Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” - A discussion

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0


1) Introduction

This seminar paper will discuss Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems “Ode to the West Wind”.1 The ode written in 1819 is probably “… the best known of his poems, …”2

Among the English romantic poets Shelley (1792- 1822) occupies the role of a revolutionary. He was a political visionary committed to social change and progress. During his whole life he defended an ideal and extreme political position towards institutions, Christianity, state, marriage, trade etc. This attitude also influenced his poetry: it was visionary, too. Its aim was to show the people the way to freedom and happiness.3

The task of this paper is to show the important features of the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and to demonstrate in which way the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ supports Shelley’s image of a visionary.

First the formal aspects of the poem will be discussed in detail. Then the poem is going to be interpreted. After the conclusion it will be explained how Shelley renewed the English ode and why the poem falls under the category of romantic literature.

2) Poetry Analysis

2.1) Form

The two main formal features of a traditional ode, the division into stanzas and the elaborate stanza structure, are adopted by Shelley. His ode is built of five stanzas, each of them consisting of fourteen verses. These verses are combined to four terzinas4 and a heroic couplet. An indicated sonnet form

is recognisable, because also a sonnet has fourteen verses including heroic couplet. It is true that he traditional Italian sonnet is composed of one octave and of one sestet and the English Shakespearean sonnet of three quatrains and a rhyme concluding couplet, but also the form of Shelley’s stanzas with four terzinas and a heroic couplet shows a sonnet- structure.

2.2) Style

The terzina is combined with the measure of the terza rima which consists of interlocking tercets whose second line rhymes with the first and the third line of the succeeding tercet, that means the rhyme scheme: aba, bcb, cdc, etc. Shelley uses this terza rima throughout his ode. With the help of the terza rima each terzina is connected with the following one. This suggests a feeling of a flowing and forward movement within each stanza. The heroic couplet at the end of the stanza catches up the dominating forward movement whereas the above- named indicated sonnet- form divides the ode into well- balanced stanzas.

Shelley uses an iambic pentameter for his ode, but if one reads the poem out aloud, he or she will not have the impression of an easily flowing speech. The reason for that is the changing of the metre. For example in the first terzina with “Thou, from” (line 2) the rhythm changes because of the stressing of ‘Thou’. And also in the fourth terzina with the stressing of “Driving” (line 11) there is also a rearrangement of the metre. In that case the irregular metre strengthens the impression of the pushing forward of the “sweet buds” (line 11).

In his ode Shelley also often makes use of the enjambement, which does not allow a pause after each verse, because the sentence does not stop with the end of the verse but continues in the next line: “… the leaves dead/ Are driven,…” (lines 2+ 3). Shelley employs the change of metre and the enjambement very deliberately. His intention is to build a counterbalance against the regularity of each verse.

In the ode sometimes three or four similar adjectives or nouns follow one another: “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red” (line 4) or “Black rain, and fire, and hail” (line 28). By reading those constructions out aloud, one remarks that they are emphasized, because the time of the sentences slows down. So not only the metre changes but also the time of the sentences. Very important stylistic devices Shelley employs are the assonance and the alliterative rhyme which, like the terza rima, also suggest a flowing movement. Here are some examples for the assonance: “wintry bed” (line 6) and “winged seeds” (line 7), “cold” (line 7) and “corpse” (line 8) and two representative examples for the alliterative rhyme: “dirge” (line 23), “dying year” (line 24) and “dome” (line 25) or “Vaulted” (line 26) and “vapours” (line 27). As one can see from these examples the assonance and the alliterative rhyme do not only appear in the same line or verse but sometimes extend to some verses. Through these stylistic devices Shelley was able to tie together words throughout the whole ode.

3) Interpretation

3.1.1) The First Three Stanzas

The west wind and the narrator are the two only protagonists of the poem. The ode opens with the narrator’s direct address to the wind which “…gives to the wind the almost objective status of a dramatic character, who enters into a form of imaginative dialogue with the speaker of the poem.”5 Through this address the west wind is introduced as a character and not just as a natural element. But it is not only the address that makes the wind more than one of the four elements. The wind’s synonym in the first line of the poem is the “breath of Autumn’s being” (line 1). Again the wind is presented as something living, as a being. He “… is the life- breath of the season.”6 With this metaphor Shelley describes the wind as live- giving and creative.

The west wind is also an “unseen presence” (line 2) which means that he slips the evidence of the eye. For Shelley especially the most powerful beings like gods, ghosts or the elements are unseen or invisible, that is why also the wind cannot be recognised with the eye. He can only get visible in its effects and consequences. One effect for example is that the wind drives “the leaves dead” (line 2). Those leaves are permanent images in the works of Shelley and they are mentioned throughout the ode, as we will see.


1 Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind. “The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe

Shelley. 10 vol., 2nd vol. ,Ed. Roger Igpen, Walter E. Peck (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1965) 294- 297.All page references within the text are to this edition.

2 J. R.. Watson, English Poetry of the Romantic Period (New York/ London: Longman, 1985) 247.

3 Edgar Mertner, Ewald Standop, Englische Literaturgeschichte(Heidelberg: Quelle und Meyer, 1983) 426.

4 Terzina is the Italian term for a stanza of three lines.

5 Leighton, Angela, Shelley and the Sublime, An Interpretation of the Major Poems (Cambridge: UP, 1984) 107.

6 Leighton 108.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” - A discussion
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Seminar für Englische Philologie, Abteilung Anglistik)
English Romanticism
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Percy, Bysshe, Shelley’s, West, Wind”
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Magistra Artium Silvia Katzenmaier (Author), 2004, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” - A discussion, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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