Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Summary to The Poem
‘Ode to the West Wind’ is one of the most engaging odes in English literature. The poem is a forceful, mind-blowing description of the West Wind. Shelley, here, presents the West Wind both as a creative and destructive force. According to Shelley, it is a symbol of healthy change. It sweeps all that is dead and useless and marks the beginning of a new life. The poet invokes the mighty West Wind to infuse in him poetic inspiration so that he may deliver his invaluable message to mankind. The poem is also remarkable for its revolutionary element. It, in a way, signals an end to decaying monarchies and dwindling autocracies. According to the poet, the winter season cannot last longer. After every winter, there comes always the spring. Hence, the poem ends on a strong note of optimism.
In ‘Ode to the West Wind‘ Shelley shows his great love for liberty. He personifies the West Wind as a powerful and uncontrollable spirit. It is the breath of autumn’s being. Its terrible power is felt by the trees which shed their leaves at its approach. The leaves fly away like the “pestilence – stricken – multitudes”.
The West Wind sends the old seeds to their dark wintery beds. They come to life again in the spring season. In this way, the West Wind acts not only as a destroyer but a preserver as well.
The West Wind is not only powerful at the earth, it is powerful in the sky also. With its force, it spreads dark clouds all over the sky. They are the angels of rain. Even the ocean becomes helpless before the West Winds’ power. It disturbs the calm surface of the ocean. When the West Wind comes the waves of the Atlantic divide themselves to give way. Even the plants growing at the bottom of the ocean turn grey with fear when they find West Wind approaching.
The poet requests the West Wind to lend him some of its powers. At one time even the poet was like the West Wind. He was volatile and untamed but now he feels weak and shackled because of his age. He finds himself fallen on the thorns of life and is bleeding. So, he requests the West Wind to come to his help. He wants it to lift him as he would lift a wave, a leaf, or a cloud.
The ‘poet is a champion of liberty’. He wants to spread his message of hope through all mankind. His thoughts are like grey withered leaves. He is without hope. He wants the West Winds to revitalize him. He should give him strength by making his lyre. It should blow through his ups and bring cheer to all. The poet ends with a prophecy: “if winter comes can spring be far behind.”
Critical Summary of Ode to the West Wind
Stanza 1: The first stanza describes the West Wind’s activities on land. The West Wind pushes the dead leaves ahead of it, just as the magician pushes a ghost away with his approach. The West Wind scatters the seeds and covers them with dust, burying them underground where they remain, like dead bodies in their graves, until spring, when they sprout into plants that bear flowers that fill the valley with sweet smells and attractive colours. The poet refers to the West Wind as a “wild spirit” that moves everywhere, as well as a destroyer (of dead leaves) and a preserver (of living seeds).
“Wild spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, Oh, hear!”
Stanza 2: The second stanza describes the West Wind’s activities in the air. The West Wind carries loose clouds that appear to have fallen from the sky, much like withered leaves fall from trees in autumn. Rain and lightning are carried by the clouds that float on the surface of the West Wind. The approaching storm’s locks are spread across the airy surface of the West Wind like bright hair lifted from the head of a frenzied Bacchante. Furthermore, the West Wind is the dirge of the dying year, with the final night being the dome of a large tomb vaulted with all the West Wind’s aggregated strength as seen in rain, lightning, and hailstorm. The poet implores the West Wind to pay attention to him. This stanza exemplifies the abstract imagery that pervades much of Shelley’s poetry. It is also notable for its numerous similes and metaphors.
Stanza 3: The third stanza describes the effects of the West Wind on water. The West Wind rouses the blue Mediterranean from its slumber, which was dreaming of old palaces and towers that once stood on its shores. When the West Wind blows on the Atlantic, the waves rise on both sides to create a sort of passage for the West Wind, while plants at the ocean’s bottom tremble and shed their leaves in fear. The stanza is notable for its vivid imagery and the way the two oceans the Mediterranean and the Atlantic are personified. Naturalists are familiar with the phenomenon alluded to in lines 36-42. Shelley noted in a note that the vegetation at the bottom of the sea, rivers, and lakes sympathises with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is thus influenced by the winds that announce that change.
Stanza 4: The poet here establishes a connection between his own personality and that of the West Wind. He remembers his childhood, when he was as fast, energetic, and uncontrollable as the West Wind. In his youth, he could outrun the West Wind and accompany it on its journey across the sky. But now, life’s misfortunes have crushed him. He is helplessly bleeding on the thorns of life. He wishes he were a leaf, a wave, or a cloud so that the West Wind could carry him away. He makes a pitiful plea to the West Wind to come to his aid:
“Oh, lift me as a wave, leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless and Swift and Proud.”
Stanza 5: The final stanza encompasses the entire universe. The poet requests that the West Wind treat him like a lyre and blow on him as it does on the forest. He, like the forest, is in the midst of his life’s autumn. The West Wind will produce a sad but sweet music as it blows on him and the forest. Addressing the West Wind as ‘Spirit fierce’ and ‘impetuous one,’ he begs it to become one with him and disperse his dead thoughts throughout the universe in order for these thoughts to usher in a new era in human history. He wishes for the West Wind to broadcast his prophecy about the coming of the Golden Age all over the world: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” This stanza expresses Shelley’s idealism, his belief in the perfectibility of human nature, and his belief in a golden age for humanity.
Stanza Wise Summary of The Poem
The poet describes the west wind’s activities as if it were a human: It chases away dead leaves as if they were ghosts fleeing a wizard. The leaves are yellow and black, pale and red as if they were infected with a disease. The west wind transports seeds in its chariot and deposits them in the earth, where they remain until the spring wind blows a trumpet to wake them up (clarion). When they form buds, the spring wind blows them across the plains and hills. In an ironic twist, the poet refers to the west wind as both a destroyer and a preserver, then asks it to listen to what he has to say.
The poet says that the west wind propels clouds forward similarly to how it propels dead leaves after shaking them free of the sky and oceans. Rain and lightning are emitted from these clouds. Lightning appears as a bright shaft of hair emerging from the head of a Mænad when viewed against the sky. The poet compares the west wind to a funeral song sung at a year’s end and predicts that the night will become a dome erected over the year’s tomb with all the wind’s gathered might. Black rain, fire, and hail will pour from that dome. Once more, the poet requests that the west wind listens to what he has to say.
At the start of autumn, the poet writes, the west wind roused the Mediterranean Sea from its summer slumber near an island formed of pumice, lulled by the sound of clear streams flowing into it (hardened lava). The island is located in a bay in Baiae, a city located about ten miles west of Naples in western Italy. While sleeping in this location, the Mediterranean witnessed ancient palaces and towers that had collapsed into the sea following an earthquake and become overgrown with moss and flowers. To make room for the west wind, the mighty Atlantic Ocean’s forces divide (cleave) and flow through chasms. Deep beneath the ocean’s surface, flowers and foliage quake in fear and despoil themselves when they hear the west wind. (Ocean plants decompose similarly to land plants in the autumn. (For more information on this subject, see Shelley’s note.) Once more, the poet requests that the west wind listens to what he has to say.
Naturalists are well aware of the phenomenon alluded to at the end of the third stanza. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, rivers, and lakes changes seasons in a manner similar to that of the land, and is thus influenced by the winds that announce it.
The poet asserts that if he were a dead leaf (as those in the first stanza), a cloud (as those in the second stanza), or an ocean wave that rides the strength of the Atlantic but is less free than the uncontrollable west wind—or even if he were as strong and vigorous as he was as a boy and could accompany the wandering wind in the heavens but could only dream of travelling faster—then he would never have prayed to
Referring back to the imagery of the first three stanzas, the poet asks the wind to lift him as a wave, a leaf, or a cloud would; for here on earth, he is confronted with difficulties that prick him like thorns and cause him to bleed. He is now carrying a heavy burden that has immobilised him in chains and bowed him down, despite his pride, tamelessness, and swiftness as the west wind.
In the same way that the west wind’s mighty currents transform the forest into a lyre, the poet requests that the west wind transform him into a lyre. And if the poet’s leaves blow in the wind in the same way that forest trees do, a deep autumnal tone will be heard that is both sweet and sad. The poet implores the wind to be “my spirit,” “Be thou me” and propel my dead thoughts (like the dead leaves) across the universe, preparing the way for spring’s new birth. The poet requests that his words be dispersed throughout the world by the wind as if they were ashes from a burning fire. They will resemble blasts from a trumpet of prophecy to the unawakened earth. In other words, the poet wishes for the wind to assist him in disseminating his political, philosophical, and literary views. Although winter is imminent, the poet is encouraged that spring and rebirth will follow.
Essay Type Question(s)
Q. 1. Write a critical summary of the poem, “Ode to the West Wind” bringing out its theme. Or Trace the development of the thought in “Ode to the West Wind”.
Ans. Shelley was a rebellious poet. He greatly loved liberty and wanted all mankind to be free from all kinds of bondage. In this poem, he gives a loud and clear message that joy would follow grief. After despair, there would be hope.
