicitly. Turmoil is balanced against calm, life against death, detail against generalization, cold against warmth, plain against hill, and so on. The varied evidence of Stanzas 1-3 is assembled in support of the narrow, one-track theme in the last two Stanzas: the plan is sound, but in points of detail it falls short of per section. For Shelley harps on his prayer rather too long. His defeatism becomes a trifle depressing, unless when reading the poem we happen to be in the same mood as he was...the note of self-pity is overplayed in the last two Stanzas; and this must be counted a blemish in what is otherwise a nearly faultless poem."

Explanation With Critical Comments Line By Line

      LI. 1-14. O wild.....Oh, hear. The poet invokes the wild West Wind, the lifeblood of the autumn. It rushes through the woods bearing with it the dried leaves of various colors—yellow, black, blue and red. It scatters the leaves just as if they were ghosts made to run about by a magician. The West Wind conveys in its sweep various seeds which it scatters here and there. These seeds lie buried in the cold and subterranean regions of earth till the approach of the spring season when they germinate. The vernal zephyr blowing under a clear blue sky opens out buds to take their nourishment from the air, just as a shepherd brings out his flock to feed them on the pasture in the open air. By causing plants to sprout and flowers to bloom, it fills the plains and the hills with bright variegated colours and sweet fragrance. (Shelley compares the spring wind in its function to the Angel of Resurrection who will come down from heaven with a trumpet on the Day of Judgement to rouse the buried dead from their graves). Again, the West Wind is called the destroyer as well as the preserver because while it destroys tlie leaves, it preserves seeds to germinate later.

      LI. 18-23. There are spread on the.....approaching storm. Shelley is describing the approach of the terrible West Wind in the regions of the sky. Shelley's emotional ecstasy fires his brain to that kind of superb conception which made the ancient Greeks fill the earth, the air and the water with gods and goddesses who were but personifications of the forces of nature.

      The clouds form on the horizon, gather up in the sky and then darken the space. The sky is at first blue, but it assumes a dark appearance on the approach of the vaporous clouds. From the distant and dim horizon to the highest point in the sky, the whole visible space is filled by the movements of the air. The clouds are up and spread themselves. The scattered and disorderly clouds look like the locks of the mighty West Wind personified, as seen approaching through the sky; these locks resemble the disheveled and erect hair on the heads of intoxicated and frenzied female worshippers of the wine-god who used to dance madly about.

      LI. 23-28. Thou dirge of the dying year.....oh, hear. In autumn when the West Wind blows, the year is nearing its close. Nature seems to lament over the dying year in the wailing sound of the West Wind. The year will soon die and the tomb over its burial is being constructed; the expiring night will complete the cupola on that tomb, its vault being formed by all the vapor condensed by the West Wind into thick storm clouds out of which rain and thunder and hail will burst forth. Shelley asks this powerful West Wind to hear his appeal.

      LI. 29-42. Thou who didst.....O, hear. Shelley invokes the mighty West Wind to come to his help, listen to the prayer of his impetuous soul and lend him its awful irresistible rush and vigor. In this Stanza, he describes the wind as it manifests itself on the sea agitating, disturbing, threatening it by its wild commotion.

      Shelley imagines the presiding deity of the Mediterranean Sea indulging peacefully in happy summer dreams, as he lies lulled by the murmuring flow of the sea current, deep within the water by the side of some isle formed by lava deposits on the western coast of Italy. As the god thus lies at his ease, he entertains his eyes by the sight of the submerged buildings near the coast which glitter and sparkle in the bright light that shines below the waves. These submerged buildings are all covered with soft green moss and adorned with sweet-smelling flowers as are not seen in the world above. As he is resting thus, he suddenly hears the tremendous rush of the mighty West Wind, and his spell is broken; he is seized with fear. Next, Shelley describes the agitated surface of the Atlantic Ocean as the wind sweeps over it. The level surface of the ocean cuts a thousand deep passages on itself for the march of the terrific wind; while the rush and tumult on the surface reach the vegetable world at the bottom of the ocean, the leaves, the flowers, the sapless forests there tremble with fear and are shaken loose pell-mell at the awful roar of the mighty wind.

      LI. 53-56. Oh, lift me.....tameless, and swift, and proud. These lines are very touching and highly characteristic of Shelley. Shelley was a rebel and a revolutionary. He had a restless temperament which was ever at war with something. In the West Wind, Shelley finds a kindred spirit. Looking at it, he is reminded of his youth when he too was free and uncontrollable. At that time, he did not think it an impossibility to vie with the West Wind in its speed. But the worries and mysteries of this life have proved too much for him and have made him tame and weak. He had lost his old vigor and force, and he appeals to the West Wind to lend him some strength and lift his dejected spirit as it lifts a cloud, a wave, or a leaf. He was very much oppressed by the hardships of the world and he wants somebody to support him through his struggle for existence in this world. He was indeed tameless and wild like the West Wind at one time, but now he is bowed down by the worries and cares, and he calls for help.

      LI. 61-70. Be thou, Spirit.....behind? Shelley asks the West Wind to lend its impetuosity to his spirit; with the spirit of fiery vehemence lent to him by the uncontrollable wind, he wants to proclaim to the unappreciated world the prophecy of a regeneration.

      The poet asks the West Wind to identify itself with the spirit that is in him' to take his own place and do the poet's work with its characteristic impetuosity. As the Wind drives the dead leaves, which by burying the seeds and providing nourishment help the growth of a new life in spring, so also let it scatter the thoughts in the mind of the poet that have borne no fruit till now. Let these thoughts which may lack fire, but can still inspire, be scattered in the society so that from them may come forth those bright new impulses that will serve in the regeneration of humanity. Let the Wind scatter from the fiery heart of the poet his burning thoughts to catch the hearts of men and inspire them with a zeal for progress and regeneration, as the Wind scatters sparks of ashes and fire from which a general conflagration takes place. Let the Wind speak through the mouth of the poet to the human society which has so long defied him and has wallowed in the mire of degradation. Nature springs into new life after winter's torpor; so also an ideal regeneration of mankind, in which it will have its birthright of liberty and equality restored to it, is not far off, if only the present society is swept off its existence (Shelley is here the prophet of a millennium. He would destroy like the West Wind, only to re-build).

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