Ode to the West Wind Summary and Analysis-Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ode To The West Wind Summary and Analysis-Percy Bysshe Shelley


Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822) came from an aristocratic family. Even as a child at Eton, he reacted by revolting against authority and withdrawing himself. He bred within himself a passionate desire to reform the world and improve a lot of mankind. His dual reactions of escape and rebellion shaped the essential spirit of his poetry. He and his friend, Hogg, were sent down from Cambridge for writing and circulating a pamphlet on "The Necessity for Atheism". Shelly's poetry is marked by himself that regeneration follows destruction; that change does not mean extinction and there is yet hope for the world if it will pay heed to those unacknowledged legislators of the world - the sensitive poets like himself.

Though he is known for his lyrics - 'Ode to the West Wind', 'To a Skylark' and 'The Cloud', he wrote 'The Mask of Anarchy', an indictment of Castlereagh's administration, 'Peter Bell the Third', a satire on Wordsworth. He also composed Prometheus Unbound, his great lyrical drama. His last long poem was The Triumph of Life.
Referring to his 'Ode to the West Wind', Percy Bysshe Shelley himself tells us that "this poem was chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild 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 the magnificent thunder an lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions"

The Ode is charged with speed, force and energy like the tempestuous wind itself. The powerful movement of the verse is carried on by use of a series of images thrown up in rapid succession. The movement is not just confined to the elemental forces of nature: it is also to be seen in the emotions roused in the poet's mind by his contemplation of the wind. The movement slows down in Stanza 3 and then gains rapidity in line with the poet's impetuous spirit, as he drives to the close.

Quotes from: Shelley Poetical Works edt. by Thomas Hutchinson

The Ode has five stanzas; each depicting one aspect of the autumn scene.

The Poem Ode to the West Wind - Percy Bysshe Selley


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 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 aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Meanad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the year, to which this closing night
Woll 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: oh, 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: oh, 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 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?

Ode to the West Wind Summary and Analysis of Five Stanzas

Stanza I
Stanza I depicts the wind in its dual aspect of destroyer and preserver. It opens with the customary invocation or address to the West Wind which blows in autumn. But here, autumn is not mellow and fruitful as in Keats' 'Ode to Autumn'. The poet calls the West Wind, the breath of Autumn; it is a wild spirit ("unseen presence") invisible like an enchanter; the leaves are dead leaves fallen from trees and are compared to ghosts that fly before the magical powers of an enchanter. The inversion of 'leaves dead' insists on fatality by posing 'dead' as a rhyme-word at the end of the line. Even though the wind is seen as a destroyer, the West Wind destroys to preserve. Shelley uses colours that suggest disease, decay and death such as 'yellow', 'black', 'pale' and 'hectic red'. Death and life, however, are simultaneously discussed. The seeds scattered by the West Wind are only seemingly dead till the warm Spring breeze blows thawing the ground so that the seeds can sprout through the softened earth and spring flowers quickly bloom everywhere. The 'corpse within its grave' is juxtaposed with the lyrically literary and azure sister of the spring, whose 'living hues' are an absolute contrast to the death-evoking colours of line 4. What provides unity to the 14 lines stanza is the invocation to that stimulating force 'moving everywhere', which can blast out the promise of new life from even the most apparently decayed context.

The imagery in line 11 demands the reader's own creative contribution. The flocks of sheep come out of their folds (like buds opening out), and 'feed-in-air', with warm weather summoning them higher and higher up the mountainside. 'The elemental force by which the dead leaves 'are driven' is the same force which, with the benign protectiveness of a shepherd, is later 'driving.... flocks to feed'. Thus imagery contributes to the dynamic emotiveness of a force which is moving everywhere.

Stanza II
The setting shifts from the land to the sky. The sky's clouds' are 'like Earth's decaying leaves'. They are 'shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean'. However, there may be more accurate geography behind this scene. Shelley's poems are far better informed about science than those of any other Romantic poet. So a term like 'uplifted' (line 20), though lodged in a classical context, may have a literal application: moisture is, of course, lifted by evaporation into the sky, where it forms the clouds of future rain-storms.

The force of West wind causing a commotion in the sky is depicted with the help of three images, First is the image of the sky filled with storm-clouds which the wind shakes as it shakes the trees inearth. The second image describes the sky as a Maenad whose hair shakes in the wind. The third image is connected to death and the tomb. What is dying is the old year, symbolically, the old forms; the sky, now completely overcast and black is the old year, symbolically, the old forms; the sky, now completely overcast and black is like the vault of a dark tomb, in which the year will be buried. The wind is both dirge of the dying year and a prophet of regeneration. The 'vast sepulchre' is not only the burial-ground of the past; it is also the pregnantly 'congregated might' of the future.

Stanza III

Presents a picture of the calm Mediterranean Sea dazzlingly blue and crystal clear, as it is in summer and early autumn. Old Italian villas, moss-grown palaces, ruined castles with gardens full of bright flowers line the shores, and the calm sea reflects all this beauty on its glassy surface. The concentration here on the wind-swept ocean perhaps leads to the poem's most fluidly suggestive gestures. The underwater city seems unstable and elusive. The illusion would be the product of the wind. Even if the city does seem to be there, it is less significant to the poem's more significant purpose of suggesting creative, swirling energy in the form of west wind.

