In the powerful and frequently quoted “Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Bysshe Shelley employs a poetic structure of five cantos with four tercets each (a tercet is three lines of verse). The third line of each tercet allows for change in the direction of the poet’s thought. The end of each canto features a rhyming couplet that allows the passionate urgency of the poet’s words to gain strength as his persona strives to merge his essence with that of the driving West Wind. Shelley’s wild, proud, untamed wind forms his personal emblem, the perfect symbol for and the impetuous agent of radical social change.
Shelley, a poet of the second generation of English Romantics, wrote his ode shortly after the Peterloo Massacre, in which royal soldiers attacked and killed working people at a protest rally in the St. Peter’s Field area of Manchester. The poem also followed shortly after some of Shelley’s own most terrible personal losses. Together with other works written in 1819, such as “Sonnet: England in 1819” and “Song to the Men of England,” “Ode to the West Wind” did much to shore up Shelley’s reputation as radical thinker.
The first of five cantos of the ode summon the West Wind, referring to it as a kind of magician, a transformer in and of the world emanating from autumn itself, an invisible enchanter from whom ghostly dead leaves scurry. The first canto makes grief-spawned allusions to the deaths of the poet’s son William and of others close to him, as well as his knowledge of and sympathy for England’s poor: Shelley speaks of autumn leaves as “pestilence-stricken multitudes” that the great wind blows to their “dark wintry bed” (graves). He finds intermixed with those driven leaves, however, the “winged seeds” that, as stanza 3 has it, will soon be awakened from a death-like sleep by the West Wind’s “azure sister of the Spring.” This wind from the warm south will open the buds whose flowers feed on the sweet springtime air as a flock of sheep feeds on pasture grass.
In the couplet ending canto 1, the poet’s persona calls out to praise the wildness of the West Wind and call it “Destroyer and preserver.” He sees it as the force that must listen to his cry for the transformation of society, a cry he made more directly in poems such as “Sonnet: England in 1819.” In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley oxymoronically portrays the wind as something that at once “preserves” the world from destruction and destroys the existing order that is waging war against humanity.
Canto 2 begins with a continuation of the speaker’s sense of awe concerning the wind’s might; he hails the wind as the clouds’ creator—a “living stream” in the sky that moves the “trees” of heaven and ocean. In stanza 2, the poet delineates a vision of angels that flow with the wind and that, in his simile, are like the “bright hair” streaming “from the head of some fierce Maenad.” Inducing in his readers a sense of vertigo, Shelley takes them to the height of the skies and to the distant horizon, where they see “the locks of the approaching storm,” a storm that will bring about changes on the earth.
At the end of canto 1, stanza 4, and at the beginning of the ending rhyming couplet, the term “dirge” is Shelley’s descriptor of the stormy wind signaling the old year’s demise. This melancholy wind will in turn create “the dome of a vast sepulcher” that will have as its ceiling vaulting a host of vapors from whose seeming solidity a rain of darkness and hail will explode as—once again—a pleading voice cries for people to heed what is foretold: “O hear!” With this cry, Shelley the prophet announces the end of an old, dehumanizing order and the beginning of a new order that will offer freedom to the oppressed.
In canto 3, the poet’s persona furthers the notion of things changing instantly from sweetness to darkness and cold through the action of his ever-driving West Wind. He asks readers to envision a Mediterranean Sea suddenly being awakened from deep summer sleep “Beneath a pumice isle in Baiae’s Bay,” a place “All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers/ So sweet, the sense faints picturing them!” Below the sea wrack floating in great ocean depths, the realization occurs that profound change is happening in the world, and the sea’s denizens “tremble and despoil themselves” out of panic. Something is indeed afoot in Europe, and it does not simply have to do with a change in weather: The palpable fear expressed by the powers of the ocean, one is led to believe, is the fear felt by earth’s great and mighty, who will out of fear “grow gray” when catastrophic change finally comes.
Beginning with canto 4, the poet shifts into a more personal voice. Shelley praises, contrasts himself with, and longs like a leaf to be wafted by his beloved West Wind. His yearnings for oneness with this spirit of nature have the intensity of heartfelt prayer. The poet would choose to be a dead leaf blown about by the wind, or a flying cloud, or a wave on the sea being pushed to shore rather than stay in his present despairing condition. Hoping to share in the West Wind’s power in order to be freed from the bonds of earth, he calls upon the “uncontrollable” to control him, to be for him a strong friend who would lead him just as an older, stronger adult would mentor a child, saying, “if even/ I were as in my boyhood, and could be/ The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven.”
The fourth line in the fourth stanza is another prayer to the wind, and this time Shelley asks it to “lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud” because, as he exclaims in one of the most memorable phrases of the poem, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” The speaker feels weighed down by time and life’s circumstances, and he suffers unmercifully. He cries out for the release that his reigning West Wind can provide.
Canto 5 ends “Ode to the West Wind” with the persona’s most passionate pleas, then features his commands to the invisible mover and shaker of the world. In the first stanza, he petitions the wind to be its lyre, asking that, if his own leaves are falling as those in Nature, the wind should use them to help create a melancholy tone befitting the autumn season. Then he asks the wind for the ultimate favor—to be one with it: “Be thou, Spirit fierce,/ My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!” He compares his thoughts to those dead leaves the wind blows, asking that those thoughts, like leaves, be whirled through the world to “quicken a new birth.”
Finally, when the poet’s persona prays for the wind to“Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth/ Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!” he makes clear that he now sees himself as the wind’s agent, doing its bidding by prophesying through his written words. The prediction he makes is subtle and—on the surface—even pedestrian, with its commonsensical observation, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ The question becomes a profound one, however, if winter is equated with an England hobbled by the darkness and cold of greed, tyranny, and scorn for the poor and if spring stands for the happy birth of an England of noble aspiration—as was Shelley’s intent.