By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Ode to the West Wind’ is one of the best-known and best-loved poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). It is a quintessential Romantic poem. But what does it mean? Its closing words are well-known and often quoted, but how does the rest of the poem build towards them?
The best way to go about offering an analysis of ‘Ode to the West Wind’ is to go through the poem and provide a part-by-part summary, pointing out some of the most important features of Shelley’s poem. So, here goes…
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,
Shelley begins ‘Ode to the West Wind’ by addressing this wind which blows away the falling autumn leaves as they drop from the trees. The leaves are various colours, including yellow, black, and red. It’s as if the leaves have been infected with a pestilence or plague, that makes them drop en masse.
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:
Shelley continues by describing how the west wind transports (like a charioteer driving somebody) the seeds from the flowers, taking them to their ‘wintry bed’.
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!
Shelley concludes this opening section by calling the west wind a ‘Wild Spirit’ (recalling, perhaps, that the word spirit is derived from the Latin meaning ‘breath’, suggesting the wind) and branding it both a ‘destroyer’ and a ‘preserver’: a destroyer because it helps to bring the leaves down from the trees, but a preserver because it helps to disseminate the seeds from the plants and trees, ensuring they are find their way to the ground so they will grow in the spring.
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:
Shelley continues to address the west wind in this second section, saying that the wind bears the clouds along, much as it moves the ‘decaying leaves’ from the trees; as if to spell out this link, Shelley speaks of the ‘tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean’, suggesting that the skies and the seas have ‘boughs’ like a tree. It’s as if all of nature is borne along by the west wind.
there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aëry 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.
Now Shelley talks about the clouds borne by the west wind as being like locks of har on the head of ‘some fierce Maenad’: the Maenads were a group of women who followed the god Dionysus in classical myth. They are sometimes known as the Bacchae (as in a famous play by Euripides), after Bacchus, the Latin name for the Greek Dionysus.
The Maenads’ name literally translates as ‘raving ones’ because they would drink and dance in a frenzy. The simile draws attention to the raging, wild nature of the west wind, which heralds the approach of the wild storm.
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: oh hear!
Shelley concludes this second section by likening the sound of the west wind to a funeral song or ‘dirge’, mourning the death of the year (as it’s autumn and the leaves are falling). The night sky will be like the dome of a large burial ground or sepulchre, with all of the vapours from the clouds forming the vaulting (ceiling). Shelley considers the powerful rain, hail, and fire (lightning) that will ‘burst’ from these vapours when the storm erupts.
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!
Shelley says that the west wind wakened the Mediterranean sea from its summery slumbers. A dreamy evocation of the Mediterranean, including an isle of pumice rock in ‘Baiae’s bay’ (Baiae was an ancient Roman town on the northwest shore of the Gulf of Naples), and ‘old palaces and towers’ overgrown with blue moss and sweet flowers.
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!
Once again, Shelley brings the attention back to the sound of the west wind as it heralds the coming of the storm. The power of the west wind is also suggested through the idea that the Atlantic ocean, possessed of ‘level powers’, creates ‘chasms’ and gaps for the wind to echo within.
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!
Shelley begins the fourth section of his ode to the west wind by thinking about how wonderful it would be to be free among nature, and to be borne along by the sheer power and motion of the west wind, much like one of those leaves, or clouds, or ocean waves. Shelley would be completely free; the only thing that would be freer is the ‘uncontrollable’ west wind itself.
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;
As is common in Romanticism, Shelley thinks back to his childhood, when the world seemed full of freedom and boundless possibility, and it almost seemed possible that Shelley could outrun the wild west wind itself.
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.
This is where things get a little harder to pick apart and analyse. What does Shelley mean by ‘I would ne’er have striven / As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need’? Shelley is saying that if he could recapture that boyhood freedom, he would never have to pray to the west wind in times of need. He would be free already.
As things stand, he can only pray to the west wind to lift him as it does a wave, a leaf, and a cloud. He is not flying up: he is falling, and falling ‘upon the thorns of life’. In other words, he is suffering, in pain, tormented. Shelley is, of course, using the idea of falling on the thorns of life as a metaphor for his emotional and psychological torment.
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!
Shelley entreats the west wind to play him, as a man would play a lyre (a string instrument not dissimilar to a harp, and the origin, incidentally, of the word lyric to describe lyric poetry and song lyrics: there’s something slightly ‘meta’ about a nature poet asking nature to play him like an instrument).
Shelley points out that the forest is already being played like a lyre, since the west wind makes a pleasing musical sound as it moves through the trees. Shelley likens himself to the forest in that his ‘leaves are falling’: he is withering away, but also growing older (mind you, he was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote ‘Ode to the West Wind’!).
We then get a delicious oxymoron, when Shelley refers to the ‘tumult of [the wind’s] harmonies’. ‘Harmonious tumult’ is somewhat paradoxical, but not for Shelley, who welcomes the way the wind wildly shakes everything up. There’s a political subtext here: Shelley was calling for revolution in 1819, as his poem ‘England in 1819’ suggested.
Both Shelley and the forest will sing sweetly, though ‘in sadness’ (the forest because it’s losing its leaves, and Shelley because he is losing hope). Shelley calls upon the west wind to be his ‘Spirit’, to make them both as one: wild, impetuous, undaunted.
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?
Shelley concludes ‘Ode to the West Wind’ by entreating the wind to scatter the poet’s ‘dead thoughts’ (ideas he’s abandoned) across the universe. Much as scattering of the withered dead leaves allows the seeds of next year’s trees to take root and grow, so Shelley believes it is only by having his old ideas blown away that he can dream of new ones, and with it, a new world, ‘a new birth’.
Shelley sees his poem as a religious incantation or chant, which will magically make the wind scatter his thoughts like leaves – or, indeed, like ashes and sparks in a fireplace. The ashes may be dead and burnt, but by moving they often burst into new life, and new sparks emerge from the ashes. (One wonders whether Gerard Manley Hopkins was recalling ‘Ode to the West Wind’ when he wrote the closing lines of his poem ‘The Windhover’.)
In the closing lines of the poem, Shelley tells the wind to be like a trumpet announcing a prophecy, blowing through the poet’s lips to make a sound and alert the sleeping world to Shelley’s message of reform.
In the famous closing words of the poem, ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’, Shelley returns to the earlier imagery of the poem involving the west wind scattering the dead leaves to pave the way for the new trees next spring; the poem ends on a resounding note of hope for what the future could bring – for Shelley, nature, and for the political world.
‘Ode to the West Wind’ was written in 1819 during a turbulent time in English history: the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819, which Shelley also wrote about in his poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, deeply affected the poet.
But the poem is personal as well as political: the west wind is the wind that would carry Shelley back from Florence (where he was living at the time) to England, where he wanted to help fight for reform and revolution.
Personal and political are thus closely linked in ‘Ode to the West Wind’, which constantly draws attention to the aural potential of the wind: it cannot be seen (though its effects certainly can), but it can be heard, much as the poet’s words could be word, announcing and calling for political reform.