How is "Ode to the West Wind" a revolutionary poem?

"Ode to the West Wind" is a revolutionary poem in expressing Shelley's longing to spread his radical ideas far and wide. He writes of wishing to "scatter ... sparks" that will lead to widespread change, and "to quicken a new birth" that will transform the world. He yearns to be "The trumpet of a prophesy" that will herald in a new "Spring," a metaphor for a better world.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To answer this question, it best to turn to Shelley's beliefs. Though the son of a vastly wealthy family, Shelley's ideas were revolutionary for his time. He supported the ideals of the French Revolution, an event that filled most people of his class with fear and loathing. He aligned himself...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

To answer this question, it best to turn to Shelley's beliefs. Though the son of a vastly wealthy family, Shelley's ideas were revolutionary for his time. He supported the ideals of the French Revolution, an event that filled most people of his class with fear and loathing. He aligned himself with radicals such as Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, whose daughter he married. He and his Romantic cohorts, such as Lord Byron, happened to be wandering around in Switzerland and Italy because in the Napoleonic War period, England swung right and held radicals like Shelley, who advocated for republicanism, women's rights, and Irish independence—and thought the rich should be solely responsible for paying the national debt brought on by war—in deep suspicion as potential traitors.

Within this context, and knowing that some of Shelley's writing, such as A Philosophical View of Reform, was blackballed and never published while he was alive, we can better understand the frustration expressed in this poem. Shelley knew he was right on issues that we take for granted today, such as the evils of slavery or the benefits of a wide franchise, but also realized his voice was being suppressed. He believed, as he wrote in A Defense of Poetry, that poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" because of their ability to change people's hearts and minds with their words.

Therefore, we can understand how he wished his words, written on leaves of paper, could circulate around the world with the freedom of the autumn leaves blown around by the west wind. He longed for that unimpeded movement of new ideas. He wrote in his ode that he wished to:

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophesy!

These are revolutionary words. Shelley says he wants to spark a fire that will spread and awaken the people of the earth. He wants to "prophesy" to them, foretelling a better world that is to come. This will cause them to want change. He also writes that he wants "to quicken a new birth!" By this, he means he wishes to help promote revolutionary change. He asks finally:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

In other words, he predicts that the old order will come to an end. This is couched in universal terms but few would have missed what this meant.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the broadest sense of its meaning, "revolutionary" is an adjective that defines a complete, sudden, or starkly noticeable change. To best answer your question, it's important to know what Percy Shelley, the author of "Ode to the West Wind," thought of poetry, and the historical context in which he wrote the poem. In his famous essay "A Defense of Poetry" Shelley writes:

Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed; it marries exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change; it subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things.

In other words, poetry can create the stark change that transforms objects and events that are ugly or evil into things of beauty. Shortly before Shelley wrote "Ode to the West Wind" in 1819, he experienced the personal tragedy of the death of his young son William. At the same time, England experienced the national tragedy of the Peterloo Massacre in which 15 protesters were killed and hundreds more were wounded. Shelley may have been attempting to undertake the revolutionary act of converting his profound grief at these events into a thing of beauty. In "Ode to the West Wind" he makes it clear that a poet takes the role of revolutionary and prophet, not just for himself personally but for others as well, when he writes:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophesy!

Although Shelley describes the awful death of autumn leaves swept by the cold wind, he also suggests the hope of spring. By doing this, he attempts to offer the consolation that there is hope even in the tragedies of life, and one of the principle drivers of revolutionary change is poetry.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The poem's message of regeneration is a revolutionary one. Shelley writes,

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!

He addresses the west wind, imploring it to scatter his old words and ideas far and wide as if to hurry along the possibility of new words and ideas that spring up in their place. Just as the fallen, withered leaves of autumn can fertilize the earth, making it richer and more productive of new life in the spring, the speaker seems to believe that the detritus of old thoughts, which seem to be used up, can still be useful in this way. Further, he asks,

O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

The notion that winter is only an opportunity for rebirth, that the possibility of reinvention, of regeneration, always exists is revolutionary in its optimism and hopefulness. This line of thinking leads to the idea that we can reinvent ourselves, just as nature does, that human beings are as changeable as the seasons, and that we have so many opportunities to become who we most want to be and to have the effect on the world that we most want to have.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The best place to turn to in this brilliant poem to answer this question would be the final stanza, where Shelley seeks to identify himself so completely with the West Wind that he has spent the whole poem extolling that he is able to spread his ideas and birth new ways of thinking around the world. Pay particular attention to the following quote:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!

Note the imagery of these lines. Shelley implores the wind to scatter his "dead thoughts" so that they can be like seeds that will take root and flourish, or he says his words are like "Ashes and sparks" that can be blown around to be kindled back into life and start new fires where they land. These two powerful similes would allow the West Wind to become "The trumpet of a prophecy" as these thoughts and ideas are spread around the world, take root and flourish. Shelley, as other Romantics were, was greatly impressed with the ideas and values behind the French Revolution, and here we can see his desire that his thoughts and ideas might be spread to cause a similar change in thinking and living.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team