Ode to the West Wind

“Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley invokes Zephyrus, the west wind, to free his “dead thoughts” and words, “as from an unextinguished hearth / Ashes and sparks” (63, 66-67), in order to prophesy a renaissance among humanity, “to quicken a new birth” (64). This ode, one of a few personal lyrics published with his great verse drama, “Prometheus Unbound,” identifies Shelley with his heroic, tormented Titan. By stealing fire from heaven, Prometheus enabled humanity to found civilization.

In punishment, according to Hesiod’s account, Zeus chained Prometheus on a mountain and gave him unending torment, as an eagle fed from his constantly restored liver. Shelley completed both his dramatic poem and “Ode to the West Wind” in autumn 1819 in Florence, home of the great Italian medieval poet, Dante. The autumn wind Shelley celebrates in this ode came on him, standing in the Arno forest near Florence, just as he was finishing “Prometheus Unbound. Dante’s Divine Comedy had told an epic story of his ascent from Hell into Heaven to find his lost love Beatrice. Shelley’s ode invokes a like ascent from death to life for his own spark-like, potentially firy thoughts and words. Like Prometheus, Shelley hopes that his fire, a free-thinking, reformist philosophy, will enlighten humanity and liberate it from intellectual and moral imprisonment. He writes about his hopes for the future.

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A revolutionary, Shelley believed that poets exercise the same creative mental powers that make civilization itself. The close of his “Defence of Poetry” underlies the thought of “Ode to the West Wind”: Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, thetrumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.

The trumpeting poetic imagination, inspired by sources — spirits — unknown to the poet himself, actually reverses time. Poets prophesy, not by consciously extrapolating from past to present, and from present to future, with instrumental reason, but by capitulating to the mind’s intuition, by freeing the imagination. Poets influence what the future will bring by unknowingly reflecting or “mirroring” future’s “shadows” on the present. For Shelley, a living entity or spirit, not a mechanism, drives the world.

By surrendering to the creative powers of the mind, the poet unites his spirit with the world’s spirit across time. The west wind, Zephirus, represents that animate universe in Shelley’s ode. Shelley implores the West Wind to make him its “lyre” (57), that is, its wind-harp. “The Defence of Poetry” begins with this same metaphor: Shelley writes that “Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an ? lian lyre; which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody” (§7). This is not just a pretty figure of speech from nature. We now recognize that poetic inspiration itself arises from a “wild,” “uncontrollable,” and “tameless” source like the wind, buffeting the mind’s unconscious. Long before cognitive psychology taught us this fact, Shelley clearly saw that no one could watch her or his own language process as it worked. Like all procedural memories, it is recalled only in the doing.

We are unconscious of its workings, what contributes both content and form, semantics and syntax, to our utterances. He writes that “the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure” (§285).

This epic metaphor goes beyond the action of the wind on the lyre, the world on the mind. The wind’s tumultuous “mighty harmonies” (59) imprint their power and patterns on the “leaves” they drive, both ones that fall from trees, and ones we call `pages,’ the leaves on which poems are written. Inspiration gives the poet a melody, a sequence of simple notes, resembling the wind’s “stream” (15), but his creative mind imposes a new harmony of this melody, by adding chords and by repeating and varying the main motifs.

The human imagination actively works with this “wind” to impose “harmony” on its melody. The lyre “accomodate[s] its chords to the motions of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound; even as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre” (§8). In this way, the poet’s mind and the inspiration it receives co-create the poem. In “Ode on the West Wind,” the melody’ delivered to Shelley is unconsciously expressed in the poem’s epic metaphor, and the chords that his mind generates in response are, first, the repetitions and variations of that melody — for example, the variation of the “leaves” metaphor — and secondly, the formal order: the sonnet sequence imposed on terza rima, as if the tradition of Western sonneteering were imposed on Dante’s transcendental vision. That Shelley echoes the metaphor-melody’s points of comparison throughout “The Defence of Poetry” shows how deeply ingrained it was in his mind.

