Percy Shelley's style in "Ode to the West Wind"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I. Introduction

II. Main part
a.) first stanza
b.) second stanza
c.) third stanza
d.) fourth stanza
e.) fifth stanza

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

V. Appendix I

VI. Appendix II

I. Introduction

Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most famous Romantic poets of the 19th century. Throughout his life he has written a lot of works that impressed people. One of these works is the poem ‘ Ode to the West Wind ’ which was written in 1819.

This paper is about ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and gives information on it, such as its outer appearance. It focuses on how Shelley describes the ‘wind’ and which symbols he uses in this poem.

First some information about the term ‘ode’ itself. The ode is a lyric poem with great length that deals with a “lofty theme in a dignified manner[1] ”. There are three types of English odes: the Pindaric, the Cowley and the Horation ode. The Pindaric Ode is a ceremonious poem with Pindar’s style. Pindar was “a Greek professional lyrist of the 5th century BC. He employed the triadic structure of Stesichorus, [...] consisting of a strophe [...] followed by a metrically harmonious antistrophe, concluding with a summary line in a different metre.[2] ” The most important odes were those of Abraham Cowley and Andrew Marvell. Marvell, for example, used “a simple and regular stanza [...] modelled on Horace”[3] with the rhyme scheme aabb; the first two lines had four stresses, whereas the last two lines had only three stresses. Cowley wrote Pindaric odes “which had irregular patterns of line lengths and rhyme schemes, though they were iambic.”[4]

Shelley’s Ode is of the Horation type; in it he describes the activities of the west wind on earth, on the sea and also in the sky. He also expresses “his envy for the boundless freedom of the west wind, and his wish to be free like the wind and to scatter his words among mankind”.[5]

II. Main part

The poem ‘ Ode to the West Wind ’ consists of five stanzas. Each of the stanzas consist of five stanzas – four three-line stanzas and a two-line stanza. They all have iambic pentameters. The rhyme scheme in each part follows a pattern that is called terza rima.[6] This three-line rhyme scheme was employed by Dante in his Divine Comedy. In the rhyme scheme of the three-line terza rima, the first and third line always rhyme and the second line does not. The second line of a stanza only rhymes with the first and third line of the following stanza. The final couple at the end of each part of the poem rhymes with the second line of the previous three-line stanza. To make this terza rima visually clear, the rhyme scheme of each part is the following: aba bcb cdc ded ee.

Shelley’s Ode is addressed to the West Wind, to Zephyr. The word ‘zephyr’ has puzzled etymologists for a long time. Some of them thought it came from the word ‘z ophos ’ which means darkness. Others thought it was derived from ‘ zoaphoros’, life-bearing. Actually ‘zephyr’ has nothing to do with ‘zophos’ and ‘zoaphoros’; ‘zephyrs’ are associated with ‘clear blue sky’ and they lull. For Pope, for example, the zephyr is a light breeze. He describes the zephyr the following: “Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows, / And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows...”[7] Obviously, zephyr has become softer in the eighteenth century poetic. It was said that it lost its violence in the past.

In his poem, Shelley merges all things mentioned above about zephyr so that “his west wind drives dark stormclouds across the sky, and it is literally ‘life-bearing’”[8]. This shows that Shelley recreated the wind as a violent spirit and therefore created him “in dramatic opposition to the zephyrs that had soothed the slumber of many an eighteenth-century swain”[9]

The poem Ode to the West Wind can be divided in two parts: the first three stanzas are about the qualities of the ‘Wind’; the fact that these three stanzas belong together can visually be seen by the phrase ‘ Oh hear![10] at the end of each of the three stanzas. Whereas the first three stanzas give a relation between the ‘Wind’ and the speaker, there is a turn at the beginning of the fourth stanza; the focus is now on the speaker, or better the hearer, and what he is going to hear. To say it with Haines’ words: the first three stanzas are about the “treatment of the Wind’s qualities [...], but it is the treatment in the last two [stanzas] of the invoker which must chiefly determine one’s response to the attitude of the poem as a whole.”[11]

a.) first stanza

The first stanza begins with the alliteration ‘wild West Wind’. This makes the ‘wind’ “sound invigorating”[12]. The reader gets the impression that the wind is something that lives, because he is ‘wild’ – this is a personification of the ‘wind’. Even after reading the headline and the alliteration, one might have the feeling that the ‘ Ode’ might somehow be positive. But it is not, as the beginning of the poem destroys the feeling that associated the wind with the spring. The first few lines consist of a lot of sinister elements, such as the dead leaves. The inversion of ‘ leaves dead ’ (l. 2) in the first stanza underlines the fatality by putting the word ‘ dead’ (l. 2) at the end of the line so that it rhymes with the next lines. The sentence goes on and makes these ‘ dead’ (l. 2) leaves live again as ‘ ghosts’ (l. 3) that flee from something that panics them. The sentence does not end at that point but goes on with a polysyndeton[13]. The colourful context makes it easier for the reader to visualise what is going on – even if it is in an uncomfortable manner. Pirie says that ‘ Yellow’ (l. 4) can be seen as “the ugly hue of ‘pestilence-stricken’ skin; and ‘hectic red’, though evoking the pase of the poem itself, could also highlight the pace of death brought to multitudes.”[14] There is also a contradiction in the colour ‘ black’ (l. 4) and the adjective ‘ pale’ (l. 4) which underlines the fatality mentioned before. In the word ‘ chariotest’ (l. 6) the ‘est’ is added to the verb stem ‘chariot’, probably to indicate the second person singular, after the subject ‘ thou’ (l. 5). The ‘corpse within its grave’ (l. 8) in the next line is in contrast to the ‘ azure sister of the Spring’ (l. 9) – a reference to the east wind - whose ‘ living hues and odours plain’ (l.12) evoke a strong contrast to the colours of the fourth line of the poem that evoke death. The last line of this stanza (‘ Destroyer and Preserver’, l. 14) refers to the west wind. The west wind is considered the ‘ Destroyer’ (l. 14) because it drives the last sings of life from the trees. He is also considered the ‘ Preserver’ (l.14) for scattering the seeds which will come to life in the spring.

