Shelley's "Ode To the West Wind": Analysis In "Ode to the West Wind," Percy Bysshe Shelley tries to gain transcendence, for he shows that his thoughts, like the "winged seeds" (7) are The West Wind acts as a driving force for change and rejuvenation in
the human and natural world. Shelley views winter not just as last phase of
vegetation but as the last phase of life in the individual, the imagination,
civilization and religion. Being set in Autumn, Shelley observes the changing
of the weather and its effects on the internal and external environment. By
examining this poem, the reader will see that Shelley can only reach his
sublime by having the wind carry his "dead thoughts" (63) which through an
apocalyptic destruction, will lead to a rejuvenation of the imagination, the
individual and the natural world.
Shelley begins his poem by addressing the "Wild West Wind" (1). He
quickly introduces the theme of death and compares the dead leaves to "ghosts"
(3). The imagery of "Pestilence-stricken multitudes" makes the reader aware
that Shelley is addressing more than a pile of leaves. His claustrophobic mood
becomes evident when he talks of the "wintry bed" (6) and "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" (7-9). In the first line, Shelley use
the phrase "winged seeds" which presents images of flying and freedom. The
only problem is that they lay "cold and low" or unnourished or not elevated.
He likens this with a feeling of being trapped. The important word is "seeds"
for it shows that even in death, new life will grow out of the "grave." The
phrase "winged seeds" also brings images of religions, angels, and/or souls
that continue to create new life. Heavenly images are confirmed by his use of
the word "azure" which besides meaning sky blue, also is defined, in Webster's
Dictionary, as an "unclouded vault of heaven." The word "azure," coupled with
the word "Spring," helps show Shelley's view of rejuvenation. The word
"Spring" besides being a literary metaphor for rebirth also means to rise up. In
line 9, Shelley uses soft sounding phrases to communicate the blowing of the
wind. This tercet acts as an introduction and a foreshadow of what is to come
Shelley goes on to talk of the wind as a "Destroyer and Preserver" which
brings to mind religious overtones of different cultures such as Hinduism and
Native Indian beliefs. The poem now sees a shift of the clouds which warns of
an upcoming storm. This helps Shelley begin to work towards a final climax.
He then writes of the mourning song "Of the dying year, to which this closing
night/ Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre/ Vaulted with all they congregated
might" (23-25). Again, the reader feels somewhat claustrophobic. The "closing
night" feels as if it is surrounding the author as he writes and the reader as
he or she reads. The "closing night" is used also to mean the final night.
Shelley shows how he cannot have a transcendence even in an open sky for even
the sky is a "dome." The "sepulchre" is a tomb made out of rock and his
imagination and the natural world will be locked and "Vaulted" tight. But in
following lines Shelley writes how this "sepulchre" will "burst" (28). In that
sense, "Vaulted" takes on the meaning of a great leap and even a spring.
Shelley uses the phrase "congregated might" not just to mean a collaborative
effort, but to represent all types of religion. Shelley seems to use obtuse
phrasing to frighten the reader and to show the long breath of the wind.
Shelley wants the reader to visualize the "dome" as having a presence like a
volcano. And when the "dome" does "burst," it will act as a "Destroyer and
Preserver" and creator. The use of the words "Black rain and fire and hail..."
(28) also helps the reader prepare for the apocalyptic climax which Shelley
As the rising action continues, Shelley talks of the "Mediterranean"
(31) and its "summer dreams" (30). In the dream, the reader finds the sea
laying "Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay/ And saw in sleep old palaces and
towers/ Quivering within the wave's intenser day" (32-34). Shelley implants
the idea of a volcano with the word "pumice." The "old palaces and towers" stir
vivid images of ancient Rome and Greece in the readers mind. Shelley also uses
these images in the sea's dream to show that the natural world and the human
social and political world are parallel. Again, he uses soft sounding words,
but this time it is used to lull the reader into the same dream-like state of
the Mediterranean. The "pumice" shows destruction and creation for when the
volcano erupts it destroys. But it also creates more new land. The "pumice" is
probably Shelley's best example of rebirth and rejuvenation. The word
"Quivering" is not just used to describe the reflection of images in the water.
It is also used to show a sense of fear which seems to be the most common mood
and emotion in this poem. Is Shelley perhaps making a comment that at the root
of people's faith is fear of vengeful god? Maybe, but the main focus of this
poem is not just religion, but what religion stands for which is death and
rebirth. Could line 34, also be a comment on Shelley himself?
