Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1278 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley defies the remote, impersonal character of the unseen Power behind Nature and strives to establish a personal relationship with it. The poem manages to reconcile the poet’s terrific emotional intensity with the elegant, even stately formal pattern of the regular Horatian ode. Using heroic meter (iambic pentameter) throughout, Shelley made each of the five stanzas into a sonnet with four terza-rima tercets and a closing couplet. The poetical effect is rather unlike that of the usual sonnet. Shelley’s interlocking rhymes sweep a reader along like gusts of wind, and the couplet pounds its message home with direct clarity and force.
The first three stanzas, addressed to the wild west wind, praise its irresistible power, marking its effects on all things in nature: clouds in the air, waves on the sea, leaves in the forest, even “the oozy woods which wear the sapless foliage of the ocean.” Poets usually address the mild, warm winds of Spring that bring nature to life, but Shelley confronts the cold, wild “breath of Autumn’s being,” which acts as both destroyer and preserver. The hidden Power behind Nature is not always friendly to humankind. The morality or immorality of its operations may not be discernible. Thus, the poet stands, appropriately, in awe of it. Each of the first three stanzas ends with a plea for the wind to take heed and hear the poet’s prayer.
The fourth stanza turns...
(The entire section is 475 words.)