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Ode to the West Wind -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

I'm stepping out of chronological order to bring you today's poem, which
is a special birthday request from one of our subscribers.
(Poem #329) Ode to the West Wind

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 odors plain and hill:

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


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


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


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 seemed 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 chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


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 withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley
Poor Percy Shelley. A revolutionary who wanted to change the world
through his poetry, he has been dismissed far too often as being all
style and no substance, an artist whose life was more colourful than his
art and (worst of all) the archetype of half a century of lush Victorian
sentimentality. Never mind that he was sent down from Cambridge for
advocating atheism, that he renounced his inheritance to marry a
tavern-keeper's daughter, that he left England to seek artistic
salvation in Italy: the popular image of Shelley is of a figure of high
tragedy, Romantic with a capital R. A characterization that is as unfair
to Shelley as it is to Keats or Coleridge or any of their generation:
sure they had interesting lives, but they also produced lasting art.

(Which is not to say I like Shelley's poetry. To be frank, I don't).

'Ode to the West Wind' is one of Shelley's most celebrated works, and
justly so. In it, finally, we see Shelley fusing the airy imagery, the
interplay of colour and light and shadow which are his poetic forte,
with the philosophical and moral concerns that tinged his political
life. A bold and sweeping poem, it almost falls to ground under the
weight of its own presumption - almost, but not quite.And in that
avoidance of pomposity lies its greatness.



'Ode to the West Wind' is written in terza rima [1]. Shelley uses a
three-line unit, a tercet, rhyming aba; the 'b' rhyme is carried into
the next tercet, bcb. Each stanza has four tercets of interlocking
rhyme, and ends in a couplet using the middle rhyme of the last tercet;
thus the rhyme scheme is aba bcb cdc ded ee. The lines themselves are in
a (not very rigorous) pentameter.

[1] The same metre that Dante uses in the Divine Comedy; perhaps this
was Shelley's way of paying homage to that great humanist. (Keep in mind
that the Ode was written in Italy).

[The Romantic Image]

The Romantics, more than most, have suffered (some would say
'benefited') from the problem of 'image'. As Adrian Mitchell puts it in
'The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry' (the source of most, if not all,
of my poetic education - you can read it at poem #211),

    Then suddenly --- WOOMF ---
    It was the Ro-man-tic Re-viv-al
    And it didn't matter how you wrote,
    All the public wanted was a hairy great image.
    Before they'd even print you
    You had to smoke opium, die of consumption,
    Fall in love with your sister
    Or drown in the Mediterranean (not at Brighton).

(Coleridge smoked opium, Keats died of consumption, Byron had a
scandalous affair with his half-sister, and Shelley drowned in the

Another, equally tongue-in-cheek view of the Romantics is Dorothy

    Byron and Shelley and Keats
    Were a trio of lyrical treats.
    The forehead of Shelley was cluttered with curls,
    And Keats never was a descendant of earls,
    And Byron walked out with a number of girls,
    But it didn't impair the poetical feats
    Of Byron and Shelley,
    Of Byron and Shelley,
    Of Byron and Shelley and Keats.
        -- Dorothy Parker, 'A pig's eye view of literature'

Ironically enough, Shelley always saw himself as a social reformer
first, and a poet second; to him, poets were 'the unacknowledged
legislators of the world', and his published writings all had an
explicitly political agenda.

More about the Romantics in general and Shelley in particular can be
found in Brittanica; here are some generous extracts:


Romanticism, an amorphous movement that began in Germany and England at
the turn of the 19th century, and somewhat later in France, Italy, and
the United States, found spokesmen as diverse as Goethe and August and
Friedrich von Schlegel in Germany, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor
Coleridge in England, Madame de Staƫl and Victor Hugo in France,
Alessandro Manzoni in Italy, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe
in the United States. Romantics tended to regard the writing of poetry
as a transcendentally important activity, closely related to the
creative perception of meaning in the world. The poet was credited with
the godlike power that Plato had feared in him; Transcendental
philosophy was, indeed, a derivative of Plato's metaphysical Idealism.
In the typical view of Percy Bysshe Shelley, poetry "strips the veil of
familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty,
which is the spirit of its forms."

Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), with its definition of
poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings and its attack
on Neoclassical diction, is regarded as the opening statement of English
Romanticism. In England, however, only Coleridge in his Biographia
Literaria (1817) embraced the whole complex of Romantic doctrines
emanating from Germany; the British empiricist tradition was too firmly
rooted to be totally washed aside by the new metaphysics. Most of those
who were later called Romantics did share an emphasis on individual
passion and inspiration, a taste for symbolism and historical awareness,
and a conception of art works as internally whole structures in which
feelings are dialectically merged with their contraries. Romantic
criticism coincided with the emergence of aesthetics as a separate
branch of philosophy, and both signalled a weakening in ethical demands
upon literature. The lasting achievement of Romantic theory is its
recognition that artistic creations are justified, not by their
promotion of virtue, but by their own coherence and intensity.

[The Later Romantics]

... [Shelley, Keats and Byron] shared their predecessors' passion for
liberty (now set in a new perspective by the Napoleonic wars) and were
in a position to learn from their experiments. Percy Bysshe Shelley in
particular was deeply interested in politics, coming early under the
spell of the anarchistic views of William Godwin, whose Enquiry
Concerning Political Justice had appeared in 1793. Shelley's
revolutionary ardour, coupled with a zeal for the liberation of mankind
and a passion for poetry, caused him to claim in his critical essay A
Defence of Poetry (1821, published 1840) that "the most unfailing
herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to
work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry," and that
poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." This fervour
burns throughout the early Queen Mab (1813), the long Laon and Cythna
(retitled The Revolt of Islam, 1818), and the lyrical drama Prometheus
Unbound (1820). Shelley saw himself at once as poet and prophet, as the
fine "Ode to the West Wind" (1819) makes clear. Despite his firm grasp
of practical politics, however, it is a mistake to look for concreteness
in his poetry, where his concern is with subtleties of perception and
with the underlying forces of nature: his most characteristic image is
of sky and weather, of lights and fires. His poetic stance invites the
reader to respond with similar outgoing aspiration. It adheres to the
Rousseauistic belief in an underlying spirit in individuals, one truer
to human nature itself than the behaviour evinced and approved by
society. In that sense his material is transcendental and cosmic and his
expression thoroughly appropriate. Possessed of great technical
brilliance, he is, at his best, a poet of excitement and power.

[More on Shelley]

Shelley's [early] literary career [was] politically oriented. Queen Mab,
the early poems first published in 1964 as The Esdaile Notebook, Laon
and Cythna, and most of his prose works were devoted to reforming
society; and even Alastor, Rosalind and Helen, and the personal lyrics
voiced the concerns of an idealistic reformer who is disappointed or
persecuted by an unreceptive society. But in Italy, far from the daily
irritations of British politics, Shelley deepened his understanding of
art and literature  and, unable to reshape the world to conform to his
vision, he concentrated on embodying his ideals within his poems. His
aim became, as he wrote in "Ode to the West Wind," to make his words
"Ashes and sparks" as from "an unextinguished hearth," thereby
transforming subsequent generations and, through them, the world. Later,
as he became estranged from Mary Shelley, he portrayed even love in
terms of aspiration, rather than fulfillment: "The desire of the moth
for the star,/ Of the night for the morrow,/ The devotion to something
afar/ From the sphere of our sorrow."

The careful study of Shelley's publications and manuscripts has since
elucidated his deep learning, clear thought, and subtle artistry.
Shelley was a passionate idealist and consummate artist who, while
developing rational themes within traditional poetic forms, stretched
language to its limits in articulating both personal desire and social

    -- all the above from the EB

32 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Jimmy & Loretta Ward said...

Jared Ward

I've been doing an in depth study on "Ode to the West Wind" for English AP class. On another site I read that this poem has an underlying meaning calling for revolution. I haven't been able to find anything to do with that in reading the poem. What do you think?

Please either post here or e-mail me at

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

bavkof poem kyo banai

Anonymous said...

kha rha hai saala!!!
lallu hai tu
dhade ke upar batha dunga
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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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jammu kashmir maar ja

Anonymous said...

i m pround of myself .
and u tere upar thuuk du kya

Anonymous said...

o terii!!!!!

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