What happens in Ode to the West Wind?

In the first canto, the speaker of the poem summons the West Wind, likening the leaves it blows off of the trees to diseased multitudes. He lingers on these images of death and disease in the first sections of the poem.

  • Shelley divided the poem into five cantos of four tercets each. The first and second cantos express the speaker's awe in the fact of the destructive and beautiful powers of the wind.

  • The third canto uses nature imagery to suggest that a major change is coming to Europe, and that people aren't prepared for the darkness and cold this change will bring. He is, of course, referring to winter and to the dark times that have descended on England.

  • At the end of the poem, the speaker asks, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" This line suggests that there's some hope for England, which will one day free itself of the trappings of greed and corruption. 

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the powerful and frequently quoted “Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Bysshe Shelley employs a poetic structure of five cantos with four tercets each (a tercet is three lines of verse). The third line of each tercet allows for change in the direction of the poet’s thought. The end of each canto features a rhyming couplet that allows the passionate urgency of the poet’s words to gain strength as his persona strives to merge his essence with that of the driving West Wind. Shelley’s wild, proud, untamed wind forms his personal emblem, the perfect symbol for and the impetuous agent of radical social change.

Shelley, a poet of the second generation of English Romantics, wrote his ode shortly after the Peterloo Massacre, in which royal soldiers attacked and killed working people at a protest rally in the St. Peter’s Field area of Manchester. The poem also followed shortly after some of Shelley’s own most terrible personal losses. Together with other works written in 1819, such as “Sonnet: England in 1819” and “Song to the Men of England,” “Ode to the West Wind” did much to shore up Shelley’s reputation as radical thinker.

The first of five cantos of the ode summon the West Wind, referring to it as a kind of magician, a transformer in and of the world emanating from autumn itself, an invisible enchanter from whom ghostly dead leaves scurry. The first canto makes grief-spawned allusions to the deaths of the poet’s son William and of others close to him, as well as his knowledge of and sympathy for England’s poor: Shelley speaks of autumn leaves as “pestilence-stricken multitudes” that the great wind blows to their “dark wintry bed” (graves). He finds intermixed with those driven leaves, however, the “winged seeds” that, as stanza 3 has it, will soon be awakened from a death-like sleep by the West Wind’s “azure sister of the Spring.” This wind from the warm south will open the buds whose flowers feed on the sweet springtime air as a flock of sheep feeds on pasture grass.

In the couplet ending canto 1, the poet’s persona calls out to praise the wildness of the West Wind and call it “Destroyer and preserver.” He sees it as the force that must listen to his cry for the transformation of society, a cry he made more directly in poems such as “Sonnet: England in 1819.” In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley oxymoronically portrays the wind as something that at once “preserves” the world from destruction and destroys the existing order that is waging war against humanity.

Canto 2 begins with a continuation of the speaker’s sense of awe concerning the wind’s might; he hails the wind as the clouds’ creator—a “living stream” in the sky that moves the “trees” of heaven and ocean. In stanza 2, the poet delineates a vision of angels that flow with the wind and that, in his simile , are like the “bright hair” streaming “from the head of some fierce Maenad.” Inducing in his readers a sense of vertigo, Shelley takes them to the height of the skies and to the distant horizon, where...

(The entire section is 1,753 words.)