Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
Type of Work and Year of Publication
.......“Ode to the West Wind” is a lyric poem that addresses the west wind as a powerful force and asks it to scatter the poet's words throughout the world. (A lyric poem presents the deep feelings and emotions of the poet rather than telling a story or presenting a witty observation. An ode is a
lyric poem that uses lofty, dignified language to address a person or thing.) Charles and Edmund Ollier published the poem in London in 1820 in a volume entitled Prometheus Unbound: a Lyrical Drama in Four Acts With Other Poems. Prometheus Unbound is a four-act play (intended to be read but not performed) that was the featured work in the
Setting and Background Information
.......The time is autumn of 1819. The place is western Italy, from the Mediterranean coast inland to Florence. Shelley makes a specific reference in the poem to the city of Baiae (Italian, Baia), called Aqua Cumanae by ancient Romans. Its favorable climate attracted vacationing
Roman dignitaries to the city, including Julius Caesar and Nero, who constructed villas there. Volcanic eruptions plunged part of the ancient site into the sea, as alluded to in the poem in lines 32 and 33. Shelley wrote the poem inland, in a forest on the Arno River near Florence. His notes on the the poem explain that he received the inspiration for it one fall day when the strong west wind
swept down from the Atlantic and through the Tuscan landscape of west-central Italy:
This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapors which pour down the autumnal rains. They begin, as I foresaw, at sunset, with a violent tempest of hail and rain,
attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions. (Shelley 239)
Ode to the West Wind
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
Text, Summaries, and Notes
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou 5
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd1seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within
its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion2o'er the dreaming earth, and fill 10
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed
With living hues and odours plain and hill;
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!
Summary, Stanza 1
Addressing the west wind as a human, the poet describes its activities: It drives dead leaves away as if they were ghosts fleeing a wizard. The leaves are yellow and black, pale and red, as if they had died of an infectious disease. The west wind carries seeds in its chariot and deposits them in the earth, where they lie until the spring wind
awakens them by blowing on a trumpet (clarion). When they form buds, the spring wind spreads them over plains and on hills. In a paradox, the poet addresses the west wind as a destroyer and a preserver, then asks it to listen to what he says.
Notes, Stanza 1
1. The accent over the e in wingèd (line 7) causes the word to be pronounced in two syllables—the first stressed ....and the second unstressed—enabling the poet to maintain the metric scheme (iambic pentameter).
2. clarion: Trumpet.
Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion, 15
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 airy surge,
bright hair uplifted from the head 20
Of some fierce Mænad3, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge4
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre, 25
Vaulted with all thy congregated5might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O hear!
Summary, Stanza 2
The poet says the west wind drives clouds along just as it does dead leaves after it shakes the clouds free of the sky and the oceans. These clouds erupt with rain and lightning. Against the sky, the lightning appears as a bright shaft of hair from the head of a Mænad. The poet compares the west wind to a funeral song sung at the
death of a year and says the night will become a dome erected over the year's tomb with all of the wind's gathered might. From that dome will come black rain, fire, and hail. Again the poet asks the west wind to continue to listen to what he has to say.
Notes, Stanza 2
3. Mænad: Wildly emotional woman who took part in the orgies of ....Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry.
4. dirge: Funeral song.
5. congregated: Gathered, mustered.
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he
Lull'd by the coil of his crystàlline6streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers 35
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
sapless foliage of the ocean, know 40
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves:7O hear!
Summary, Stanza 3
At the beginning of autumn, the poet says, the the west wind awakened the Mediterranean Sea—lulled by the sound of the clear streams flowing into it—from summer slumber near an island formed from pumice (hardened lava). The island is in a bay at Baiae, a city in western Italy about ten miles west of Naples. While sleeping at this locale, the
Mediterranean saw old palaces and towers that had collapsed into the sea during an earthquake and became overgrown with moss and flowers. To create a path for the west wind, the powers of the mighty Atlantic Ocean divide (cleave) themselves and flow through chasms. Deep beneath the ocean surface, flowers and foliage, upon hearing the west wind, quake in fear and despoil themselves. (In autumn,
ocean plants decay like land plants. See Shelley's note on this subject.) Once more, the poet asks the west wind to continue to listen to what he has to say.
