Please explain the first three cantos of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind." Please suggest a few methods to teach the poem.

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amarang9's profile pic

amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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At the risk of completely mocking the poetry of this Ode, maybe get them to paraphrase each canto: break them into groups. Each group's job is to paraphrase and say it aloud in class as if they were the speaker mocking the west wind for bringing winter. You could go around to each group and facilitate and make it fun. After that, you could go back to the poem and pick out phrases you focused on.

For example, I'd paraphrase the first canto as such:

"Hey! You leaf-killing ghost! WE all know you're the reason everything dies, but just wait until spring comes, ya jerk."

Canto 2: "I hate winter! Loose clouds like decaying leaves?! Angels of rain and lightning?! A bit dramatic, don't you think? That's how you're going to close out the year? Black rain, fire and hail?! Gimme a break. No New Year's party?"

Obviously, it could get way more irreverent, which could be bad or really funny.

 

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lit24's profile pic

lit24 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Shelley composed  the "Ode to the West Wind" while in Florence, Italy in the year 1819. It was published in the year 1820. The gist of the poem is that Shelley considers himself as a poet prophet campaigning for reform and revolution using the "wild west wind" to destroy everything that is old and defunct and plant new and progressive, liberal and democratic ideals in its stead. The poem describes a storm arising in the autumn season in the Mediterranean Sea and being driven towards the land by 'the west wind.'

In Canto 1, Shelley addresses the west wind directly as the "breath of autumn's being" and the sight of it driving away all the fallen leaves is  compared to a magician or an enchanter driving  away all the evil spirits. At the same time it carries with it the fallen seeds to deposit them in a different place where they will blossom in the spring season after being safely preserved during the cold winter season.

In the first canto the image of the west wind is that of  both a  'destroyer' and a 'preserver.'

In Canto 2 Shelley vividly describes the meteorological process of the gathering storm in the distant horizon of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the first stanza Shelley compares the storm clouds which are being formed at the horizon ("tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean") and being driven inland by the west wind to decaying leaves shed by the trees during autumn.

In the next two stanzas, the storm clouds are compared to  "angels" which carry the rain inland. They announce their arrival by fiery flashes of dazzling lightning which reach up into the sky from the ocean at the horizon. The flashes of lightning are compared to the bright hair of the maenad (the maenad is a frenzied  spirit which attends on the Greek God Dionysus.

The central image of canto 2 is that of the  "fierce Maenad" which conveys the fury and the violence of the west wind.

In Canto 3 Shelley  describes the action of the west wind on the Mediterranean Sea and on the Atlantic Ocean. The west wind announces to the Mediterranean Sea that summer is over and autumn has arrived. The clear view on a bright summer day of the under water palaces and towers in Baiae's Bay off the coast of Naples near the island made up of volcanic rock is disturbed by the west wind which blows across it. Similarly the west wind creates deep valleys as it blows across the level Atlantic Ocean and reminds  the underwater vegetation deep below that it is autumn and that they too must disintegrate like the vegetation on the earth above.

The central image in canto 3 is the "voice" of the west wind which announces to the underwater vegetation in the depths of the ocean that it is time for them to "despoil themselves."

Teaching Methods:

1. Silent reading: Ask your students to read the poem silently and let the magic of Shelley's poetry work on them.

2. Visualization: Next, play a tape recorded reading of the poem to them. Ask them to close their eyes and mentally visualize the seasonal changes Shelley talks about in his poem.

3. Dramatization:  Ask your students to enact the different scenes Shelley has portrayed in his poem.

The important thing to remember is to introduce activities which will kindle their imagination and appeal to their sense of fun.

Sources:

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