To Shelley, metaphors like this, comparing a human being and the universe, characterize the prophetic powers of all poets. Their conscious, rational mind, in routine deliberation, observes and describes, taking care not to impose on the things under scrutiny anything from the observer, but comparisons, fusing different things, depart from observation. They impose on experience something that the mind supplies or that is in turn supplied to it by inspiration. In “The Defence of Poetry,” Shelley explains that poets’ “language is vitally metaphorical; that is it marks the before unapprehended relations of things” (§22).

Shelley builds “Ode to the West Wind” on “unapprehended relations” between the poetic mind and the west wind. The experience in the Arno forest, presumably (why else would he have footnoted the incident? ), awoke his mind to these relations. If we believe that the unselfconscious mind is susceptible to the same chaotic forces as the weather, and if we trust those forces as fundamentally good, then Shelley’s ode will ring true. Trusting instead in man-made categories like honour, fame, and friendship, Thomas Gray would have been bewildered by Shelley’s faith.

The country graveyard has spirits, to be sure, but they are ghosts of dead friends. No natural power inspires elegies or epitaphs. These writings reflect the traditional order by which melancholy, sentimental minds put order to nature. Gray quotes from many poets, as if asserting humanity’s strength in numbers. Like Wordsworth’s solitary reaper, Shelley stands alone, singing in a strange voice that inspires but perplexes traditional listeners. He cries out to a wind-storm, “Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Eighteenth-century poets like Pope would have laughed this audaciousness to scorn, but then they would never have had the courage to go out into the storm and, like Shakespeare’s Lear in the mad scene, shout down the elements. Even should we not empathize with Shelley, his ode has a good claim to being one of the very greatest works of art in the Romantic period. Its heroic grandeur attains a crescendo in the fifth and last part with a hope that English speakers everywhere for nearly two centuries have committed to memory and still utter, often unaware of its source: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? Annotating editors have looked in vain for signs that Shelley resuscitated old phrases and other men’s flowers in this ode. What he writes is his own. It emerges, not in Gray’s often quoted end-stopped phrases, lines, and couplets, but in passionate, flowing sentences. The first part, all 14 lines, invokes the West Wind’s attention in one magnificent sentence. Five lines in the first part, two of which come at the end of a stanza, enjamb with the following lines. Few poets have fused such diverging poetic forms as terza rima, built on triplets with interwoven rhymes, and the sonnet, contrived with couplets, quatrains, sestets, and octaves.

Yet even this compelling utterance, unifying so much complexity in an onward rush, can be summarized and analyzed. The opening three stanzas invoke the West Wind (in order) as a driving force over land, in the sky, and under the ocean, and beg it to “hear” the poet (14, 28, 42). In the first stanza, the wind as “Destroyer and preserver” (14) drives “dead leaves” and “winged seeds” to the former’s burial and the latter’s spring rebirth. The second and third stanzas extend the leaf image.

The sky’s clouds in the second stanza are like “earth’s decaying leaves” (17) and “Angels of rain and lightning” (18), a phrase that fuses the guardian and the killer. In the third stanza, the wind penetrates to the Atlantic’s depths and causes the sea flowers and “oozy woods” to “despoil themselves” (40, 42), that is, to shed the “sapless foliage of the ocean,” sea-leaves. The forests implicit in the opening stanza, in this way, become “the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean” in the second, and “oozy woods” in the third. The last two stanzas shift from nature’s forests to Shelley’s.

In the fourth stanza, he identifies himself with the leaves of the first three stanzas: “dead leaf,” “swift cloud,” and “wave. ” If the wind can lift these things into flight, why can it not also lift Shelley “as a wave, a leaf, a cloud” (43-45, 53)? The fifth stanza completes the metaphor by identifying Shelley’s “falling” and “withered” leaves (58, 64) as his “dead thoughts” and “words” (63, 67). At last Shelley — in longing to be the West Wind’s lyre — becomes one with “the forest” (57). The last two stanzas also bring Shelley’s commands to the invoked West Wind to a climax.

