Ode to the West Wind summary
Introduction. The poem was written in the autumn of 1819 in the beautiful Cascine Gardens outside Florence, and was published with Prometheus Unbound in 1920. 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 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”.
The Wind Blows on the Land, Leaves and Seeds. The West Wind is the breath of Autumn. Dead Leaves, blue, 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 colours and fragrance. The West Wind destroys dead leaves and preserves (saves) useful seeds. (Stanza i)
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 last night is like the dome (curved roof) of the grave of the dying year. The members of the funeral procession are vapour, 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 cloud flying with the wind or feeling the power of the wind. Or he wishes he were a boy again, when he thought that he could heat the wind in 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. ( Stanza 4)
From Personal to Universal. The Wind blows through the jungle and produces music out to 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. After bad days come good days. (Stanza 5)
Critical Appreciation and Interpretation
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:
At this hour of distress the poet can look upon the Wind as a competent saviour, 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 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. Cluffon-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 wrought 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 all when grappling with tin’ 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 colours—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 perfection. 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 other wise a nearly faultless poem.”