The Poem

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The content of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is powerful in its message, for it reveals and reflects on the power of nature and art. However, the poem’s content is reflected in its form, especially its structure and language. Shelley deliberately chooses his forms and words to enhance his message.

The poem’s form is especially important. First, it is an ode, which is a classical song of solemn praise. Indeed, the poet is praising the West Wind, the power of nature, and the power of art. But the poem is more than an ode. It is divided into five cantos; each is a sonnet with fourteen lines.

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem with a regular meter and rhyme. Readers may be familiar with sonnets by Shakespeare or John Donne, but Shelley creates his own set of sonnets in this ode. Each canto or sonnet can stand by itself and has a self-contained message about the West Wind, the speaker, the cycle of death and rebirth, or the force of poetry.

Shelley also does something creative with the rhyme scheme in his canto/sonnets. He uses the interlocking terza rima pattern. Each canto is broken into four stanzas of three lines, followed by a couplet (two lines). 

The rhyme scheme scans as follows: ABABCBCDCDEDEE. The rhymes weave together throughout the canto as the middle line of each stanza introduces a new rhyme that plays out in the first and third lines of the following stanza, and the couplet repeats the rhyme introduced in the middle of the fourth stanza.

The poet may have chosen this complicated rhyme scheme for several reasons. First, Shelley composed this poem in Italy, home of the famous poet Dante, who invented terza rima and used it in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Second, this complex rhyme pattern may reflect, in part, the movement of the Wind, which weaves in and out of the natural world, creating patterns by its power, even to the depths of the ocean.

Shelley also uses diction (word choice) and figurative language to enhance his meaning. For instance, the very first stanza of the poem contains prime examples of alliteration and personification as the speaker begins “O wild West Wind.” The repetition of the “w” sound is alliteration at its best, for it imitates the sound of the wind. The wind is also personified here, for the speaker addresses it directly as if it were someone who could hear and respond to him.

Personification continues throughout the poem. The West Wind is a powerful force that the speaker pleads with when he cries, “hear, oh hear!” at the end of the first canto or when he asks, “Make me thy lyre,” in the fifth canto. The West Wind may even be nearly divine in this poem, for it seems to hold the power of death and rebirth, but at the very least, it is decidedly personified as an ideal and symbol of strength.

The West Wind may also be a symbol of art. Just as the wind has the strength to change things in the natural world, art, especially poetry, has the power to change things in the human world. The wind is strong, but so is poetry. It can fly about like sparks, setting the world on fire with its incantations. It can wake up a sleeping humanity and bring a new springtime.

Shelley further enhances the personification and symbolism of this poem through his use of metaphorsimile, and allusion . Metaphors are comparisons between something readers...

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understand well and something they do not know. Similes are also comparisons but use “like” or “as” as part of their construction. Allusions are references to other literary works, historical events, people, or places that add further depth and meaning to a text.

The West Wind, in a prime example of metaphor, “chariotest” the “winged seeds” to “their dark wintry bed.” In this image, the West Wind drives a chariot and hurries the seeds off to bed for the winter. But each of these seeds is “like a corpse within its grave” until Spring, and here is a vivid simile that multiples the richness of the poet’s imagery.

Allusions include the reference to a “fierce Maenad.” A Maenad was a female worshiper of Bacchus or Dionysus, the Roman or Greek god of wine and revelry. These Maenads went crazy in their worship. They were the “raving ones” that ran out of control. In this poem, the reference to a Maenad shows the fierceness of the storm brought on by the West Wind.

Overall, form and content unite in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” to create a complex poem that readers can peruse and meditate on again and again. There is much meaning to draw from these five cantos, which is the point. Nature and poetry both have great power and great influence on human beings.

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