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Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind" (1820)

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Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint crop

Overview Edit

Percy Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" very much portrays the power of nature in poetry as well as Shelly's ability to utilize that power and create a piece that for generations has been looked at as a poem about much more than a person observing nature on a windy day.  Shelley’s poem portrays a force of nature, the West Wind, that can be both powerfully destructive but also a force that brings a renewal of life.  Percy Shelley believed that poems should have deep meaning and inspire humans to re-energize their lives and the world around them.  The great thing about “Ode to the West Wind” is that it can be looked at in a political way and just a natural way that shows the both the beauty and destructive power of nature.  In the end, the poet comes to appreciate the natural way of things and wishes that he too can be just as powerful as the West Wind.

Major Themes Edit

Percy Shelley believed that poetry should be written in order to transform the world into a better place. To Shelley, poets were the unelected legislators of the world; they had the ability to either promote good change or destructive change. It is no surprise that many of his poems can be read through a political lens and rightfully should be read that way. Another theme identifiable in the poem is nature and its power to be both beautiful and destructive. In "Mont Blanc" the poet observes a massive mountain; he soaks in the beauty. The mountain will be there for future generations to do the same kind of observing as he is doing in the poem; even if the poem dies with him, the mountain will remain and in a sense his poem will never die. The emotion that he received from the mountain will be re-birthed in future generations.

Politics Edit

Shelley seems to use his poetry as a way to make political statements. Poetry is Shelley's way of trying to change the world. Starting on line 63 the poet says, "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,/ Like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth,/ And, by incantation of this verse,/ Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth/ Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind" (63-66). Many critics have seen this as Shelley's way of saying let his words/poems/thoughts be blown around the world.

Nature in this sense is a metaphor for Shelley's works. As wind cannot be seen nor can the poet; and to Shelley, poets are the unseen/unelected legislators of the world.

Shelley sees himself, or all real poets, as human sacrifices. They give up their ambitions in order to help the world progress, "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,/ Like withered leaves..." The poet is giving up his self and all lust in order to help the world have a rebirth (63-64).

As one author says, “Should poets retreat from the corrupt world or should they sacrifice their own lives to liberate and revitalize the dispossessed.”  Percy Shelley seems to think that if he has the power to help bring forth change, like the West Wind, then he must do everything within his ability to help.   

Another way that nature might be used in a political sense is its correlation to revolution.  Even though revolution is not specifically mentioned, nature can be interpreted as a metaphor for revolution.  As said stated above, the poet does wish to have his thoughts spread across the world.    

Nature Edit

Shelley uses many images from nature in "Ode." Nature plays many different roles in his poems. In this poem particular he shows two sides of nature. Nature can be both beautiful and destructive; nature in this sense can be something sublime. This sometimes beautiful force, the West Wind, brings with it "Black rain, and fire, and hail..." and whose "decaying leaves are shed" (28, 16). As with the tyger in William Blake's "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of experience" beauty can have a frightening aspect to it. The tyger has in the poem looks beautiful but harmless. However, the tyger can be ferocious and bring death. Nature can be both forces. The West Wind in the "Ode" is something that brings life and also brings death, "Wild spirit, which art moving everywhere; / Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!" (13-14). One minute nature can be destructive and the next it can be gorgeous, inspiring poems, songs, and revolution. To Shelley, nature is the liberator of the human mind. Even though this wind from the West signals the beginning of Autumn, which in literary terms typically signifies impending death because winter follows, it also brings spring of which signifies a renewal or rebirth. In literary terms Spring means life; trees are sprouting and birds are singing when Spring comes around.

One way to tie nature to politics is the destructive and yet beauty of revolution. Revolutions, like the American Revolution, brought about good. However, revolutions like the French Revolution were viewed by many romantic poets as destructive; this revolution at one time was happening for good change but all that many poets and writers could see at the time was destructiveness. Many had faith that eventually something good would come from the French Revolution but many had lost faith. Shelley believed that this was just a part of the cycle, much like the seasons. The wind that brought winter also brings life; so, in a sense revolution might be shaky in the beginning but with the natural flow, new life will come out of revolution.

In the end the poet has a very optimistic viewpoint. The poet knows that Winter will come again, as will Autumn, Spring, and Summer, "O Wind, / If winter comes, can Spring be far behind" (69-70). Wind brings the seasons. Wind also brings storms and destruction. The West Wind is like the Tyger, but the West Wind cannot be seen but it is still just as sublime.

Relevance to Romanticism and Revolution/Gothic/Nature Edit

Percy Shelley's obsession with nature is key to the Romantic period. Shelley uses nature to address social issues and political issues. "Mont Blanc" and "Ode to the West Wind" are some of the best examples when it comes nature and revolution. Shelley believed that a better understanding of nature and science would lead to a new enlightenment; perhaps this realization would lead people to a new way of thinking and move away from organized religion. Words cannot describe and cannot do justice to nature all the time. In Shelley's "A Defense of Poetry" he writes that "When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline." So, inspiration might be lost but according to Andrew Franta in his Shelley and the Poetics of Political Indirection, The poets loss is the worlds gain" (Franta 786).

When looking at the significance of "Ode to the West Wind" it's hard not to notice the revolutionary aspects of the poem. The French Revolution was meant to do good and stop the corruption in the government; however, it turned bad and almost turned into absolute anarchy. The West Wind shows the natural way of seasons. One wind might bring destruction but that same wind can also bring forth new life; it has both the power to take life and give it. The poet has an optimistic view on how things will turn out in the end of poem knowing that Spring will return.

Politically Shelley was revolutionary in his works. In "Ode" he shows how significant a poem can be, or at least how significant he hope it will be to future generations. The poet wishes to dedicate and sacrifice his life in order that his wisdom and words spread across the globe in order to bring renewal. Shelley's poems will bring other writers to think about the significance of social issues and political issues in their writings.

In the poem Shelley was able to show all the many different themes that went along with Romantic Poetry. He used nature as a metaphor in order to address political and social issues. He showed how nature can be a part of the sublime; with this he also showed how something one cannot even see, wind, can be sublime. The wind is destructive and brings death but also can be beautiful and bring life.

Sources and Relevant Links Edit

  • Damrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 889-891. Print.
  • Shelley's Ode to the West Wind Henry S. Pancoast Modern Language Notes Vol. 35, No. 2 (Feb., 1920) , pp. 97-100 Published by: The Johns Hopkins

University Press Stable URL:

Further Reading Edit

  • Demson, Michael. "Percy Shelley's Radical Agrarian Politics." Romanticism 16.3 (2010): 279-292. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
  • McInnis, David. "Humoral Theory As An Organizing Principle In Shelley's "Ode To The West Wind"?." Anq 20.2 (2007): 32-34. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.

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