Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley examines and compares two phenomena that are particularly potent: the power of nature and the power of poetry. Like most Romantic poets, he sees a clear link between these two, believing that the poet’s power arises from nature, inspired by it and akin to it in many respects. Many similes in this poem, and in others by Shelley, focus readers’ attention on the comparisons. Donald Reiman has described the themes of this poem as “the Poet’s personal despair and his hopes for social renewal” expressed “in images drawn from the seasonal cycle” (Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1969). Hence, the destructive power of the West Wind parallels Shelley’s fear that the beauty of the natural world, and metaphorically the beauty of his own works, is doomed to oblivion by a hostile and insensitive force. At the same time, however, he recognizes that the destructive power of the West Wind is but a part of a larger cycle in which what seems like death is merely a necessary stage in the process of regeneration that perpetuates life itself. In the final stanzas of the poem he offers some hope that, despite his being constricted by his humanity and possibly being ignored by those whom he wishes to enlighten, he may one day be able to speak to others. Like the new life that comes inevitably every spring, his works may be “reborn” when people (perhaps those other than his contemporaries) discover them and listen to Shelley’s calls for social and moral reform.
The specifics of Shelley’s plan for reforming the world do not appear in “Ode to the West Wind.” Rather, this poem focuses on the process by which his other works may one day achieve their purpose in the world. Those familar with classical or Renaissance poetry may notice a similarity between this poem and those by Horace or by Ben Jonson, whose “Go, Little Book” verses appeal in a similar way for the continued life of their poetry. Like those poets who preceded him, Shelley hopes that his work will one day be read and appreciated by an audience that can understand his deep concern for the improvement of humankind, one that will be willing to listen to his plan for bringing about such improvement.