“Ode to the West Wind” was begun in October 1819 and published in the Prometheus Unbound volume in 1820. Shelley’s note to the poem tells us it was written in the Cascine wood 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,” a place where the rustling leaves are remarkably loud. In this poem, as in so much of Romantic poetry, the wind and the surrounding natural environment are thought of as linked to the poet’s inner being, and thus the wind becomes a source of spiritual and poetic vitality. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is an address to a powerful though invisible agent, and a wish for the blessing of poetic inspiration.
The wind can have regenerative powers, but it can also mean intimation, something stated in an indirect or concealed manner; in this sense the wind can be a messenger or prophet of things to come. Shelley will employ all of these attributes of the wind within his poem.
The structure is equally important in understanding the poem. In its most simple terms, the genre of this poem is an ode, a poem that originated in the ancient Greek world and was intended to be sung or chanted. The ode is a very formal, complexly organized poem that was meant for important state functions and ceremonies, such as a ruler’s birthday, an accession, a funeral, or the unveiling of a public work. In other words, it is a mode of public address. Two types of odes can be identified in “Ode to the West Wind.”
The first type is based on the odes written by Pindar (between 522 and 442 B.C.) that were designed for choric song and dance to be performed in a Dionysiac theatre (or in the Agora to celebrate athletic victories). These odes commemorated some of the highest human achievements. The tone was emotional, exalted, and intense, incorporating whatever divine myths were appropriate to the occasion. The formal structure of the Pindaric ode included an announcement of victory, praise for the champion, an invocation to the gods, and praise of the athlete’s city and family. However, also incorporated within this celebratory poem were reminders of the victor’s mortality, a prayer to ward off bad luck, an awareness of the pitfalls of vanity or the dangers of provoking envy in the gods, and the importance of inherent excellence. Finally, Pindar’s odes were written in regular stanzas: a strophe, an antistrophe, and an epode. The strophe is the initial component the Greek chorus chanted while moving from one side of the stage to another, followed by a metrically-identical antistrophe that was chanted in accompaniment to a reverse movement and lead finally to the epode, which the chorus sung while standing still.
The second type of classical ode is named for the Latin poet Horace (65–8 B.C.), who derived his stanzaic structure from such Greek poets as Sappho. In contrast to the odes of Pindar, the Horation ode is personal rather than public, general rather than occasional, tranquil rather than intense, and contemplative and philosophic in character, intended for a private reader rather than a theatrical spectator; all of these features are found in “Ode to the West Wind.”
In the English tradition, however, the ode becomes irregular, based on a structure of turn, counter-turn, and stand, a series of balanced opposites. The genre attained popularity in the 17th century with Abraham Cowley’s Pindarique Odes in 1656, in which Cowley attempted to capture the spirit and tone of Pindar rather than a formal imitation of the classical poet. In the 18th century, the great formal odes began with John Dryden’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day.” The ode became the vehicle for expressing the sublime, lofty thoughts of intellectual and spiritual concerns.
“Ode to the West Wind” combines many of the classical elements. The first three stanzas describe the wind’s changing movements in nature, while at the same time the lines vacillate between the external world and the world of the imagination. Shelley’s most interesting departure from classical models is that the person being celebrated is ultimately the poet himself.
In the first lines of Section One, Shelley creates a duality for the wind; it is a spiritual agent who will take on human attributes. This accounts for its active participation in the physical world. This duality is established in the first line where the wind, like all living beings of the natural world, is a breathing entity. (In fact, the original meaning of “wind” is breath.) “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.” In the second and third lines, however, we are immediately reminded that the West Wind comes as a spiritual messenger that performs its offices swiftly and invisibly: “Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead / Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.” Finally, the wind is also an animating source so powerful that even the dead are instilled with a quasi-liveliness that continues and intensifies throughout this first section. First, the multicolored leaves are infused with a vibrancy uncharacteristic of our notion of pale ghosts: “[y]ellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, / Pestilence-stricken multitudes.” Indeed, though we are told the leaves are dead from disease, they now assume an active afterlife, buffeted by the West Wind “[w]ho chariotest to their dark wintry bed.” Even more dramatically, the leaves take on a mythic function, reminding us of ancient beliefs in the dying and reviving gods of classical mythology: “[t]he winged seeds” lying in their graves, waiting for the “azure sister of the Spring” to bring them back to life. “Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; / Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!”