Summing this stanza up with only a few words it is important to say that Shelley calls upon the invisible power of the Wind and Spirit. It is this ‘ unseen presence’ (l. 2) that brings life to things that are dead and death to things that are alive. An example for this is the herding of the autumn leaves which are like shoals of the dead. But the wind is not the only thing Shelley talks about in this stanza; he even sees deeper “to a total pattern in which transfiguration and destruction are aspects of one creative movement”[15]. This means that there does not only exist beauty in things because the death and ugly is with them as well; the exposure of the Beauty does only work if we “are prepared to leave behind what is old and faded from its first imaginative splendour”[16] ; that is why ‘destruction’ is something that is necessary in the flow of transfiguration. Shelley’s ‘ Wild Spirit’ (l. 13) which may also be his “occult energy”[17] is able to move everywhere. He is therefore like the autumn wind that blows through the leaves and is both destroyer and preserver. There is a balance between these two aspects in the first stanza as if it were possible to confront the two with each other. As there obviously is a symmetry of life and death, autumn and spring, it becomes clear that Shelley does not mourn for the loss of beauty because he knows about the fact and “promise of nature’s flourishing once more after winter’s deprivations”. Therefore “he will deny for the sake of that vision the irreversible human reality of death”[18]. The ‘ winged seeds’ (l. 7) ‘ lie cold and low’ (l. 7) in the ground; but they are only ‘ like’ (l. 8) corpses in their graves - they do not die and wake from ‘the dreaming earth’ (l. 10) in the springtime. This is of course different with the human beings: they die and do not return again.

b.) second stanza

The second stanza of the poem is much more fluid than the first one. The sky’s ‘ clouds’ (l.16) are ‘ like earth’s decaying leaves’ (l. 16). They are a reference to the second line of the first stanza (‘ leaves dead’, l. 2). Through this reference the landscape is recalled again. The ‘ clouds’ (l. 16) are ‘ Shook[19] from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean’ (l. 17). This probably refers to the fact that the line between the sky and the stormy sea is indistinguishable and the whole space from the horizon to the zenith being is covered with trialing storm clouds. The ‘clouds’ can also be seen as ‘ Angels of rain’ (l. 18). In a biblical way, they may be messengers that bring a message from heaven down to earth through rain and lightning. These two natural phenomenons with their “fertilizing and illuminating power”[20] bring a change.

Line 21 begins with ‘ Of some fierce Maenad[21]... ’ (l. 21) and again the west wind is part of the second stanza of the poem; here he is two things at once: first he is ‘ dirge/Of the dying year ’ (l. 23f) and second he is “a prophet of tumult whose prediction is decisive”[22] ; a prophet who does not only bring ‘ black rain, and fire, and hail’ (l. 28), but who ‘ will burst’ (l. 28) it. The ‘ locks of the approaching storm’ (l. 23) are the messengers of this bursting: the ‘ clouds’
(l. 16). If we bring in the thoughts of what was said at the end of the first stanza and compare it with the second stanza, we learn that Shelley “expands his vision from the earthly scene with the leaves before him to take in the vaster commotion of the skies”[23]. This means that the wind is now no longer at the horizon and therefore far away, but he is exactly above us. The clouds now reflect the image of the swirling leaves; this is a parallelism that gives evidence that we lifted “our attention from the finite world into the macrocosm”[24]. The ‘ clouds’ (l. 16) mentioned above can also be compared with the leaves; but the clouds are more unstable and bigger than the leaves and they can be seen as messengers of rain and lightning as it was mentioned above.


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[8] Cronin, Richard, p. 233

[9] Cronin, Richard, p. 232

[10] Shelley, Percy B. Ode to the West Wind. <> line 14, 28, 42. (The quotations of the poem are taken from the poem that is at the end of this paper – see Appendix. For further information about the homepage where the poem was taken from, see also Appendix.
From now on it will be referred to quotations of the poem only as „line plus number“. As there would be too many footnotes at the bottom of each page, the quotes of the poem will be right behind the quotes in brackets from.)

[11] Haines, Simon, p. 153

[12] Pirie, David B., p. 77

[13] Polysyndeton: ‘yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red’, line 4

[14] Pirie, David, p. 77

[15] Welburn, Andrew J., p. 160

[16] Welburn, Andrew J., p. 160

[17] Welburn, Andrew J., p. 160

[18] Welburn, Andrew J., p. 161

[19] `shook‘ is an archaism and used for `shaken´

[20] Pirie, David, p. 79

[21] Maenad is a reference to Greek mythology; Maenad was a priestess of Bacchus, the God of Wine.

[22] Pirie, David, p. 79

[23] Welburn, Andrew J., p. 161

[24] Welburn, Andrew J., p. 161

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Percy Shelley's style in "Ode to the West Wind"
University of Heidelberg
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Percy, Shelley, West, Wind, Ode, poem, Analyse
Quote paper
Manuela Kistner (Author), 2005, Percy Shelley's style in "Ode to the West Wind", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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