What does the phrase "The trumpet of prophecy" signify in "Ode to the West Wind"?

Quick answer:

"The trumpet of prophecy" in the second to last line of "Ode to the West Wind" refers to Shelley's own writing. The line means he believes his writing foretells the future. In this ode, he wishes his prophetic words could be scattered across the earth to fire people up, just as a trumpet alerts people to the coming of a king.

Expert Answers

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

The trumpet has a long history of being associated with military strength, and often it has been used as a symbol of power and victory. The speaker of this poem appeals to the west wind to share with him its power. He notes all the wind has accomplished, driving dead leaves like ghosts, blowing winged seeds to their "dark wintry bed," and stirring the atmosphere to burst forth in fire and hail. The speaker realizes that the wind can't affect him physically as it does with most of nature, but he hopes that perhaps he can harness its powers to spread his ideas. He begs the wind to drive his "dead thoughts over the universe" to instigate change.

Thus, the final two lines, including the metaphor of being a "trumpet of prophecy," depend on the stanza before. The speaker asks the wind to use his own lips as a "trumpet of prophecy" as a spark to awaken the earth. The speaker wants to be used in a powerful way to instigate changes as powerful as the wind's abilities to influence nature. The speaker hopes that he can use this same sense of power to create a new "spring" (a season of rebirth) following the "winter" (a period of death and decay) that he feels dominates his own spirit. He looks to the wind to be his own source of power and victory over his dead spirit, prophetically restoring him to new life and using him as an instrument to spread this transformation across the earth.

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

This line, the second to the last in Shelly's ode, refers to Shelly's own written work.

Prophecy is the ability to predict or foretell what will happen in future. Shelley, a political radical, believed that his own words were prophetic—that they predicted accurately what was going to happen. All through the poem, he is likening his words, written on leaves of paper, to the leaves that fall from trees in autumn. Shelley's speaker notes that the leaves of the trees are blown all over the world by the west wind. Therefore, the speaker addresses the west wind and asks it to spread his "leaves" of writing across the earth in the same way.

In the final stanza, the speaker asks that his own spirit be as fierce as the spirit of the wind so that he can scatter his ideas all over the world. He wishes that his "dead thoughts" would be reborn. Shelley is writing in 1819, several years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He is hoping, in a state of peace, that his radical ideas, often borrowed from the French Revolution, which long were buried under the needs of warfare, might come back to life. He hopes they will become "ashes and sparks" to awaken humans. He thinks of them as a trumpet or loud noise ushering in his prophetic visions. Trumpets traditionally heralded the arrival of kings. He thinks of his words as trumpets heralding the arrival of a new day.

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

Shelley believed that he, as a poet, was a kind of prophet and that his art was not only a means of self-expression but also a vehicle through which he could influence mankind and change the world for the better. Like other progressives of his time, he believed in the ideals of social equality, freedom, and justice initiated in the previous era, the Enlightenment. In this Ode, he sees the West Wind as symbolizing a primal force that will empower him and empower his art:

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!

"Unawakened earth" represents the world as it is, which has not yet been able to implement the ideals in which Shelley and other progressives, like his friend Byron, believed. The "trumpet of a prophecy" is Shelley's poetry itself, in which he is predicting the transformation of mankind in accordance with those ideals.

The darker side of this prophecy is a personal one, to which Shelley has alluded just before this final statement:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own?

Like many of the Romantics, Shelley had a premonition of his own early death. The Ode is thus a kind of farewell statement—Shelley's wish that, just like the verdant earth, which "dies" and is reborn every year, his own physical death he foresees will be symbolic of this never-ending process and will be an inspiration to others.

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

The "trumpet of prophecy" is a critical component of Shelley's closing in "Ode to the West Wind."  He seeks to link the natural phenomena of storms and the natural changing of the seasons to the his own hopes of achieving poetic immortality from obscurity.  Essentially, through a natural experience, Shelley seeks to link it to his own evolution as both thinker and artist.  Shelley sees the power of the winds, as it scatters leaves and hopes that it will "drive my dead thoughts over the universe," an allusion to the fact that while he might not be appreciated now, Shelley hopes to achieve poetic immortality over time.  As "ashes and sparks" are scattered, his hopes are that his worlds will follow accordingly.  He closes the poem with the idea that the "trumpet of a prophecy" is the wind, and its signal for change, for growth, for evolution.  As the seasons change, from winter to spring, his hopes are that his measure as a poet and thinker will also evolve, and the trumpet is the natural evolution from destruction to creation.  The prophecy aspect makes this as something known and understood, what he seeks for both his words and stature as a poet.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial