If you were a leaf clinging to a tree in autumn, a gentle breeze might be pretty intimidating. In this lesson, we'll study Percy Shelley's take on this in his poem 'Ode to the West Wind' as well as how he hoped the wind would help spark a revolution.
Ode to the West Wind
Hello! I am talking to you about Percy Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind'. I'm in California right now, and you could be anywhere. You could be in New York or Japan; or you could be out hunting polar bears in Norway for all I know. You could be naked right now - I could be naked - who knows?
English writer Percy Shelley
But in the early 1800s, people were much more isolated. They knew if someone was naked because they were sitting right next to them. In 1819, Percy Shelley was hanging out in Italy. In England, which is where he was from, the Peterloo Massacre had taken place. This was something people were really upset about, and there was a lot of political outrage and revolutionary spirit incited by this. Shelley really wanted to help out and make this revolutionary spirit go even further. But he's in Italy. So, what does he do? Skype does not exist, so he has to figure out another way to long-distance motivate people.
So, what he does is something that Romantic poets tend to do, which is write poems. He decided to write a poem about this in the hopes that it would travel far and wide and get to England. The poem is 'Ode to the West Wind,' and it's about his hope that his words will be carried, as if by the wind (hence the title), to those who need to hear them. That's sort of the general gist of it. Doesn't really sound like a personage play to me, right? I feel like smoke signals would probably be slightly more effective, if anything, but this is all metaphor land and poet land. That's just how they think.
The poem was published in 1820 and it's one of the poems in the collection that includes Prometheus Unbound. It's notable for both its form and its content, and we're going to look at both. I'm really into form, so we're going to start with that. But, then we'll get to content, so don't worry if you are bored, we'll get to the good stuff (as other people call it).
The Poem's Form
As you can tell from the title, 'Ode to the West Wind' is an ode. What's an ode? It's basically a type of lyric poem that addresses a subject. So you can write an ode to anything. You can write it to Chipotle if you want. I might do that in my spare time. You might write it to something else. John Keats is really famous for writing odes; he's another Romantic poet. He did 'Nightengale' and 'Grecian Urn.' 'Ode to the West Wind' is Shelley's most notable contribution to the ode form. That's his big ode.
The poem is divided into five stanzas of 14 lines. Those stanzas are divided into four tercets and a couplet. A tercet is just a group of three lines, and a couplet is a couple of lines (two lines). Basically, he's doing five stanzas of a sonnet - five little sonnets in a row, essentially.
What he's also doing is this particular rhyme scheme in a modified form of terza rima, which is Dante's famous rhyme scheme. He wrote The Inferno, which you might have heard of. Basically, the way that these 14-line blocks will rhyme is that they will go A-B-A, then the next little tercet is going to go B-C-B, where the B word is from the second rhyme of the first tercet. The next one's going to go C-D-C, the next one D-E-D and the final one E-E. So, basically, what this is doing is propelling the poem along by interlocking the tercets and the couplet so that you're always going into the next tercet rhyme scheme. So, it's always linked but it's always moving forward at the same time. It's like knitting, except instead of a sweater, you end up with a poem at the end - which is better or worse depending on your perspectives on sweaters and poems.
Also important, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. The 'iambic' means that each line starts with an unstressed syllable and then there's a stressed syllable after that. You just do this five more times. Each of these is 'iamb' five times - 'pentameter.' An easy way to remember what an iamb is is to think of the line 'To be or not to be' - that's from Shakespeare (who was a huge fan of iambic pentameter). That's a bunch of iambs in a row: to-be-or-not-to-be. Again, I said that 'pentameter' just means that there's five: to-be-or-not-to-be (-or-not-to-be, if he kept going). So, 'pent' - just remember pentagon or pentathlon - five, we're good.
So, now we're getting to what's in the poem. The first three stanzas: it begins (as you might expect an ode to begin) with the speaker personifying the wind, addressing it directly. So it goes exactly like this:
'O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing'
You can see we start with that A-B-A; we've got 'being,' 'dead' and then 'fleeing.' 'Being' and 'fleeing' rhyme pretty well together. And this is the wind that's in autumn, and it actually sounds a little bit sinister. We've got dead things, ghosts, fleeing and things like that - dead leaves. He goes on to describe the leaves as 'Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,' which is awesome. Hectic red is such a cool description. I don't know if I've ever called leaves that, but that's because I'm not Shelley, and Shelley's awesome. He also calls the leaves 'pestilence-stricken multitudes,' which is also really cool. So they're hectic red and pestilence-stricken multitudes. They're like ghosts, red things and zombies. This is a very sinister description of an autumn scene.
The wind is blowing the leaves along, but it's also performing a function. It's not just blowing them around for nothing. He goes on and he says:
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave'
The leaves aren't just zombies; they're carrying seeds along with them. The wind might seem like this sinister thing, sweeping along these dead things, but it actually does have a positive purpose. It's spreading the seeds around so they'll grow in the springtime. Yes, they're like corpses in a grave, but then he goes on:
'Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth'
So, spring's going to come, and then the wind will signal to the earth that it's time to wake up and grow again. He summarizes everything he's just said by calling the wind 'destroyer and preserver.' So again, that sums everything up: it sweeps everything away, it gets the dead leaves off of the trees, but it also is the preserver because it helps them grow again in the springtime. Then he concludes this by asking the wind to 'O hear, O hear!' That's the way he likes to end these stanzas, you will see. That's the first stanza; we're done.
