Ode to the West Wind Summary

Ode to the West Wind” is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley in which the speaker summons the West Wind and predicts that a great change is coming.

  • The first and second cantos express the speaker’s awe in the face of the destructive and beautiful powers of the wind.

  • The third canto uses nature imagery to suggest that a major change is coming and that people aren’t prepared for the future it will bring.

  • The speaker ends by asking, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” This suggests that there is hope that the dark times will pass.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" reflects the power of the natural world, the cycles of life, and the ability of art to reflect and express nature. The poet divides his ode into five cantos, each essentially a sonnet, as he nudges readers to examine their experiences with nature and creativity. This poem is filled with vivid, dramatic imagery, allusions, and figurative language that bring the West Wind to life.

Canto I

The speaker addresses the "wild West Wind" in his first canto. This "breath of Autumn's being" stirs up the dead leaves, driving them before it "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing." The West Wind blows the seeds into their graves for the winter, where they wait for Spring to call them and drive them as "sweet buds like flocks to feed in air" as they bloom. Indeed, the West Wind is a "Wild Spirit" that destroys and preserves, and the speaker cries out for the wind to hear him.

This canto introduces the West Wind in all its power. The wind is nearly violent in how it drives the leaves, yet it also buries the seeds so they are protected from the harshness of winter. The speaker says spring is the sister of the West Wind, and she will raise those seeds to life once more.

Canto II

The West Wind whips up the clouds, shaking them "from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean." The wind-driven storms spread out across the land and sea like "Angels of rain and lightning," shaking their "bright hair" like a "fierce Maenad," a wild follower of Bacchus, the god of wine. The wind sings a dirge, a song of mourning, for "the dying year" as the clouds burst out into a violence of "black rain, and fire, and hail."

The speaker presents the West Wind amid its violent power in this canto. It is uncontrollable, untameable, yet there is a sense that it mourns even as it spreads destructive storms. These are the cycles of nature, the wildness of the atmosphere, yet there is beauty even in their howling intensity.

Canto III

The "blue Mediterranean" has been lying in "summer dreams," the speaker says, and the sunken city in Baiae's bay has been asleep. But now the West Wind is waking up this watery world. The same wind that stirs up the Atlantic in its remarkable power makes the waves "Cleave themselves into chasms." The sea trembles with fear at this great wind, and even the "sea-blooms and the oozy woods" beneath the water feel the effects of this wild breeze.

The sea is quiet and calm during the summer, but the West Wind changes everything in this canto. The force of the wind rouses the whole Mediterranean as its waves build up into mountains and crash down far beneath the surface. Even the vegetation deep down in the water fears the power of the mighty West Wind.

Canto IV

The speaker now wishes he were a "dead leaf," a "swift cloud," or a wave that could fly with the West Wind and share its power and strength. Still, the speaker would not be as free as the uncontrollable wind. He wishes to be a boy again, the "comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven." But those days have passed; he is older now and prays to the wind to lift him up, for a "heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd" a man who was once like the wind, "tameless, and swift, and proud."

Here, the speaker longs to participate in the strength of the West Wind. He shared some of it once when he was young and nearly as free as the wind. But age and time have weighed him down, even though he still claims to share many of the characteristics of the West Wind.

Canto V

The speaker prays for the West Wind to "Make me thy lyre." As the wind plays the world, creating "mighty harmonies," the speaker longs for that "Spirit fierce" to become one with him so that his "dead thoughts" may fly about the world and be brought to a new birth. Like "Ashes and sparks" from a fire, the speaker's poetry may be blown by the wind throughout the earth to wake people up. The world needs the "trumpet of a prophecy" to turn winter into spring and death into rebirth.

Finally, the speaker identifies his poetic art with the power and glory of the West Wind as he begs the Wind to carry his words over all the earth. People are asleep in their complacency and need the wildness of thoughts, words, and poems to awaken them. They need a prophecy as strong as the West Wind to move them from the winter of figurative death to the spring of new life.

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