The fourth, transitional stanza converts the threefold command “hear” to “lift” (53), and the last multiplies the commands sixfold: “Make me thy lyre” (57), “Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My Spirit” and “Be thou me” (61-62), “Drive my dead thoughts” (63), “Scatter … / Ashes and sparks” (66), and “Be … / The trumpet of a prophecy” (68). Reading fine poems and listening attentively to classical music both give pleasure, but it comes for several reasons. We carry away a piece of music’s theme or “melody,” rehearse it silently, and recognize the piece from that brief tune. One or more lines from a poem give a like pleasure.

Some are first lines: young lovers recall Elizabeth Barrett’s “How do I love thee. Let me count the ways”; and older married couples her husband Robert Browning’s “Grow old with me. / The best is yet to be” (from “Rabbi Ben Ezra”). Some are last lines: John Milton’s “They also serve who only stand and wait,” Dorothy Parker’s “You might as well live,” and Shelley’s “If Winter comes … ” As often, lines from the middle of poems persist, detached: where do The heights by great men reached and kept Were not attained by sudden flight, But they, while their companions slept,

Were toiling upward in the night. “Home is the sailor, home from sea,” and “Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody, but unbowed” come from? (Longfellow’s “The Ladder of St. Augustine,” Stevenson’s “Requium,” and Henley’s “Invictus. “) Yet a pleasure just as keen comes from appreciating how a piece of music or a poem harmonizes its melodies. The longer we read a poem, the more perfected become its variations of those lines that live in our memory. “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? “, in this way, perfects what came before. The West Wind is the breath of personified Autumn.

When Shelley invokes this breath, “dirge” (21), and “voice” (41), he has in mind a fellow traveller, a “comrade” (49) like himself, no less a human being for being a season of the year, no less an individual than the “close bosom-friend” in Keats’ “To Autumn. ” Two other figures recur to Shelley in the Arno forest that day. The stormy cirrus clouds driven by the wind remind him of the “bright hair” and “locks” of “some fierce M? nad” (20-23). He imagines the wind waking a male and dreaming “blue Mediterranean” (29-30). Like Shelley the boy, these minor fellow travellers help humanize Autumn and his speaking power.

In the first section, Shelley characterizes him as “an enchanter” (3) and a charioteer (6) to make that personification vivid. Then, by repeatedly addressing the West Wind in the second person as “thou” and “thee,” Shelley works towards achieving his purpose, his “sore need” (52). That would identify himself, not just with the leaves of the forest, the wind’s victims, but as “One too like thee” (56), like Autumn, music maker, composer of “mighty harmonies. ” Shelley imagines himself first as Autumn’s lyre but, made bolder by the moment, claims the composer’s own voice with “Be thou me, impetuous one! (62). He associates himself with Autumn, the “enchanter,” in the phrase, “by the incantation of this verse” (65). “Ode to the West Wind,” in Shelley’s mind, possesses the wind’s own driving power at its close. Shelley’s overreaching is not quite done. The Autumn wind does not create, but only destroys and preserves. It drives ghosts and “Pestilence-stricken multitudes” (5), causes “Angels of rain and lightning” (18) to fall from heaven, releases “Black rain, and fire, and hail” (28), and brings fear to the oceans.

It is not enough to be “a wave, a leaf, a cloud,” at the mercy of Autumn’s means in the “dying year” (24). The last stanza disregards Autumn and its successor season, Winter, for the last of the poem’s characters, Autumn’s “azure sister of the spring” (9). Shelley anticipates that spring will “blow / Her clarion” (8-10) for a good reason. At the most poignant moment of recognition of the poem, in the last two lines we all remember and do not know why, Spring’s life-giving clarion becomes “The trumpet of a


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