Ode to the West Wind by Shelley

Ode to the West Wind Summary

The speaker of the poem appeals to the West Wind to infuse him with a new spirit and a new power to spread his ideas. In order to invoke the West Wind, he lists a series of things the wind has done that illustrate its power:
driving away the autumn leaves, placing seeds in the earth, bringing thunderstorms and the cyclical "death" of the natural world, and stirring up the seas and oceans.

The speaker wishes that the wind could affect him the way it does leaves and clouds and waves. Because it can’t, he asks the wind to play him like an instrument, bringing out his sadness in its own musical lament. Maybe the wind can even help him to send his ideas all over the world; even if they’re not powerful in their own right, his ideas might inspire others. The sad music that the wind will play on him will become a prophecy. The West Wind of autumn brings on a cold, barren period of winter, but isn’t winter always followed by a spring?

Canto I: I, the West Wind Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-5

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:

  • The speaker appeals to the West Wind four times in this first canto, or section, of the poem. (We don’t find out what he’s actually asking the wind to do for him until the end of the canto.)
  • Lines 1-5 are the first appeal, in which the speaker describes the West Wind as the breath of Autumn.
  • Like a magician banishing ghosts or evil spirits, the West Wind sweeps away the dead leaves. These dead leaves are multicolored, but not beautiful in the way we usually think of autumn leaves – their colors are weird and ominous and seem almost diseased (like "pestilence-stricken multitudes").

Lines 5-8

O Thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until

  • The speaker appeals to the West Wind a second time.
  • This time, the West Wind is described as carrying seeds to their grave-like places in the ground, where they’ll stay until the spring wind comes and revives them. The wind burying seeds in the ground is like a charioteer driving corpses to their graves.

Lines 8-12

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 odours plain and hill:

  • Once the West Wind has carried the seeds into the ground, they lie there all winter, and then are woken by the spring wind.
  • Shelley thinks of the spring wind as blue (or, to be specific, "azure").
  • The spring wind seems to be the cause of all the regeneration and flowering that takes place in that season. It blows a "clarion" (a kind of trumpet) and causes all the seeds to bloom. It fills both "plain and hill" with "living hues and odours." It also opens buds into flowers the way a shepherd drives sheep.

Lines 13-14

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!

  • The speaker appeals to the West Wind twice more, describing it as a "Wild Spirit" that’s everywhere at once.
  • The West Wind is both "Destroyer and Preserver"; it brings the death of winter, but also makes possible the regeneration of spring.
  • Now we find out (sort of) what the speaker wants the wind to do: "hear, oh, hear!" For the moment, that’s all he’s asking – just to be listened to. By the wind.

Canto II: I, the West Wind Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 15-18

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

  • The speaker continues to describe the West Wind.
  • This time, he describes the wind as having clouds spread through it the way dead leaves float in a stream. Leaves fall from the branches of trees, and these clouds fall from the "branches" of the sky and the sea, which work together like "angels of rain and lightning" to create clouds and weather systems.
  • Yep, there’s a storm coming!

Lines 18-23

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm.

  • The speaker creates a complex simile describing the storm that the West Wind is bringing. The "locks of the approaching storm" – the thunderclouds, that is – are spread through the airy "blue surface" of the West Wind in the same way that the wild locks of hair on a Mænad wave around in the air. Got that?
  • Let’s put it in SAT analogy form: thunderclouds are to the West Wind as a Mænad’s locks of hair are to the air.
  • A Mænad is one of the wild, savage women who hang out with the god Dionysus in Greek mythology. The point here about Mænads is that, being wild and crazy, they don’t brush their hair much.
  • Oh, and the poet reminds us that these Mænad-hair-like clouds go vertically all the way through the sky, from the horizon to the center.

Lines 23-28

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 vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain and fire and hail will burst: O hear!

  • The speaker develops a morbid metaphor to describe the power of the West Wind. The wind is described as a "dirge," or funeral song, to mark the death of the old year. The night that’s falling as the storm comes is going to be like a dark-domed tomb constructed of thunderclouds, lightning, and rain.
  • The poet ends by asking the West Wind once again to "hear" him, but we don’t know yet what exactly he wants it to listen to.

Canto III: I, the West Wind, the Mediterranean Sea Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 29-32

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his chrystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's bay,

  • The speaker tells us more about the West Wind’s wacky exploits: the Mediterranean Sea has lain calm and still during the summer, almost as though on vacation "beside a pumice isle in Baiæ’s bay," a holiday spot for the ancient Romans. But the West Wind has woken the Mediterranean, presumably by stirring him up and making the sea choppy and storm-tossed.
  • The Mediterranean is personified here as male.

