Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ode to the West Wind Analysis: Stanza by Stanza

By: Dianne Heath



Percy Shelley's Exaltation of Nature's Power

In "Ode to the West Wind", Percy Bysshe Shelley eloquently expresses his private thoughts about nature and humanity by honoring the virtues and power of the Wind. The consistent rhyme scheme demonstrations his dedication to praising the Wind and admiring nature. "Ode to the West Wind" is heavy with descriptions, allegories, stunning imagery and hidden themes which reveal Shelley’s close observation and life long commitment to the subject. Most importantly the poem is brimming with emotion, ranging from adulation, worship, desperate pleading, sadness, and humbleness. Shelley elevates the Wind by treating the Wind as if it's a divine figure so that the underlying message and theme is more pronounced. Just as the ancients recorded their deepest vulnerabilities and fears through open prayer while simultaneously adoring their deity; Shelley also uses the same technique throughout the poem.


Fall at the Dallas Divide, Image Courtesy of Matt Santomarco via Flickr
The untamed, powerful and majestic Wind gifts life to seasons and fuels nature's movement, explains Shelley, "thou breath of Autumn's being" (line 1). The wild Wind has the power and freedom to breathe life into the seasons just like a deity would breathe to life to humans. The Wind is an unseen force yet powerful guardian of nature. It can objectively take away life in one season and lay nature to its death; while spurring reproduction to bestow life in another season. Like a mystic conjuring up a spirit and then fleeing its production, this is how fast the leaves are floating away from the source of their life after contact with the Wind. Shelley uses this metaphor to highlight the incredible & frightening strength of the wind. The leaves anticipate and rapidly accept their morbid fate. 

There’s no gloomy mood but a “hectic red” (line 4). Shelley then begins to use human like characteristics to relate nature to our stories and experiences. He uses extensive imagery so that we can see and feel the pertinent message. “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red pestilence-stricken multitudes,” (line 4) evoke visuals of decaying victims of a  deadly plague. Autumn is like a deadly epidemic, slowing sickening and sapping away the life of the leaves that are desperately clinging on. However the Wind, like a king, majestically“chariotest” (line 6) away the deadened leaves and guides them to their grave, "their dark wintry bed," (line 6) with dignity. The phrase, “O thou” is conspicuously unrhymed for distinct reverence and to redirect attention to the subject of exaltation. Shelley manages to compress observations about two seasons in the first two stanzas which sets the tone for the message of the poem; seasons, life, death and power. 

Shelley describes the seeds as winged to indicate the freedom they are endowed with once in contact with the Wind. They are “like a corpse within its grave” (line 8) until spring Winds blow new life. Shelley uses blue and azure color imagery throughout the poem to indicate the Wind’s presence in its various forms and to apply Wind-like qualities to other aspects of nature.

Like a loud harmonious trumpet (e.g. religious events, battle cries, festivals, which grabs the attention of multitudes due to its importance and emotional investment by the inhabitants) that fill the city; the spring Wind is boldly declaring a new season by breathing life into seeds. The winged seeds are now described as buds to quickly snapshot the cycle of life from seed to bloom. The buds are driven to the sky "like flocks to feed in air" (line 11) and lifted up by the Wind to reach its nourishment. The spring Wind fills the earth with living hues and sweet odours. This scene contrasts sharply with the autumn colors, signaling death "yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red. (line 4) " 

 Shelley directly states with reverence, the Wind’s omnipresence "which are moving everywhere" (line 13) and its dual power as "destroyer and preserver" (line 4). He entreats this wild Spirit, to “O hear” his humble request. 

II 

The same power who initiated "earth's decaying leaves" (line 16) to shed is the same power bringing more commotion in the sky and loosing up the clouds. The Wind’s power is evident from the heavens and the ocean. Percy uses the word heaven, as if the Wind resides as a deity. 

The Wind’s angels are rain and lightning, who are spread on the wind's surface, the sky, like "bright hair on the head". Shelley uses more religious undertones, "some fierce Maenad" (line 21) and "thy congregated might" (line 26) , demonstrating rain's and lightning's strong devotion to the Wind. Shelley also uses death connotations, such a "dirge" and "sepulchre" to express how these elements congregate to end the day. Night is like a dome encompassing the entire earth in its darkness. 

Wind is now in the form of vapor, the solid invulnerable sky who directs powerful "black rain, and fire, and hail" (line 28) to burst without fear. The authors uses actions words such as commotion, uplifted, shook and burst to describe the powerful relationship between the Wind and natural processes. The Wind is too powerful to incur damage in the process and not prone to be intimidated by other powerful elements. Once again Shelley is entreating the Wind to hear.

III
Image Courtesy of Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr
Shelley continues praise and admire the omnipresent Wind in its many forms. He acknowledges the Wind as a formidable ally and demonstrates why its powers are suited for his humble plea. Once again we see the color blue. The Wind has taken form in the summer within the Mediterranean waves as the engine for stream. The Wind is so powerful that although this function requires a tremendous amount of energy, the Wind is lull'd. There is power in calmness.