Stanza IV
Stanza IV sounds like the beginning of some new work. The poet discusses himself. The first-person pronoun or adjective, varying through 'I', 'me', 'my' appears nine times within fourteen lines, The poet dramatises his own situation by carefully controlled use of the earlier stanzas. For instance, his longing to respond as 'leaf', 'cloud' and 'wave'. We have, here, implications of romantic melancholy. The poet is reminded of his former vigour, which is now lost, distracts him into talking more to himself and less to the forces of the future. The poet lifts himself out of his dejection and goes on to a triumphant close. He prays to the West Wind to lift him out of the bondage of ties, responsibilities and claims in a suffering society. The poet chafes against the human bounds of human existence that tie him down, weak and helpless, when his spirit, like that of the West wind, desires to accomplish the great task of the regeneration of humanity by destroying away all that is decayed and evil in life. A strong personal note is evident in this stanza. If the poem had ended on this note, it would not have been a great poem, because Art or literature that is escapist, that rejects life and cannot or does not face up to the problems of life, cannot be great.

Stanza V

The concluding lines are a magnificent expression of hope and exultation. "Tameless, swift and proud", as Shelly's spirit is like the spirit of the West Wing, he cannot despair. The imagery which in earlier stanzas confined to earth, air, and water, now aspires to the fourth element of fire. Certainly, first-person pronouns and adjectives are frequent here but they are more positively linked to the second person pronouns and adjectives of the larger forces to which the poem addresses itself. One can observe the juxtapositions of "me thy" in line 57 and "thou me" in line 62. Stanza 4 had articulated the self as essentially singular : 'a....leaf', 'a cloud', 'a wave', which led to painful doubt ('I fall...I bleed') and to a despair which allowed the once 'tameless and proud' mind to imagine itself as powerfully chained and bowed'. By contrast in stanza 5, the recovery of freedom and pride is sought through a redefinition of the self in plural terms ('my thoughts', 'my words') as one component in a mass movement. The Wild West Wind inspires Shelley to write poetry and this poetry, in turn, serves as an inspiring message to humanity. This message would fire human hearts kindling the desire for progress and a better world. Thus, the poem closes on a note of ardent hope.

Ode to the West Wind Analysis of Poetic Devices

The poem Ode to the West Wind is rich in poetic devices. Rich elemental imagery is its most striking feature. The imagery relates to earth, air, water and fire. The imagery is suggestive of swirling energy. The West Wind drives the leaves as 'ghosts' fleeing from an enchanter. As preserver the wind 'chariotest' the light seeds to the place where they would blossom forth. Yellow, black and pale are hues associated with death or dying. Thus opposing moods and different conventions in language are colliding with each other as single vocative that invokes the stimulating force 'moving everywhere' which can blast out the promise of life from even the most deadly context. The elusive imagery of line 11 is also suggestive of motion. Similarly, the image of the sky filled with storm clouds and the ocean with high waves, the image of the sky as a Maenad whose hair streams in the wind and sky as a tomb is highly suggestive. The poem is rich in metaphors such as pestilence-stricken multitude, azure sister, wild spirit, night dome of a vast sepulchre, oozy woods, sapless foliage, etc.

The poem is also rich in similes such as; "leaves dead are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing". The winged seeds are like "a corpse within its grave" "Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed". "Angels of rain and lightning" are "like the bright hair uplifted from the head of some fierce  Maenad".

The whole poem is based on personification. Wind is presented in its dual aspects of Destroyer and Preserver. The poet calls the West Wind  "unseen presence, an enchanterer". Shelley personifies the leaves that are 'pestilence-stricken multitudes yellow, black and pale'. The Spring is seen blowing her clarion over the dreaming earth. The sky looks fierce like a Maenad whose hair streams in the wind. In the third stanza, the blue Mediterranean is like a person sleeping peacefully dreaming sweet dreams.

Alliteration in the opening phrase makes the wind invigorating. Inversions such as 'leaves dead' insist on fatality by posting dead as a rhyming word. Qualifying adjectives, 'living hues', 'clarion call', 'winged seeds', 'wild spirit', 'oozy woods' are vocative, suggestive of that stimulating 'force', 'moving everywhere'. In line 29-42 the wind swept oceans lead to the same suggestive gestures. The subject of saw in line 33 could be the Mediterranean, this could also be the West Wind itself. However, what is important is the creative energy of the elemental forces.

The opening phrase of stanza 4 focuses not on the object of the poet's address but on the subjective speaker 'If I...

The first person pronoun or adjective varying through 'I', 'one', 'my' help the poet to dramatise his own situation. In stanza 4 the pronouns and adjectives are linked to the second person pronouns and adjectives. Consider the juxtapositions of 'me thy' in line 57 and 'thou me' in line 62. A way is found of dedicating such terminology to more communal values. The recovery of freedom and pride is sought through a redefinition of the self in plural terms ('my......thoughts', 'my words'). The use of future tense 'will' reminds us that the ode is indeed a 'prophecy'.

Reference: Understanding Poetry, Indira Gandhi National Open University School of Humanities.
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