In the final stanzas, Shelley has the wind transforming from the natural
world toward human suffering. Shelley pleads with the wind: "Oh! lift me as a
wave, a leaf, a cloud!" (54). He seeks transcendence from the wind and says:
"I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed" (55). Shelley shows Christ not as a
religion, but as a hero of sacrifice and suffering, like the poet himself. He
again pleads for the wind: "Drive my dead thought over the universe...to
quicken a new birth!" (63-64). He asks the wind to "Scatter, as from an
unextinguished hearth/ Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!/ Be through
my lips to unawakened Earth" (66-68). The words "unextinguished hearth"
represent the poets undying passion. The "hearth" is also at the centre of the
earth which helps make the connection between humanity and nature. Both are
constantly trying to reinvent themselves. When one scatters "ashes" it's at
one's death and that person becomes one with the earth. When one scatters
"sparks" it is these sparks that create new fires of creation and destruction.
These new "sparks" arise when the "dome" explodes and abandons old ways. Can
one ever escape the roots of creation? Shelley has many Blakean overtones of
creation and destruction in the final tercet of this poem. Shelley's says that
his lips are the "trumpet of prophecy" (69). And many say that Wordsworth is
egotistical? Again, he uses biblical sounding words to add drama and importance
to his prophetic vision. And it definitely helps achieve Shelley's intended
climax when he asks with hope: "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
(70).This sentence could be rewritten substituting the word death, for the word
"Winter," and the word rebirth, could take the place of "spring."
Shelley, like all of the Romantic poets, constantly tries to achieve a
transcendence to sublime. In "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley uses the wind as
a power of change that flow through history, civilization, religions and human
life itself. Does the wind help Shelley achieve his transcendence? It seems
it has in some sense, but Shelley never achieves his full sublime. In poems
such as "Stanzas written in Dejection Near Naples" Shelley uses images of
"lightning" (15) and "flashing" (16) which help demonstrate that he can only
attain a partial sublime unlike a poet like William Wordsworth. Perhaps that's
why he tries to give rebirth to his individual imagination. One can never
restart totally new. Even the trees that will grow from "the winged seeds" are
not totally new, but that is the point Shelley is trying to make. He feels
himself to be part of a continuing cycle. Since Shelley is an atheist the only
way his soul can live on is through the "incantation" of his words. So, if his
transcendence is to live on in eternity and create inspiration and change in
others like the West Wind, then he has achieved something greater than he could
have imagined. But whether he grasped a complete transcendence for himself
while he was alive remains to be answered. It seems that it is only in his
death that the "Wild Spirit" (13) could be lifted "as a wave, a leaf, a cloud"
to blow free in the "Wild West Wind" (1).
"When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline" - P. B. Shelley
Shelley deals with the theme of inspiration in much of his work. However it is particularly apparent in 'Ode to the West Wind' where the wind is the source of his creativity. The cycles of death and rebirth are examined in an historical context with reference to The Bible. The word inspiration has several connotations that Shelley uses in this 'Ode'. Inspiration is literally 'taking in breath' and wind, breath, soul and inspiration are all identical or related in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. They are all closely related in 'Ode to a West Wind'.
Shelley's adaptation of Dante's work is evident throughout most of his writing. In 'Ode to the West Wind' it is quite apparent. He was writing this poem in a wood on the outskirts of Arno, near Florence, which is Dante's hometown. The use of the terza rima poem is Shelley's most obvious adaptation of Dante and he relies upon Dantesque ideas to write his poetry. The image of the leaves being blown by the wind "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing"(l.3) depends on the Inferno in Paradiso for the image to have an effect on the reader.
The various cycles of death and rebirth are examined with reference to the Maenads who were fabled to have destroyed Orpheus's body and spread it around the world. This is the underlying theme to the poem with Shelley alluding to the breaking of Christ's body on the cross and how that was essential for humanity to reach salvation. The onslaught of Autumn is the 'Destroyer' in one sense but also the 'Preserver' as it forms an intricate part of the cycle of life and death. Without the death of Jesus Christ the world would not have been saved and so for life to exist so too must death.
