Analysis of Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s work belongs to the Romantic period. One of his most famous poems is Ode to the West Wind, which he wrote in November 1819 while he lived in Florence with his family (Mullan xxxi). Shelley himself provides the title of the poem with a note:
This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began, as I foresaw, at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions. (Webb 39)
This annotation helps to introduce the reader to the poem. What one gets to know from it are the place and the feeling for a certain kind of atmosphere when the poem was written. Shelley made this note to show that the landscape, the weather and the atmosphere have an influence on him while writing the poem.
As the title implies the poem is an ode. The form of the ode usually means that the poem is dedicated to someone or something and that there is no fixed system of rhyme schemes. An ode is an elaborated and formally structured poem. The poet wants to celebrate some event with an ode. It is often a subjective reflection of the impression of the poet. Shelley’s ode fulfils the aspect of being dedicated; the ode praises the west wind. But he consistently uses a rhyme scheme, the terza rima invented by Dante. So, the poem is labelled by Shelley as being an ode but it contradicts an ode in the aspect of rhyming. Consequently, the content is ode-like and the structure is rather a composition of a quintet of sonnets. However, the sonnets do not exactly correspond to the general forms of sonnets. Shelley uses for each of his sonnets four triplets and a final couplet, so that at least the condition of a sonnet consisting of fourteen lines is regarded.
Referring to the content of the poem, it looks at first sight as being a pure nature lyric, in which the west wind is praised and in which exact descriptions of different fields of nature are given. For instance, how the west wind, also called Zephyrus, influences the land, the sea and the sky. In the last two stanzas the lyrical I identifies itself with the west wind and beseeches it to work through him.
The Ode to the West Wind consists of five sonnets, which again consist of four triplets and a final couplet, like in the English sonnet. Each sonnet uses the terza rima. That is triplets with the rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc ded, which were first used by Dante Alighieri in his Divina Commedia (Encarta Dante Alighieri). The first and the third line of each triplet are rhymed, and the final word of the second, unrhymed, line sets the rhyme for the following stanza. Shelley adds a couplet with the rhyme ee to the triplets. Using this rhyme is a way to link the separate triplets and the couplet of each sonnet. The use of the terza rima makes the ode flow while reading it. The whole sonnet sequence is written in iambic pentameter. Only line three of stanza one and two deviate from this through being an anapaest. There are only twelve female cadences in the whole poem, the rest are male ones. Iambic pentameters are typical for the Petrarchan sonnet (Encarta Verslehre). But the terza rima totally contradicts to the sonnet form. So, Shelley tries on the one hand to follow the disciplined patterns of an ode and uses a rigid structural framework. On the other hand he innovates “in the irregular interweaving of iambs and anapaests, and in finding a metre to fit the subject of a poem” (King-Hele 231).
The first stanza respectively the first sonnet deals with the effects which the west wind has on land. The whole stanza is an invocation to the wind to listen to the lyrical I. Already the beginning is very impressive and dynamic through the interjection and alliteration
“O wild West Wind” (l. 1). This is stressed through the caesura after this part of the first verse. The interjections “O” or “oh” can also be found in line five and in line fourteen. So these interjections reflect the excitement of the lyrical I. The usage of the alliteration and the adjective “wild” in connection to the wind shows how the lyrical I sees the wind. The wind has to be something that is dynamic, moving, and active and may cause change.
Here King-Hele is of the opinion that “Thou breath of Autumn’s being”, at the end of the first line, is more than mere alliteration: it establishes the wind as the agent of seasonal change; and brings in a human metaphor to account for its presence.” (214). This impression is also emphasized by the rhythm of the stanza which begins with the first four words of line one all stressed. Besides, the lyrical I addresses the wind four times in the second person singular (ll. 1, 2, 5, 9). So it has to be not something but someone with whom one, here the lyrical I, can speak and something that gets human consciousness by direct address (Viswas 90). Shelley personifies the wind and gives the wind human characteristics. The personification becomes more vivid when it is said that the wind is an “enchanter” (l. 3) and a charioteer, who carries seeds into “their dark wintry bed” (l. 6). The wind drives the dead leaves and being an enchanter the wind makes the ghosts of the past natural year flee (ll. 2, 3). At the same time Shelley gives life to the leaves by making them driving and fleeing (l. 3). That contradicts the fact that the leaves are “leaves dead” (l. 2). So, they cannot flee or drive by themselves but the wind can make them fleeing and driving. They are no active but passive elements of nature. The simile of the dead leaves and ghosts show a deeper connection. Dead leaves as well as ghosts remain from living organisms when these are dead. In both cases it is not possible to foresee their movements and they both weigh very little. However, they differ in colour. Normally, the leaves in autumn are very colourful and ghosts are pale, grey or colourless. But the colour of ghosts is only human superstition and this is fallible (King-Hele 214). Shelley uses the colour-adjectives yellow, black, pale and red (l. 4) to describe the leaves. These are colours which are connected with sickness or a certain temperament of humans, according to Hippocrates, who invented the classical theory of temper. This theory describes yellow as typical for choleric persons, black for melancholic ones, pale or white for phlegmatic ones and red for sanguine ones (Encarta Temperament). So Shelley could have meant the different kinds of humans who have to be moved, physically or psychologically. Perhaps, Shelley sees a necessity to change the human’s mind like the wind changes the seasons and moves the leaves. Up to the eights line a very dark image is developed. There are ”ghosts” (l. 3), “black and pale” “pestilence-stricken multitudes” (ll. 4, 5), a “dark wintry bed” (l. 6) and the seeds “lie cold” (l. 7) “like a corpse within its grave” (l. 8).
 In the south of the Alps.
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- Antje Kurzmann (Author), 2004, Analysis of Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/66309