Section Two is a cloudscape, containing a scientifically detailed description of the sky and the effects of the wind as it moves through another medium. Here, Shelley is observing the clouds from his perspective along the banks of the Arno River, and he incorporates that observation for his own poetic ends. As Desmond King-Hele points out in Shelley: His Thought and Work, Shelley describes two types of clouds. The first is the cirrus cloud (the Latin word for curl) that appears white, streaky, and wispy, “the locks of the approaching storm.” The second type of cloud is fractured, lying low in the west; it looks jagged and detached, gray and watery (“loose clouds like Earth’s decaying leaves”). These clouds perform the function of messengers, “[a]ngels of rain and lightning,” who bring some divine message to the poet.
Consistent with the classical elements discussed above, the clouds in Shelley’s ode become actors participating in the rites sacred to Dionysus, the twice-born god of Greek mythology, born prematurely by his dying mother Semele and then carried to full term in the thigh of his father Zeus. Dionysus is perceived as both man and animal, male and female, and young and old. He is often depicted as wearing wings, considered to be immortal, powerful, and self-revelatory, the premier god of wine and intoxication. His cults are intense and violent, revolts against the established social order. Furthermore, his domain extends to the world of madness and ecstasy, theater and impersonation, as well as to the mysterious realm of the dead and the expectation of an afterlife blessed with Dionysian exultation. The common denominator that connects all these different worlds over which Dionysus presides is his ability to transcend the mortal boundaries of the physical world.
No wonder the Dionysian cult was particularly appealing to the radical Shelley. Thus, when Shelley describes the clouds, “[l]ike the bright hair uplifted from the head / Of some fierce Maenad …/ Thou Dirge / Of the dying year,” he is referring to the “maenads,” female participants in the Dionysiac cult who would leave the city, crying out to the mountains, where they would let down their hair and beginning a frenzied dance to the sounds of high-pitched music.
Section Three is about the sea’s response to the wind and begins with a summoning of the West Wind from “his summer dream,” having been seduced by the warm Mediterranean, “[l]ulled by the coil of his chrystalline streams / Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ’s bay.” From this vantage point of the area surrounding the Bay, Shelley could see the ruins of imposing villas, ‘[a]ll overgrown with azure moss and flowers,” once owned by ancient Roman emperors. “And saw in sleep old palaces and towers / Quivering within the wave’s intenser day.” According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Baiæ “flourished as a volcanic spa and resort, thanks to hot springs.” But amidst this serenity, a great upheaval is taking place; the placid appearance of the surface waters conceals the turbulence beneath wrought by the West Wind: “While far below / The sea-blooms and the oozy woods . . . of the ocean, know / thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear / And tremble.”
This third section ends with the same words as the two preceding sections; Shelley is addressing the West Wind for the third time: “O hear!”
Section Four of the poem begins with a recapitulation of the previous three elemental effects of the West Wind, on land, in the sky, and upon the ocean, with the important distinction that the poet now insinuates himself into the tempestuous performance of the West Wind, thereby imposing himself as the true subject of his poem. “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.” Furthermore, implicit within this gesture is the impetus that gave rise to the poem—the wish to be joined with the West Wind, “[t]he comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven, / . . . to outstrip thy skiey speed,” to have new life infused into his imaginative powers. That wish is an invocation to the divine power of the wind, a supplication by a devoted subject burdened by mortal concerns, suffering from a diminution in his creative abilities: “[a]s thus with thee in prayer in my sore need. / Oh! Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!”
In Section Five the wish for a regenerated imagination intensifies as it becomes a plea for an inspiration akin to the Dionysiac frenzy of ancient times. “Make my thy lyre, even as the forest is / . . . Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!” It is a wish for nothing less than a complete possession by the strength of the Wind, a possession equal to the rapturous dancing of the maenads. “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe . . . And, by the incantation of this verse, / Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth, / Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!”
The Eolian lyre was a favorite household furnishing and an important symbol of poetic inspiration for the Romantic poets, and it is central to Coleridge’s poem, “The Aeolian Harp.” Named for the god Aeolus, god of the winds, and often considered to voice nature’s own music, the harp (or lyre) has strings stretched across a rectangular box that respond to the passing wind with rising and falling musical chords. Similarly, the poet in “Ode to the West Wind” is identifying with the Aeolian lyre, praying that it will help spread his poetic voice throughout the land, proclaiming the message of a new beginning. The irony is that Shelley, however, cannot transcend the physical world, and so he must remain in place, hoping that the West Wind will “speak” for him. He can only wait in anxious anticipation that the wind will respond to his desperate plea: “O Wind, / If winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
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