Referred to as an "unseen presence"(l.2) the wind is naked to the human eye. However the physical manifestation of the wind can be felt and it's effect on nature cannot be ignored. The personification of the wind - "thou breath of Autumn's being"(l.1) - supports its spirituality. This is further illustrated when Shelley explicitly calls the West Wind "Spirit" and a "wild Spirit". Coupled with the elusiveness of the wind to the human eye the effect is that the wind is an "uncontrollable" power that cannot be contained. In the fifth stanza Shelley refers to "the incantation of this verse"(l.65) - this is of pagan origins and he is invoking the wind to work through him. As a magician the wind works it's magic throughout nature and it knows no bounds as the earth, water and air all feel it's power. The imagery associated with this suggests that Shelley expected his work to also spread over the universe, like the wind, and inspire others just as the wind was an inspiration to him. The "dead thoughts" he refers to could be the words he has written down that die as soon as they are recorded. Although not the source of his inspiration others could read them and experience what he felt in that wood that skirts the Arno. In the tradition of the sublime this description acts as a denial of sense perception and it is associated with an object of pure thought - an unknown power that animates all life. The wind is, therefore, seen as a spirit because of its lack of being. This spirit can only be known by it's effects and we see those in the first stanza as "the leaves dead / Are driven … to their wintry bed"(ll. 2,3,6). The wind's role is to spread the dead leaves and this enables the seeds to spread and begin life anew. In this double role of "Destroyer and preserver"(l.14) the force and effect of the wind is experienced. As a creative force the wind inspires Shelley to write this Ode and the breath of the Autumn wind is also the breath that gives voice to words in the poem. The wind is the perfect element for Shelley to examine as it inspires life in nature and also expression through speech.
There is a consistent simile used throughout this poem and it is that of the leaves that are being controlled by the wind. In the first stanza it is the leaves of the trees that 'are driven' by the wind. This is followed by the same simile in the second and third stanzas when the effect of the wind is seen in the clouds, as they are shed "like Earth's decaying leaves" (l.16). This spirit then infiltrated the depths of the ocean and the underwater forest is despoiled. The "oozy woods"(l.39) cannot escape the touch of the West Wind and they also undergo a metamorphosis of change as the seaweed is thrown up on the shore. Shelley compares the clouds and the leaves in the process of shedding and the important point here is that the wind is the central catalyst for change in the different elements. Tying in with the theme that the wind's unseen presence is witnessed in the sea, air and land. Shelley identifies himself with the land, the sky and the sea to be swept up by the wind's power. A Wordsworthian recollection of his youth follows as he seems to regret his lost childhood and with that the opportunity to be one with the wind. This leads us to his idea of inspiration and how it, ultimately, fails Shelley.
The wind is Shelley's inspiration in writing the Ode but the conflict between inspiration and composition results in loss. By trying to capture the source of his inspiration, the wind, Shelley has reduced its value - "writing is thus by its very nature a process of loss" . Shelley was caught in a vicious catch 22 because the relationship between composition and inspiration is one of decline and loss. By attempting to emulate the wind it is impossible to recreate the beauty and power that originally inspired Shelley to write the poem. This can never be resolved as the essence of the wind is not captured by the poem and it only becomes a poor imitation. The process of writing about the wind also accentuates the distinction between Shelley and his inspiration. Intrinsic in the art of poetry is the underlying truth that nature's voices are distinct from man's writing and this is inescapable according to Shelley. By addressing the wind, "Wild Spirit … hear, oh, hear!"(ll. 13,14), the source of his inspiration, he illustrates the chasm between the author and his subject. The poem alludes to the wind of nature as being his breath. However the breath that Shelley uses to speak cannot be identified with the 'wild spirit' if it has to beg it to listen. This is why Shelley is the most despairing of the Romantic poets as no matter how glorious his work is it still fares as a pale comparison to the original. The wind is his inspiration but his earthbound and human condition prevents him from ever experiencing that which 'a wave, a leaf, a cloud' can. His condition enables him to reflect on these possibilities but it's a double-edged sword as they also mean he can't transcend his own life.
The final stanza introduces the lyre and Shelley beckons the wind to play though him as if he were a lyre. The aeolian lyre's relationship with the wind is that of the player to the instrument, or of breath to sound and because of this it is separate but Shelley tries to make as a single entity. There is despondency in the poem, as Shelley cannot achieve this goal. By wishing to become a lyre Shelley is asking the wind to channel it's inspiration through his 'strings' as he is ready to be inspired. The passivity of the lyre is juxtaposed with the active trumpet that requires the wind to blow through it also but the effect is very different. The trumpet signals action and to this effect Shelley was most likely referring to the political turmoil that was rife in Europe at that time. The final line of the poem reasserts the cyclical nature of life. The question mark, however, lends ambivalence to the poem as Shelley refuses to explain to the reader his meaning and opens it up for greater critical analysis.
The theme of inspiration is one that Shelley deals with in an in-depth manner in 'Ode to a West Wind'. The wind is the source of his inspiration and he attempts to force a marriage between the wind and his own position in life. However, he is unable to reach that conclusion and the result is that by trying to imitate the power and inspiration of the wind in his poetry he reduces it's initial impact by doing so. This decline and loss that is associated with composition is a significant part of Shelley's poetry and leads him to be one of the most despairing poets of his time.