Ode to the West Wind Summary

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ode to the West Wind

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Ode to the West Wind Summary

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“Ode to the West Wind” is an ode, written in 1819 by the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley near Florence, Italy. It was first published a year later in 1820, in the collection Prometheus Unbound. The poem is divided into five sections, each addressing the West Wind in a different way. The first three sections describe the Wind’s power to bring Autumn to the land, sky and sea respectively. The fourth section laments that the poet, since his boyhood, has been “chain’d and “bow’d” and lost the freedom he once shared with the wind. The fifth and final section invokes the Wind as a force of inspiration that can breathe life into the poet’s words and spread them throughout the world. The poem’s final lines look ahead to the Spring that follows Winter.

Each of the poem’s five parts contains five stanzas: four stanzas of three lines and one couplet. These stanzas follow the rhyme scheme known as terza rima (made famous by its use in Dante’s Divine Comedy). In each terza rima stanza, the first and third lines rhyme, while the second line does not. The final sound of the second line becomes the rhyme for the first and third lines of the next stanza. The final couplet rhymes with the second line of the preceding stanza. The overall scheme of each part of the poem is, therefore: ABA BCB CDC DED EE. “Ode to the West Wind” is written in iambic pentameter.

The poem opens by invoking its subject: “O Wild West Wind.” The first two stanzas focus on the Wind’s role as a bringer of death to the natural world, causing leaves to fall like “Pestlience-stricken multitudes” and blowing seeds to the earth, where they lie “Each like a corpse within its grave.”

At the end of the third stanza, the poet notes that the Wind’s “azure sister of the Spring” (the East Wind) will eventually cause these seeds to bloom, and fresh buds to return to the trees. The section concludes by observing that the West Wind is “destroyer and preserver”: destroyer because it brings Winter and death, and preserver because it plants seeds and creates the conditions for Spring to bring them to fruition.

Section II looks upwards to the sky, expanding our sense of the Wind’s power. “Loose clouds,” too “are shed” by the force of the Wind, as easily as leaves. The poet looks ahead to the fierce, stormy weather the West Wind will bring. He says that the current cloudscape is just a mild foretaste of the weather to come, like the flying hair of a possessed dancer (a “Maenad,” a figure in Greek mythology who worshipped the gods by entering an ecstatic frenzy). In the final two stanzas of the section, the poet again reminds us that the wind is a deathly force. Its sound is a “dirge” (a funeral song) and by shrouding the night in dark clouds, it will turn the sky into “the dome of a vast sepulcher” (tomb).

The third section of the poem turns from the sky to the sea. First, the poet celebrates the Wind’s power to “waken” the Mediterranean Sea. He describes a scene of ancient ruins on the Mediterranean coast: “old palaces and towers/Quivering within the wave’s intenser day” before again expanding our sense of the Wind’s power by switching focus from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The Wind can “cleave” the ocean as easily as the sea. The imagery of flying foliage which began the poem returns again, but transformed, as the poet describes the “sapless foliage” of the undersea landscape, the “sea-blooms and oozy woods,” disturbed by the Wind as surely as the trees on land.

At the beginning of Section IV the poet laments that if he were any of the things he has described so far—a leaf, a storm-cloud or a wave—he would feel no need to address the Wind in verse, as he is doing, because as a natural part of the landscape he would “share/The impulse of thy strength.” He adds that even in his own boyhood, he was more like the Wind than he is now, the “comrade of thy wanderings.” The poet prays to the Wind, “lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!” As an adult, he complains, he is too burdened by life, by the “heavy weight of hours,” to share naturally in the freedom and power of the Wind. This line may refer to the death of the poet’s son, William, earlier in the year the poem was written.

The final section offers a different prayer to the Wind. Now the poet asks the Wind to “Make me thy lyre.” He imagines himself as a musical instrument, producing, like the leaves “a deep, autumnal tone” as the Wind blows through him. He asks the Wind to let his spirit merge with the Wind’s mightier one: “Be thou me, impetuous one!”

Finally, the poet imagines the Wind as a spirit infusing his poetry with power, driving “my dead thoughts over the universe.” He prays that his poem, “Ode to the West Wind,” infused with this power, will like the Wind itself hasten the destruction of the old world and the beginning of a new one: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

Commentators have seen “Ode to the West Wind” as a plea for the transformation of both the poet and the world, and their restoration to their lost true nature. One of Shelley’s most famous poems, “Ode to the West Wind” contributes to Shelley’s reputation as one of the foremost English Romantic poets.