Ode to the West Wind by Shelley: Analysis and Summary

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  • 0:04 Ode to the West Wind
  • 2:10 The Poem's Form
  • 4:45 First Three Stanzas
  • 10:22 Final Two Stanzas
  • 14:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

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
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.

First Three Stanzas

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:

'O thou

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'

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