Is Shelley an escapist or an optimist in "Ode To The West Wind"?

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Percy Bysshe Shelley is both an escapist and an optimist in “Ode to the West Wind.” While the west wind seems to blow destruction, it actually plants the seeds that will bloom in the spring, and it creates a majestic beauty in the sea. The poet wishes he could escape with the wind and share its “mighty harmonies” and its spirit.

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Since escapism and optimism are far from being opposites, it is safe to say that they are both active in Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind.”

The West Wind blows autumn and winter across the landscape. The leaves flee before it, as do the “winged seeds.” The latter seem to lie in their graves, but they will awaken come spring, and herein lies part of the poem's optimism. The West Wind may bring the apparent death of winter, but it also makes way for the new life that will come with the spring.

What's more, even in the storminess of the West Wind, there is much beauty. The Mediterranean comes alive with a fantastic elegance and power. The “angels of rain and lightning” spread across the sea, and they are terrifying but majestic and awe-inspiring as well. There is both fear and wonder, and this, too, is optimistic. Nothing is completely negative or terrifying; there is something amazing mixed in as well.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker wishes he might blow away with the West Wind. Herein lies a sense of escapism. He wishes to be a cloud or a wave, carried away on the strength of the wind, free and able to wander “over Heaven” and earth. He wishes that the wind could pick him up out of “the thorns of life” where he bleeds and where he is “chain'd and bow’d.” He would rather fly on the wind and be “tameless, and swift, and proud.”

Further, combining optimism and escapism, the speaker wants to be the lyre of the wind, sharing in its “mighty harmonies.” He wants to share in the West Wind’s spirit and scatter his words throughout the universe to bring new birth to humanity. People need to understand that although winter comes, spring is close behind.

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I think Percy Bysshe Shelley is being unquestioningly optimistic in his poem "Ode to the West Wind." The early sections of the poem repeatedly reference the seasons. The west wind plays the role of helping continue the cycle of seasons by pushing fall into winter. The leaves that the wind blows away are called "a pestilence" and later are the symbol of the "dying year." Still, this death is not permanent, and that is what the west wind helps us to remember. It cleans the earth and tucks it in to rest so that spring may come again.

In section 5, we can see that Shelley feels sad and that he is dying with the year, but his optimism and desire to feel joyous again is clear in the lines

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!

This poem isn't about literally becoming the wind; it's about the need to process negative emotions so that you can be cleansed of them and begin again.
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I think "Ode to the West Wind" indicates that Shelley is both an optimist and an escapist. The flights of fancy in the poem certainly suggest escapism. For example, in the second section, in the simile, "Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed," Shelley imagines the clouds as leaves on a tree, shaken by the wind from the branches of "Heaven and Ocean." In section four, Shelley imagines himself as "a wave, a leaf, a cloud," lifted "as a wave" by the wind. He then, in section seven, asks the wind to play upon him as a musician might play upon a lyre, and drive his "dead thoughts over the universe." These examples are typical of the imaginative, escapist imagery than runs throughout the poem.

When Shelley asks the wind to scatter his "dead thoughts over the universe," he imagines that those thoughts will "quicken a new birth." In other words, he imagines that the west wind might purge him of everything that is "wither'd," and hasten the beginning of a new, better day. He also hopes that the west wind will "Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth / Ashes and sparks, (his) words among mankind!" What he hopes for here is that his poetry, or his "words," will be heard by "mankind." He is optimistic that the wind can help him be reborn and that it can help him to find a receptive audience for his poetry.

The final lines of the poem confirm Shelley's optimistic outlook. He asks the wind, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" "Winter" here is symbolic of hard times, and connotes death and decay, whereas "Spring" is symbolic of a new beginning, and connotes hope and vitality. Shelley in this poem expresses a hope that the west wind will usher out the winter, and herald the spring.

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This is a great question to consider in relation to this famous Ode. Of course, it is the fifth section of this poem which contains Shelley's desire or purpose for writing this poem, as Shelley implores the West Wind to identify so strongly with himself that it will blow his thoughts and ideas all over the universe just as the West Wind blows leaves all over the place so as to initiate a "new birth":

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguishd hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Shelley therefore imagines his words acting as "The trumpet of prophecy" to the world, which he sees as being "unawakened." We can definitely describe him then as optimistic, because he believes his thoughts have the capacity to have this impact on the world, and certainly the fact that this remains such a recognised "classic" in part shows that this optimism was not misplaced. However, at the same time, we could also argue that this poem shows significant escapsim, and perhaps arrogance. Shelley seems to cast himself as a saviour figure upon whom the salvation of the world depends. His goal is nothing more than changing the world, and it is a real flight of fancy to think that one poet's words can impact the entire world and change it.

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