The first stanza describes the effects of the west wind upon the landscape in autumn, as it tears down the old leaves and scatters them. In the first eight lines the theme of death and decay is prominent; the leaves are not only dead but are actually described as ‘ghosts’ (3)and the seeds are ‘each like a corpse in its grave’(8). Images of sickness are effectively developed with reference to the leaves’ appearance; in their vast numbers and livid colours they are likened to ‘pestilence-stricken multitudes’(5).
And through it all, the west wind appears as some sinister supernatural force, the ‘unseen presence’(2), the ‘enchanter’(3) who conveys the dead leaves to their ‘wintry bed’(6). Shelley thus evinces the usual Romantic tendency to personify elements of nature, portraying the west wind as a powerful, living entity; and continues to do so throughout the poem.
However, it is not only death that is present in this first stanza, but also the promise of resurrection with the reference to springtime, when the seeds of life will sprout again. Now the earth is seen as not dead but merely ‘dreaming’(10), and it will re-awaken.
In the concluding couplet of this stanza, Shelley appeals directly to the wind:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver, hear , oh hear! (13-14)
The wind performs a double function; it tears down the old but also helps prepare the ground for the new. It is, in other words, an essential part of the whole natural cycle of life and death. Death is only part of the theme; it is inextricably linked with life and the west wind in its utter power and majesty is depicted as the central moving and transforming force.
In later stanzas Shelley goes on to describe the west wind’s impact upon sky and ocean and finally upon himself and his poetry. He ends by calling on this mighty force to revitalize his energies and also to sweep his poetry over the world as it scattered the dead leaves, so that his work may in the future gain new life and influence.