Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Summary

The lyric, Ode to The West Wind, written in 1819, is a fitting testament to Shelley’s radical spirit; it voices his earnest desire to bring about a change in society by taking help of his poetry and the tempestuous west wind. Shelley, despite having suffered indifference at close quarters, firmly believed that his ideas could help people overcome the stagnation they were in. Consequently, he seeks the power of the mighty west wind to help him in his revolutionary zeal.

Canto-wise Explanation

Canto 1

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 odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

Summary: The poet starts off with hailing the west wind as the “breath” of “Autumn,” and then goes on to instill an uncanny note into the poem with his subsequent striking comparison, the wind driving off  “dead leaves” just as an “enchanter” expelling evil spirits (ghosts). Further, the leaves are not pleasant to look at; being shaded in “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red” they look ominous. In fact, the poet’s designating them as diseased “Pestilence-stricken multitudes,” point at his observation concerning England’s then dismal state. The west wind as such acts as a charioteer that carries the withered leaves to their graves, where they lie as corpses, till they are rejuvenated by spring winds. It is in spring that flowers bloom and trees get adorned by leaves. The poet, taking this seasonal phenomenon, develops another poignant simile. He says that spring wind, blowing a trumpet (clarion), enables the buds to open into flowers and the plains and hills to get filled with majestic “hues.” And the “buds” are allowed to shower their splendor, just as sheep are driven by a shepherd. The west wind thus assumes the role of both a “Destroyer” (a harbinger of wintry death) and a “preserver” (making sure, the regeneration of spring).

Canto II

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 aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

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

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!

Summary: In this canto, Shelley invests a number of comparisons to vividly portray the power and appearance of the west wind. According to his imagination, the west wind is a “stream” in the sky, upon which fall “Loose clouds” from the “tangled” branches (boughs) of an imaginary tree, extending from “Heaven” and earth (Ocean). These clouds, the “Angels of rain and lightning” fall as dead (decaying) leaves due to the storm’s airy  “commotion” and look like the disheveled “locks” of  “Maenad” (female worshipper of the God of  Wine, Bacchus). Covering the entire space of the sky, the mighty wind is next called by the poet, a “dirge of the dying year” – a funeral song indicating the year’s termination and simultaneously suggesting the possible extinction of the revolting conditions of England. The canto finally ends with another striking imagery – “ the closing night” assuming the form of a tomb (dome), with its vault being constructed out of the clouds, vapor, thunder and rain condensed by the west wind. We get a glimpse of Shelley’s prophesizing zeal as he calls out “oh hear!” thereby declaring the somber foundation of a new order, bent upon abolishing prevailing chaos.

Canto III

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d 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!

Summary: The third canto explores the effect of the west wind on two natural bodies of the earth, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean. Personifying the sea, the poet states that all along, the Mediterranean has lain calm in “Baiae’s bay” (a holiday spot much preferred by ancient Romans), “Lull’d” by the murmur of clear (crystalline) streams flowing into it. It has been seeing “summer dreams” full of “old palaces and towers” enclosed “with azure moss” and fragrant flowers. The violent wind agitates the sea such that the vegetation deep below trembles, turns “gray with fear” and destroys (despoil) themselves. The Atlantic Ocean, on the other hand, forms a “chasm” so that the wind may pass through effortlessly. At a deeper level, this anxiety and palpitation may reflect intense foreboding of the existing powers of the earth, on getting an inkling of a deliberate change. This is all the more pertinent with the poet’s repeated manner of closing the canto with a summoning “oh hear!” It is as if his audience includes not only the solitary west wind but common mass that like him is desirous of a transition.

Canto IV

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 skiey speed
Scarce seem’d 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 chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Summary: The poem takes on a personal tone as the poet desperately yearns to be “a dead leaf,” “a swift cloud,” and “a wave” to feel the intensity of the immeasurable strength of the “uncontrollable” wind. An alternative would be a wistful recreation of his childhood days, when he being the wind’s “comrade” could “outstrip” the pace of the west wind. Consequently, aided with agility, he would never have prayed to the wind, as he is doing now, a phase when he is extremely needful (sore need). Commenting on his distressing state, he laments that he has been a victim of relentless time and circumstances, which appearing as life’s unavoidable “thorns” have transformed him from a “tameless, and swift, and proud” individual to a one “chain’d and bow’d.”

Canto V

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 wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Summary: The fifth canto finally reveals the poet’s dormant intention – to be able to modify the world through an extensive dispersion of his ideas, apparently relying on the west wind’s potential. He begins by asking the wind to make him it’s “lyre” (Aeolian harp) and contends that even if he is decaying as the “forest,” the wind would nonetheless be able to produce melancholic autumnal music by playing on both. However, it might not be enough; before long he pleads the wind to impart its “impetuous” spirit into him, or more appropriately become him, (Be thou me). Again with the help of a comparison, the poet narrates how his inspiring “thoughts” would be spread – as “wither’d” leaves that forming a good compost, would prepare the ground for fresh growths. Or, he muses, ideas from his waning self (unextinguish’d hearth) would be dispersed as “Ashes” and “sparks.” And again, more conspicuously this time, his radical tone seeps in as he proceeds to be a “trumpet” so as to declare his “prophecy.” Ultimately, the next line concludes the poem with his profound optimism; it is not an end, all hope can never be lost, for bare and bleak winter is just a prelude to the showering of spring.

Now, if you want to have an in-depth understanding of the poem, you may go through the poem’s analysis.

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