Even the grandest man made structures such as "old palaces and towers" (line 33) and "pumice isle in Baiae's bay" (line 32) quivers with the Wind's intense motion when it's just laying down. The word blue, a characteristic of power associated with the Wind,  describes the moss and flowers that overtake these structures like a ornament. Their scents are so sweet that you are enamored by what you imagine them to look like. But the powerful vegetation that appear to level with the Atlantic are still at the mercy of the waves produced by the Wind's force. They "cleave themselves into chasms" (line 38) at its presence. 

Shelley breaks rhyme scheme again to bring attention back to the subject with the simple yet respectful, "Thou". He uses the "sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear the sapless foliage of the ocean" (line 39, 40) to reflect how is feeling at his lowest state when not beautifully taking over the world like the flowers or moss. At Shelley's strongest and weakest, he respects, trembles and despoils himself with recognition of the Wind's power and role in nature. Shelley has waited so long to make this request that, he "suddenly grow grey with fear" (line 41) line but he courageously asks for the ear of the "Wind, O hear!"

IV

Shelley is now directly addressing the Wind directly as if it were a powerful divine force, a deity worthy of worship. There is no more mention of azure or blue because now we are interacting with the power; we know its forms and force. "If I was a dead leaf thou mightest bear:" (line 43) If Shelley was a leaf, he could still have more power from the benevolent Wind who powerfully guides and generously bestows immortality. Shelley is not interested the illusion of power as a human which can be unpredictably and maliciously swept away. He realizes the limitations of humans and wants pristine freedom. He would love to be lifted up by the by the Wind in a wave or fly with the Wind as a cloud to behold the wonders of nature. He wouldn't be a powerful as the wind and only immortal on borrowed force. But at least more free and protected than as a human since he is under the "impulse of thy strength" (line 46). Yes the elements work tirelessly and pant but they are not brutalized or enslaved by the Wind. Although the Wind can be dangerous and wild it is not deliberately cruel. 

Yes the leaves, clouds and waves have less power but they are "only less free" (line 46). The Wind powerfully guides the seasons but it doesn't unduly subdue its subjects but instead invites all of nature to share its majesty. Wind does not target individual elements with death; it objectively guides the process. Shelley acknowledges that the Wind is uncontrollable, but he continues with his request. He refers to an innocent time in boyhood and wishes he could had been a friend of the wind wandering over heaven instead of through the limited experiences of humanity. Nature is Shelley's heaven. 

What the wind has the power to do, Shelley couldn't have even strove for. Now Shelley admits that this is an emotional prayer spotted with apprehensive pain. He is desperate yet full of trepidation. He wants to the Wind to lift him up as a "wave, a leaf, a cloud (line 53)." He alludes once again to religious protestant allegory of unpredictable death from prosecution. "I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed (line 54)." 

Time is eloquently described as a "heavy weight of hours" (line 55) who has the power to chain the human existence. The hours are symbolic of impending death. Humans are chained to the passing years; which becomes the enemy of youth and life. Asking for time to stop and death to never come is too bold and a seemingly impossible request. He hopes to circumvent this "tameless and swift and proud" (line 56) character and have the Wind be his protection against this character. The Wind is just as powerful as Time and could be the most formidable defense death by granting immortality and lifting his fruits to another season.

V
Image Courtesy of Stephan Dann via Flickr

Shelley wants the Wind to artistically use him like instrument; to flow through him creating soothing yet strong melodies just as the forest is a lyre for the Wind to sweep through. Shelley already experiences pain, sickness and death so why not it be for the glory of the Wind as a "tumult for thy mighty harmonies (line 59)."

The deep autumnal tone signals impending death due the upcoming winter, but it isn't as morbid or unpredictable as the human's cold end. The leaves are pale and falling leaving a sad bare tree. However this scene is also sweet and comforting. It's just another appreciated cycle guided by the powerful Wind who provides protection and certainty of rebirth. He entreats the Wind to let its Spirit work through his spirit.

He doesn't want bleak mortality but like the leaves experience the seasons. He wants the wind to drive "my dead thoughts over the universe" (line 63) and chartiotest throughout nature. He longs for the Wind to use his thoughts to "quicken a new birth" (line 64) and provide nourishment to hasten growth for spring. He asks to be immortalized through his words and his poems to fertilize humanity's new insights. 

His requests for his words to scatter like "ashes and sparks" (line 67) from a hearth that can't be distinguished among mankind. He wants a guarantee of spring after the autumn and especially after the winter. He wants the wind to lift his words through his lips to "unawken'd earth (line 68)." The Winds' movements are prophetic as it boldly indicates which seasons are next. The Wind is "the trumphet of prophecy" (line 69) spurring the seasons and cycle. Atleast in the natural world if death and winter is looming surely spring and rebirth isn't too far behind. Shelley hopes that this phenomenon is possible for him to.


Percy Shelley is awed by nature's ability to have immense power without intentional cruelty. Thus he feels comfortable being vulnerable to the Wind even though it is wild. The Wind encompasses all the elements without exploiting them. Humans often interpret power as who can procure the most evil but the Wind does not need evil to be powerful. The Wind has no gender identity because it is supposed to be above human concepts of behavior. He wishes that he could fully experience natures power, which although terrifying at times, is emotionally safe and soothing. Shelley praises the seasons and nature's capacity for rebirth. He wishes that he could intimately be a part of it to defy time.

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