Notes, Stanza 3
6. The accent over the a in crystàlline shifts the stress to the second syllable, making crystàl an iamb.
7. In his notes, Shelley commented on lines
The phenomenon alluded to at the end of the third stanza is well known to naturalists. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathizes with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is consequently influenced by the winds announce it.(Shelley 239)
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share 45
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 skiey8speed 50
Scarce seem'd a vision—I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
O! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon
the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd 55
One too like thee—tameless, and swift, and proud.
Summary, Stanza 4
The poet says that if he were a dead leaf (like the ones in the first stanza) or a cloud (like the ones in the second stanza) or an ocean wave that rides the power of the Atlantic but is less free than the uncontrollable west wind—or if even he were as strong and vigorous as he was when he was a boy and could accompany the wandering wind
in the heavens and could only dream of traveling faster—well, then, he would never have prayed to the west wind as he is doing now in his hour of need.
.......Referring again to imagery in the first three stanzas, the poet asks the wind to lift him as it
would a wave, a leaf, or a cloud; for here on earth he is experiencing troubles that prick him like thorns and cause him to bleed. He is now carrying a heavy burden that—though he is proud and tameless and swift like the west wind—has immobilized him in chains and bowed him down.
Notes, Stanza 4
8. Skiey is a neologism (coined word) whose two syllables maintain iambic pentameter. The s in skiey alliterates with the s in speed, ....scarce, seem'd, and striven.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep autumnal tone, 60
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the
incantation of this verse, 65
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my
lips to unawaken'd earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? 70
Summary, Stanza 5
The poet asks the west wind to turn him into a lyre (a stringed instrument) in the same way that the west wind's mighty currents turn the forest into a lyre. And if the poet's leaves blow in the wind like those from the forest trees, there will be heard a deep autumnal tone that is both sweet and sad. Be "my spirit," the poet implores the wind. "Be
thou me" and drive my dead thoughts (like the dead leaves) across the universe in order to prepare the way for new birth in the spring. The poet asks the wind to scatter his words around the world, as if they were ashes from a burning fire. To the unawakened earth, they will become blasts from a trumpet of prophecy. In other words, the poet wants the wind to help him disseminate his views on
politics, philosophy, literature, and so on. The poet is encouraged that, although winter will soon arrive, spring and rebirth will follow it.
Examples of Figures of Speech and Rhetorical Devices
Alliteration: wild West Wind (line 1).
Apostrophe, Personification: Throughout the poem, the poet addresses the west wind as if it
were a person.
Metaphor: Comparison of the west wind to breath of Autumn's being (line 1).
Metaphor: Comparison of autumn to a living, breathing creature (line
Anastrophe: leaves dead (line 2). Anastrophe is inversion of the normal word order, as in a man forgotten (instead of a forgotten man) or as in the opening lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Kahn": In Xanada did Kubla Kahn / A stately pleasure dome
decree (instead of In Xanadu, Kubla Kahn decreed a stately pleasure dome). Here is another example, made up to demonstrate the inverted word order of anastrophe:
In the garden green and dewy Simile: Comparison of dead leaves to ghosts.
A rose I plucked for Huey
Anastrophe: enchanter fleeing (line 3).
Alliteration: Pestilence-stricken multitudes (line 5).
Alliteration: Pestilence-stricken multitudes (line
Alliteration: chariotest to (line 6).
Alliteration: The wingèd seeds, where they (line 7).
Metaphor: Comparison of seeds to flying creatures (line 7).
Simile: Comparison of each seed to a corpse
Alliteration: sister of the Spring (line 9).
Comparison of spring wind to a person (lines 9-10).
Metaphor, Personification: Comparison of earth to a dreamer (line 10).
Alliteration: flocks to
Simile: Comparison of buds to flocks (line 11).
Anastrophe: fill / . . . With living hues and odours plain and
hill (lines 10, 12).
Alliteration: Wild Spirit, which (line 13).
Paradox: Destroyer and preserver (line
Alliteration: hear, O hear (line 14).
Apostrophe, Personification: The poet addresses the west wind as if it were a person.
Metaphor: Comparison of the poet and the forest to a lyre, a stringed musical instrument (line 57).
Metaphor: Comparison of the poet to a forest (line 58).
Alliteration: The tumult of thy
mighty harmonies (line 59).
Alliteration: Sweet though in sadness. Be
thou, Spirit fierce, (line 61).
Metaphor: Comparison of the poet to the wind (line 62).
Alliteration: Drive my dead thoughts over the universe (line 63).
