Poetry Analysis of “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ode to the West Wind“Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley was originally published in the 1820 by Charles Ollier as part of “Prometheus Unbound, A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, With Other Poems”. The poem was written as a response to the Peterloo Massacre which happened only a few months earlier in August 1919. Shelley wrote this as a way to voice his opinion for change and revolution in England.

Let’s take a quick look at a summary of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and then discuss the figurative language in a line-by-line analysis.

Summary

As a response to the Peterloo Massacre, Shelley wrote this as an agent for political and moral change. He uses a metaphor of weather and seasons for politics and government. Of course, there are some readers of this poem who believe it isn’t politically motivated and instead about the death of his son William due to malaria.

The first three cantos (sections) describe how the wind effects the earth, the air, and the oceans. The last two sections has the author speaking directly to the wind, asking it for its power and to make him its companion. The writing concludes by saying winter is here and spring is near.

Analysis

Title: Ode to the West Wind
Style: Ode written in five cantos (sections) using terza rima and iambic pentameter
Theme: Revolution
Tone: Uplifting
Rhyme scheme: Terza rima (ABA, BCB, CDC, DED) using a rhyming couplet ending (EE).

Line-by-line Analysis and Figurative Language

    • wild West Wind – an alliteration. The capitalization already eludes to a personification of the wind.
    • Autumn’s being – making Autumn as a personification
    • leaves dead – personification of leaves
    • like ghosts – personification of leaves using a simile
    • chariotest – second person singular
    • Each like a corpse within its grave, until / Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow – Contrasting lines referencing the east wind. It is used to contrast the colors back in line four which reminded us of death.
    • Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; / Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear! – Is is calling the west Wind the “wild spirit” which can cause changes by destroying and then preserving.
    • Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed – a simile saying the storm clouds are leaving.
    • Angels of rain and lightning – He’s calling the clouds as Angels. He takes to mean that the clouds leaving are like an omen for what is to come.
    • Like the bright hair uplifted from the head – Another simile to give hope.
    • fierce Maenad – In Greek mythology, maenads were like advisers to other gods, although they were also seen as quite wild.
    • dying year – the year is ending
    • Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre, / Vaulted with all thy congregated might – “sepulchre” is like a tomb or vault. “congregated might” refers to the strength of the “year”–the things which happened and/or the people behind those things.
    • Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams / The blue Mediterranean, where he lay, – Shelley gives a glimpse of himself. This poem was written while he was in Italy. Being in Italy was like a dream to him. However, some critics believe he is referring to the wind and not himself.
    • Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay, / And saw in sleep old palaces and towers – Baiae is an ancient Roman city located near Naples, Italy. In this case, the author is again referencing his dream of being in Italy. On the other hand, Baiae is actually located underwater.
    • For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers – Referencing the wind and ocean.
    • Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below / The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear / The sapless foliage of the ocean, know – The ruins of Baiae are underwater.
    • Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear, / And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear! – He is referencing the change of seasons.
    • A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud. – This refers to the tough time that the people have had and those who still went on fighting despite all that they have lost.
    • Make me thy lyre – He wants the wind to make him its instrument.
    • Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth! / And, by the incantation of this verse, – He wants to help cause the rebirth.
    • Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth /Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! / Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth – He is repeating how he wants to use his words to help cause change.
    • The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? – He is asking if change will come soon.

Poem: “Bayonet Charge” by Ted Hughes

I
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,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: 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, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

II
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!

III
Thou who 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
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
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: oh hear!

IV
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! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem’d a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

V
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Reader’s Reaction

Wow, what a poem! This is somewhat of a difficult read and can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the viewpoint of the reader, the history known to the reader, and just the general tone we wish to put it in.

If we want to go ahead and add more personification, we can say that trees are the government. That means the leaves are the people. The leaves are leaving and the rebirth will be new leaves growing on the trees and having a changed government.

If we take the conceit (a metaphor over an entire poem) to be about his son’s death, we can then say the tree is himself. The leaves refer to his children. The rebirth is talking about actual birth of a new son. The wind would then be referencing diseases and the change of seasons would just be changing of his grief back to happiness.

Whatever way we want to read it, it is quite interesting.

Gary R. Hess

Gary was born and raised on a small farm in rural Kansas. Today, he is teaching various nationalities English in Southeast Asia. Get his newest poetry eBook here.