The second: he's describing the wind some more, and he's requesting to be heard. So, he moves from the wind moving the leaves around to the wind moving the clouds around, which he calls 'angels of rain and lightning.' It's a nice way to say 'the stuff that brings the rain and lightning that's in the sky.' He's elevating the scope of the wind's power with this. He's going from the ground to the sky. Clouds are bigger and more powerful. They're also less real; you can't really stand on a cloud.
He refers to the wind as the 'dirge of the dying year.' In other words, it's basically a funeral song that takes place at the end of the year when the year is dying. As he's closing the stanza, he says that the wind moves the clouds so that 'black rain, and fire, and hail will burst.' Like in the first stanza, he implores the wind to listen to him, he says, 'O hear!' Again, like I said, he's trying this idea that the wind will carry his words. Here we can kind of see it taking place.
We've heard about the leaves, which are earthy stuff. We've heard about the clouds, which are the sky stuff. What's next if we're thinking in terms of elements? We might think about water. Oh my God, we do! He's following that pattern, and he goes on:
'Didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay
Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers'
The wind moves the water, and this movement reveals old palaces and towers, is what he's basically saying. The place Shelley is referring to, Baiae's bay, is actually a real place. They're ancient Roman ruins that sunk during an earthquake, although they're still partially visible. It's kind of a magical image; it harkens the idea of Atlantis, another sunken city that is a magical place.
This nice, pretty image is followed by another, more sinister one. So, we're back to what we started with:
'For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!'
He's saying here that, basically, the plant life underwater follows the same cycle as the trees on land. It's going to die and the West Wind, again, signals the looming winter and the fear of death. And, again, he ends it by asking the wind to hear him, which is starting to get awfully familiar as we end three stanzas that way!
Final Two Stanzas
The final two stanzas get a little different. We might be expecting that we're going to hear about fire because we were right when we guessed that water was coming next. We've had the other three elements. Where's fire? But, no! Instead, he messes with us by summarizing what's come before. So he says:
'If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable!'
Again, there's that 'O.' The 'O's are really good for odes (this is a good way to remember it). There's a lot of 'O'ing at things. 'O uncontrollable' is directed at the wind again. He wishes that he were any of those things and so be moved by the wind. Again, he's trying to have his words spread by the wind. He adds:
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven'
If he were, then:
'I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.'
Since he's not a leaf, a cloud or a wave - and he's no longer a young boy - he needs to ask the wind for help. Why? He tells us in the final couplet of stanza four. He says:
'A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd
One too like thee-tameless, and swift, and proud.'
This could be a couple of things. First, he mentioned wishing that he was still young, but now he has the 'heavy weight of hours,' and that's not so fun. So, age is weighing on him in an unpleasant way. Since he's using this language of chains contrasted with being tameless, he could also be talking about (I mentioned before that he's trying to incite revolution) the oppressed masses that he's trying to address with these words. The wind is free, and he wishes that he were like it. He also wishes that the oppressed masses were like it.
In the final stanza, again we're focused on the speaker:
'Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own?'
He wants to be the music of the wind, which sounds like Pocahontas. He references how the wind makes music as it blows through the trees in the forest. And he asks the wind to:
'Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth'
What are his dead thoughts? They're his poetry! Ah, the poetry falls from the tree of the poet and then is borne along like the wind. Once they're out of his head and on the page (which are also called leaves - leaves of a book are pages), they become dead and ready to be spread around. It's a little bit of a morbid conception of poetry. But again, like his initial description of the wind, it's morbid but is also about rebirth at the same time. The leaves are going to get somewhere, then they're going to plant themselves and then they're going to quicken a new birth. They're going to die, go off and then grow in the minds of the people who read them, essentially, is what he's saying.
Then, finally we get to fire, which we've been waiting for this whole time. He says:
'And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!'
It's a little ego-driven. He's basically saying that his words will bring fire. He ends with some optimism:
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?'
If you haven't been paying attention to iambic pentameter, this is a perfect time to stop and look: 'If WINter COMES, can SPRING be FAR beHIND?' It's perfect iambic pentameter, well done Shelley! But also this final couplet - if you look at it - it doesn't exactly rhyme: 'wind' and 'behind.' It's not quite there, but that's ok. It's something called a slant rhyme, which is basically a close-enough rhyme. What it can do, if it's done right, is it can draw more attention to the final line. You expect it to rhyme perfectly and then it doesn't. It's a little jarring, and the poet hopes it to be so we'll pay more attention. That way we don't get complacent in our poetry reading!
So, that's the whole poem. 'Ode to the West Wind' was written by Percy Shelley (hope you remember that part) in 1819, published in 1820. It's an ode written in a bunch of 14-line chunks (sonnet-type) with a terza rima interlocking rhyme pattern. It's iambic pentameter. The poem basically describes the mighty power of the west wind. As it moves, it moves leaves, it moves clouds and it moves water. And, the poet hopes, it will also move his words to go and then be kindled in the minds of the readers to spark revolution and new thought.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Understand Shelley's motivation for writing 'Ode to the West Wind'
- Describe the structure, rhyme scheme and content of the poem