Percy Bysshe Shelley – Ode to the West Wind


The violent wind evoked so powerfully by Shelley’s Ode is, as in many Romantic poems, representative of a tumultuous inner state of anguish. The racing rhythm and churning word inversions dramatize what can also be seen as emblematic of a violent and unpredictable Age, wreaking havoc but with the prophetic promise of peace to come as the seasons change. Juxtaposed with this destructive wind force is a vision of wind as the deity of poetic inspiration, a ‘spirit’. The ‘Wild’ freedom of the wind is also a symbol of lost youth. The poem’s sonnet-length stanzas suggest a dialectic structure, which we find in the uneasy recognition that violent tumult, while feared and fought, is also the source of poetic inspiration and freedom.

We see the ‘West Wind’ emerge as a metaphor for inner anguish through the connection of the ideas of ‘breath’, ‘being’, ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’. It is the uncontrollable element of the creative self, the subject of the speaker’s exhortation, ‘Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!’ The poetic enterprise is seen as a desperate struggle to harness this violent self, to make it your own. The ‘spirit’ that inspires also feels the pain of life, it is the ‘Mediterranean’ – unusually personified as male to link it with the poet – churned into currents by the violent wind of personal experience. This dual power of the ‘wind’ to elevate and inflict pain is recognised in the lines, ‘Oh! Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! / I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!’ The passionate soul is suggested by repeated exclamations – envisioned at the whim of tumultuous force that is a part of itself. Antithesis between ‘lift’ and ‘fall’ visually captures the wind’s violent movements. These are suggested throughout the poem by the fluid, racing terza rima rhyme scheme, and word inversions such as the ‘leaves dead / are driven’ which give the effect of sense tumbling over itself as it ‘chariotest’ toward each final couplet’s momentary lull.

The ‘wind’ that blows through the poem is also representational of a violent, unpredictable Age. The image of the leaves, ‘Each like a corpse within its grave’ draws on the Classical and Miltonic epic simile which likens the fallen multitudes of a great battle to leaves strewn on the ground. Clearly this is an age of violent wars, and a generation of poets decimated by illness – ‘Pestilence-stricken multitudes’. The unpredictability and destructive power of the wind are seen here as a terrifying metaphor for an apocalyptic time period. However, the threat of apocalypse is countered by the hope of renewal, as the ‘clarion’ of Spring imagery of the Book of Revelation to convey a sense of apocalypse followed by rebirth. However this ‘second coming’ is envisioned very differently from that of  Christian tradition.

For the ‘West Wind’ is the deity that, paradoxically, heralds in its own destruction. The storm it raises has the ‘head / of some fierce Maenad’, the frantic dancing priestess whose funereal ‘dirge’ is linked through dance to the Hindu destroyer god Shiva. Mysticism is suggested in words such as ‘zenith’  referring to astrology, and the ‘West Spirit’ of the Wind is seen as a pagan deity where ‘wild’ signifies not only the uncontrollable force but the naturalistic spiritualism of the wind’s power to inspire. This can be seen as the poet’s situation, where art is born out of struggle and destruction, and if it is able to provide release and comfort then in doing so it also destroy’s its own source of inspiration. Hence twinned with the coming of ‘Spring’ is the fear of poetic death, ‘the dying year, to which this closing / Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre’. The poet’s legacy is here a source of anxiety, with the poetry itself forming the edifice that will immortalize the poet even as it holds him captive.

The wind’s freedom is held in antithesis with the poet’s sense of captivity. It reminds him of a ‘boyhood’ spent in ‘wanderings’ compared with a present ‘weights of hours’. And yet the wind in its role as violent inner anguish and external paradox of appealing to one’s oppressor is set about by these different symbolic connotations of wind. They come to a head at the end of the poem where the poet charges the wind this verse while also heralding in a world where that wind of destruction is absent, ‘If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?’

This poem is an attempt to confront the volatile and source of poetic inspiration in violence – both as inner anguish and external events. It presents the paradox that the same irresistible dance of destruction that seduces and creates the poet must also be his destroyer. Out of this realisation precipitates a meditation on temporality and old age that also provokes a desire to simply enjoy the natural phenomena the poem describes for its own sake. It recognises or hopes at last that to leave any poetic legacy is to leave an edifice of ‘vapours’ that is always subject to the whims of the tumult that created it.

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