Lines 33-36

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!

  • During his summertime drowsiness, the Mediterranean has seen in his dreams the "old palaces and towers" along Baiæ’s bay, places that are now overgrown with plants so that they have become heartbreakingly picturesque.

Lines 36-38

For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below

  • The speaker claims that the "level" Atlantic Ocean breaks itself into "chasms" for the West Wind.
  • This is a poetic way of saying the wind disturbs the water, making waves, but it also suggests that the ocean is subservient to the West Wind’s amazing powers.

Lines 38-42

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 grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!

  • In the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, the different kinds of marine plants hear the West Wind high above and "suddenly grow gray with fear" and thrash around, harming themselves in the process.
  • Once again, the speaker ends all these descriptions of the West Wind by asking it to "hear" him.

Canto IV: I, the West Wind Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 43-47

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!

  • The speaker begins to describe his own desires more clearly. He wishes he were a "dead leaf" or a "swift cloud" that the West Wind could carry, or a wave that would feel its "power" and "strength."
  • He imagines this would make him almost as free as the "uncontrollable" West Wind itself.

Lines 47-51

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;

  • The speaker is willing to compromise: even if he can’t be a leaf or a cloud, he wishes he could at least have the same relationship to the wind that he had when he was young, when the two were "comrade[s]."
  • When he was young, the speaker felt like it was possible for him to be faster and more powerful than the West Wind.

Lines 51-53

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!

  • The speaker claims that, if he could have been a leaf or cloud on the West Wind, or felt young and powerful again, he wouldn’t be appealing to the West Wind now for its help.
  • He begs the wind to treat him the way it does natural objects like waves, leaves and clouds.

Lines 54-56

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
  • The speaker exclaims, "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!"
  • He explains that the passage of time has weighed him down and bowed (but not yet broken) his spirit, which started out "tameless, and swift, and proud," just like the West Wind itself.

Canto V: I, the West Wind Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 57-58

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!

  • Finally, the speaker asks the West Wind for something: he wants the wind to turn him into its lyre.
  • This image is related to the æolian harp, a common metaphor in Romantic poetry. The æolian harp is sort of like a stringed version of a wind chime; it’s an instrument that you only have to put out in the breeze and nature will play its own tunes.
  • Here Shelley’s speaker describes himself as the harp, or "lyre," that the wind will play. He’ll be the instrument, and the West Wind will play its own music on him, just as it does in the branches of trees in the forest. That way, it won’t matter that he’s metaphorically losing his leaves.

Lines 59-61

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness.

  • The speaker and the trees of the forest are both decaying – the trees are losing their leaves, and he’s been bowed down by life.
  • But that doesn’t matter; if the wind plays both of them as instruments, they’ll make sweet, melancholy, autumn-ish music.

Lines 61-62

Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

  • Now the speaker changes tactics; instead of asking the wind to play him like an instrument, he asks the wind to become him. He wants the wind’s "fierce" spirit to unite with him entirely, or maybe even replace his own spirit.

Lines 63-64

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth!

  • The speaker compares his thoughts to the dead leaves; perhaps the West Wind can drive his thoughts all over the world in the same way it moves the leaves, and they’ll become like a rich compost or mulch from which new growth can come in the spring. That way, even if his thoughts are garbage, at least that garbage can fertilize something better.

Lines 65-67

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

  • The speaker comes up with another metaphor to describe what he wants the wind to do to his thoughts, and this one isn’t about fertilizer. He describes his own words – perhaps the words of this very poem – as sparks and ashes that the wind will blow out into the world.
  • The speaker himself is the "unextinguished hearth" from which the sparks fly; he’s a fire that hasn’t gone out yet, but is definitely waning.

Lines 68-69

Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!

    The speaker returns to the metaphor of the wind playing him as an instrument, but this time he describes his mouth as a trumpet through which the wind will blow its own prophecy.

Lines 69-70

O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

  • The speaker ends by asking the wind a question that seems very simple: "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"
  • The symbolic weight that he’s attached to the seasons, however, makes us realize that this is more than a question about the wheel of the year. He’s asking whether or not the death and decay that come at the end of something always mean that a rebirth is around the corner.
  • He’s hoping that’s true, because he can feel himself decaying.

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