The poet uses the West Wind as a symbol of wild untamed energy. He personifies it and shows its impact on the earth, the sky and the ocean. He calls it the breath of autumn. It drives away the dead and rotten seeds. They fly away like pestilence driven multitudes. But while the West Wind brings death to old and rotten leaves, it carries seeds to distant places thus bringing rebirth.
The West Wind scatters the clouds all over the sky. They look like bright hair uplifted from the head of some fierce maenad. The West Wind awakens the ocean sleeping peacefully. It ruffles its waves and clefts them. Even the plants at the bottom of the ocean feel its power. They turn grey on hearing its terrible thunder.
The poet requests to the West Wind to lend him some of its power. These were a time when the poet was as wild and untamed as the West Wind but now the life has tamed him. He has fallen on the thorns of life and is bleeding. Now he needs the help of the West Wind to give support. He wants the West Wind to lift him like a wave or a lead or a cloud.
The poet wants to spread his message of hope throughout the world. But his thoughts are dull and grey like the dead leaves. That is why the poet wants West Wind to make him his lyre. In this way he would be able to spread his message of hope and joy to the whole world.
Questions and Answers
1. What is the rhyme scheme of each section of the poem?
The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, while the middle line begins the rhyme of the following stanza. This rhyme scheme is known as terza rima.
2. What is the wind a metaphor of?
The speaker uses the wind as a metaphor for his own art.
3. In contrast with Pestilence-stricken, what positive attribute do the dead leaves have?
Despite their disease-carrying nature, the leaves carry seeds into the ground, where they wait under the snow to bloom.
4. In section IV, what is the wish of the speaker? What urges him to make such a wish?
The speaker wishes he could be a leaf, a cloud, or an ocean wave so that he may be lifted up by the West Wind and away from the world in which he lives. In this section, he tells the reader it is a time of “sore need” for him. He states, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” and “A heavyweight of hours has changed and bowed/ One too like thee.” Both these statements reveal the misery the speaker currently is experiencing, therefore motivating him to wish to be lifted up and away from his life on Earth.
5. In the final section, the speaker asks the West Wind to “Be through my lips to unawakened earth/ The trumpet of a prophecy!” To what prophecy do you believe the speaker is referring?
Answers may vary. Example: Before this request, the speaker says he believes the power of the West Wind could lift him out of his sadness, pushing his “dead thoughts” away and allowing him the energy to begin again. The prophecy he refers to may relate to these thoughts: The West Wind is a sort of prophecy of the winter to come; however, the speaker wishes to remind the world that after winter, spring is not far behind. In life, then, when sadness prevails, a chance to begin again cannot lurk far off.
6. As a representative of the Romantic poets of the early nineteen-century, Shelley’s poem can be seen as offering an explanation of the Romantic idea of nature. How does Shelley (and the other young Romantic poets) view nature?
Shelley views nature as a source of beauty and aesthetic experience (i.e. inspiration).
7. When the speaker prays to the West Wind to scatter his ashes like dead leaves across the universe, what is he implying about poetic language? How does such a prayer relate to Shelley’s ideas about inspiration and expression?
The speaker’s request implies that poetic language, like nature, does not die, but is reborn through future generations. His request echoes his ideas about inspiration and expression because he has gained his ideas from nature and his predecessors as well.
1. Why has the West Wind been called the “unseen presence”?
Ans. The West Wind has been called the “unseen presence” because it cannot be seen and its presence can be felt.
2. How are the dead leaves driven?
Ans. The dead leaves are driven by the West Wind as “ghosts” run away from magicians.
3. How are the winged seeds described?
Ans. The seeds are flying in the air because of the wind so they are called the winged seeds.
4. How is the West Wind destroyer and preserver?
Ans. The WestWind destroys the old vegetations, yet it preserves the seeds for the new vegetation. In this way, the West Wind is both destroyer and preserver.
5. What will happen when the spring come?
Ans. The whole world will be covered with sweet and colourful flowers.
1. What is the impact of the West Wind on the sky?
Ans. The West Wind scatters dark clouds all over the sky.
2. What is the meaning of angels of rain and lightning?
Ans. The meaning of angels of rain and lightning is the cloud that scatters over the sky.
3. What does the poem mean by the dirge of the dying year?
Ans. The West Wind brings about the autumn hence it is called the dirge of the dying year.
4. What is the meaning of the dome of a sepulchre?
Ans. The dark night which envelopes the whole world is called the dome of sepulchre. It covers the world as a coffin covers a corpse.
5. Give the name of the poem and the poet.
Ans. The name of the poem is “Ode to the WestWind” and the name of the poet is P.B. Shelley.