Simile: Comparison of thoughts to withered leaves (lines 63-64).
Alliteration: the incantation of this (line 65).
Simile: Comparison of words to ashes and sparks (66-67).
Alliteration: my words among mankind (67).
Metaphor: Comparison of the poet's voice to the
wind as a trumpet of a prophecy (lines 68-69).
Alliteration: trumpet of a prophecy (lines 68-69).
Alliteration: O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Structure and Rhyme Scheme
.......The poem contains five stanzas of fourteen lines each. Each stanza has three tercets and a closing couplet. In poetry, a tercet is a unit of three lines that usually contain end rhyme; a couplet is a two-line unit that usually contains end rhyme. Shelley wrote the tercets in a verse form called terza rima,
invented by Dante Alighieri. In this format, line 2 of one tercet rhymes with lines 1 and 3 of the next tercet. In regard to the latter, consider the first three tercets of the second stanza of "Ode to the West Wind." Notice that shed (second line, first tercet) rhymes with spread and head (first and third lines, second tercet) and that
surge (second line, second tercet) rhymes with verge and dirge (first and third lines, third tercet).
Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion, .......All of the couplets in the poem rhyme, but the last couplet (lines 69-70) is an imperfect rhyme called eye rhyme. Eye rhyme occurs when the pronunciation of the last syllable of one line is different from the pronunciation of the last syllable of another line even though both syllables are identical in spelling
except for a preceding consonant. For example, the following end-of-line word pairs would constitute eye rhyme: cough, rough; cow, mow; daughter, laughter; rummaging, raging. In Shelley's poem, wind and behind form eye rhyme.
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 airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head 20
Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
.......Shelley unifies the content of the poem by focusing the first three stanzas on the powers of the wind and the last two stanzas on the poet's desire to use these powers to spread his words throughout the world.
.......Most of the lines in the poem are in iambic pentameter, although some of the pentameter lines have an extra syllable (catalexis). The following tercet from the first stanza demonstrates the iambic-pentameter format, with the stressed
syllables in capitals:
..........1................2..................3.................4.............5 Here is a line with catalexis:
WING.|.èd SEEDS,.|.where THEY.|.lie COLD.|.and LOW,
Each LIKE.|.a CORPSE.|.with IN.|.its GRAVE,.|.un TIL
Thine AZ.|.ure SIS.|.ter OF.|.the SPRING.|.shall BLOW
Of SOME.|.fierce MAE.|.nad, E.|.ven FROM.|.the DIM.|.verge
And here is a line that does not follow the format. It is in iambic hexameter:
..........1................2..................3.................4.............5............6 Theme and Historical Background
Shook FROM.|.the TANG.|.gled BOUGHS.|.of HEA.|.ven AND.|.o
.......The poet desires the irresistible power of the wind to scatter the words he has written about his ideals and causes, one of which was opposition to Britain’s monarchical government as a form of tyranny. Believing firmly in democracy and individual rights, he supported movements to reform government. In 1819,
England’s nobility feared that working-class citizens—besieged by economic problems, including high food prices—would imitate the rebels of the French Revolution and attempt to overthrow the established order. On August 16, agitators attracted tens of thousands of people to a rally in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, to urge parliamentary reform and to protest laws designed to inflate the cost of
corn and wheat. Nervous public officials mismanaged the unarmed crowd and ended up killing 11 protesters and injuring more than 500 others. In reaction to this incident, Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy in the fall of 1819 to urge further nonviolent action against the government. This work was not published during his lifetime. However, "Ode to the West Wind," also written in the fall
of 1819, was published a year later. The poem obliquely refers to his desire to spread his reformist ideas when it says, "Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth / Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!" Shelley believed that the poetry he wrote had the power bring about political reform: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World," he wrote in another work, A Defence of
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Write an essay that attempts to answer whether Shelley succeeded in his goal to "scatter . . . my words among mankind"? The essay will ....require you to read other works by him and to research sources evaluating the impact of these works.
2. Shelley's poem uses nature imagery to convey his theme. Write a poem of your own that uses nature imagery to convey a theme.
3. To whom does line 56 refer?
4. In line 62 (Be thou me, impetuous one! ) is Shelley describing himself as impetuous?
5. What is an ode? In what ways does Shelley's poem fit the definition of an ode?
Shelley, Mary, ed. The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: Edward Moxon, 1839.