The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Like many of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems, “Ode to the West Wind” was inspired by a natural phenomenon, an autumn storm that prompted the poet to contemplate the links between the outer world of nature and the realm of the intellect. In five stanzas directly addressed to the powerful wind that Shelley paradoxically calls both “destroyer” and “preserver” (line 14), the poet explores the impact of the regenerative process that he sees occurring in the world around him and compares it to the impact of his own poetry, which he believes can have similar influence in regenerating mankind.
In each stanza, Shelley speaks to the West Wind as if it is an animate power. The first three stanzas form a logical unit; in them the poet looks at how the wind influences the natural terrain over which it moves. The opening lines describe the way the wind sweeps away the autumn leaves and carries off seeds of vegetation, which will lie dormant through winter until the spring comes to give them new life as plants. In the second stanza, the poet describes the clouds that whisk across the autumn sky, driven by the same fierce wind and twisted into shapes that remind him of Maenads, Greek maidens known for their wild behavior. Shelley calls the wind the harbinger of the dying year, a visible sign that a cycle of nature’s life is coming to a close. The poet uses the third stanza to describe the impact of the wind on the Mediterranean coast line and the Atlantic...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The structure of “Ode to the West Wind” is exceptionally complex. Each of the five stanzas is itself a terza rima sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines divided into four triplets and a concluding couplet. Through the complex, interlocking rhyme scheme of terza rima, Shelley gives the poem a strong sense of rhythm. The form also gives emphasis to the concluding couplet in each stanza, thereby focusing the reader’s attention on the final line or lines. The effect Shelley achieves is important, for he wishes to emphasize, in the first three stanzas, the speaker’s plea that the West Wind heed his call, and in the final stanza he wants to highlight the significant rhetorical question with which the poem ends.
The primary literary trope in the poem is personification. Shelley repeatedly addresses the West Wind as if it were an animate, intelligent being; one might be reminded of the way elements of nature are represented in classical Greek or Latin literature, or in American Indian writings. Shelley wants readers to consider the Wind a living force that helps shape the landscape—literally, the physical landscape, and metaphorically, the landscape of human minds and attitudes.
Shelley uses three major images of the poem—the wave, the leaf, and the cloud—to demonstrate the ways in which the West Wind treats elements of the physical landscape. The poet’s scene-painting is especially noteworthy; in a few short lines in each of the first...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Abrams, M. H., ed. English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. A time-tested collection, offering analysis by important Shelley authorities.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. A solid introduction to Shelley edited by one of the world’s noted literary critics.
________. Shelley’s Mythmaking. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959. Here American critic and scholar Bloom portrays Shelley not simply as appropriating classical myths but also as creating a deeply personal mythology.
Morton, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Shelley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. An excellent compendium of essays by distinguished Shelley scholars delving into his life, times, and works; the critical reception of those works; and his literary, historical, and philosophical contexts.
Scrivener, Michael. Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Concentrates upon Shelley’s passionate and radical political views and the vehicles he used to express them.
Wasserman, Earl. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. Shelley’s moral stance is examined in this acclaimed text.
White, Newman Ivey. Shelley. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940. A great biography that remains among the best books written about the poet.