1. How did the West Wind awaken the Mediterranean?
Ans. The West Wind awakened the Mediterranean ocean by creating a storm in it.
2. What happened to the sapless foliage of the ocean?
Ans. The sapless foliage of the ocean was frightened.
3. How were the waters of the Atlantic disturbed by the WestWind?
Ans. The level waters of the Atlantic were divided because of the force of the West Wind.
4. What impressions does the stanza give about the power of the “West Wind”?
Ans. The West Wind is very powerful and with its wild energy, it can disturb anything.
5. What is meant by summer dreams?
Ans. The “summer dreams” mean that the Mediterranean sea was calm.
1. What does the poet think about the West Wind‟s power?
Ans. He thinks that the West Wind is very powerful and can sweep anything in the world.
2. What is the poet’s wish?
Ans. The poet”s wish is to become a friend to the WestWind.
3. Is the poet happy about his life?
Ans. No, the poet is not happy. He is in pain and suffers life.
4. What prayer does the poet make to the West Wind?
Ans. The poet prays to the West Wind to lift him like a wave or a leaf or a cloud.
5. What qualities did the poet share with the West Wind?
Ans. Like the WestWind the poet was also untamed and proud.
1. What is the poet’s wish in the first line?
Ans. The poet wants to be the lyre of the WestWind.
2. What does the poet compare his thought to?
Ans. The poet compares his thought to the dead leaves.
3. What kind of help does the poet seek from the West Wind?
Ans. The poet wants to scatter his verses all over the earth like the leaves.
4. What is the message conveyed in the last line of the poem?
Ans. It is a message of hope. Joy would come after grief.
5. Explain the term “trumpet of a prophecy”.
Ans. By the term, the trumpet of prophecy means that the poet’s verses would proclaim the beginning of a new joyful life. The poet shows his optimism here.
Q. 1. Describe the effect of the West Wind on the leaves, the clouds and the sea waves?
Ans. As the WestWind comes the leaves of trees turn pale in fear. They fall from the trees. They fly away like ghosts running away from a magician. Their hue turns yellow, black and hectic red. They look like pestilence driven multitudes. The West Wind scatters the dark clouds which look like the bright hair uplifted from the head of fierce maenad. The West Wind disturbs the ocean also.
Q. 2. How is the West Wind harbinger of a new life?
Ans. It destroys all that is dead. The dead leaves are taken away by the West Wind. Along with the dead leaves, the seeds are also transported to new places on the right opportunity. These seeds sprout into new buds. In this way, the West Wind becomes the harbinger of a new life.
Q. 3. What effect does the West Wind have on the ocean?
Ans. The WestWind creates a storm in the ocean. It divides the waves of the ocean. Even the sea flowers at the bottom of the ocean are disturbed.
Q. 4. What is the effect of the West Wind in the sky?
Ans. It scatters the clouds in the sky. It brings about rain. It comes near the end of the year and seems to be the mourning song for the dying ear. The poet feels that West Wind brings rain, shiver and thunder.
Q. 5. How does the poet compare himself to the West Wind?
Ans. The WestWind is very powerful. It cannot be tamed. The poet was also equally powerful when he was young. He was also untamed and wild. But now because of the burden of time, he has become weak. He has fallen on the thorns of life and he is bleeding.
Q. 6. How is the West Wind both a destroyer and a preserver?
Ans. According to the poet, the WestWind is both a destroyer and preserver. When it blows it drives away the dead and dry leaves. But it is a preserver as well. It takes the seeds also with it and buries them in distant places. Given the right condition, these seeds grow into big trees. In this sense, the West Wind is a preserver also.
Q. 7. What is the message the poem gives at the end?
Ans. The poet wants to suggest that after grief there will be joy. After winter there will be spring. He seeks the help of the West Wind to bring a message of hope and joyful life.
Objective Type Questions
Q. 1. What is the wintry bed?
Ans. The cold earth is the wintry bed.
Q. 2. Why are the leaves called pestilence-stricken multitudes?
Ans. They are dead and rotten and they are in large numbers.
Q. 3. Who is the azure sister of the West Wind?
Ans. Spring is the azure sister.
Q. 4. Who are the angles of rain and lightning?
Ans. The clouds are the angles of rain and lightning.
Q. 5. For whom the Atlantic waves part?
Ans. They part for the West Wind.
Q. 6. Why do the plants at the bottom of the ocean turn grey?
Ans. The plants turn grey out of the fear for the West Wind.
Q. 7. What is the message of the poem?
Ans. The message of the poem is to have hope for the future.