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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ode to the West Wind by P.B. Shelley

ODE TO THE WEST WIND

P.B. Shelley

The poem “Ode to the West Wind” directly conforms to Shelley’s poetic creed. Poetry, Shelley writes in “A Defence of Poetry”, “…awakens and enlarges the mind by rendering it the receptable of a thousand unapprehended combination of thought. Poetry lifts its veil from the hidden beauty of the world.” Consistent with this theory of poetc creation, Shelley’s Romanticism is filled with “vehement feelings, ecstatic, mournful, passionate, desperate or fiercely indignant”. Sometimes he makes a sudden turn of the theme and talks about himself just like the movements in Beethoven’s symphonies. It is in this that he is unique among the Romantics—looking for a better world of liberty, equality and fraternity in his idealistic project of life. For this, he is seen to be pessimistic about the present but highly optimistic about the future to come.

The Romantic poets made frequent use of the wind as a soothing symbol. But in Shelley’s treatment it is not a “correspondent breeze”; it is rather ferocious in its energy. M.H. Abrams says “because of the ferocity the wind becomes a vast impersonal force, which the poet needs as a symbol of both destruction and creation”. Herein lies the importance of the wind as the metaphor for revolutionary social change.

In the very first stanza West Wind appears with an accumulated force–a “breath of Autumn’s being”—to blow away the dead leaves. Shelley compares the West Wind to a magician because, just as a powerful magician drives away ghosts, the wind performs same kind of operation by sweeping away the dead things in autumnal nature by remaining itself invisible. The phrase “pestilence-stricken multitude” here, on the surface level, refers to the leaves, which are decomposing on the ground. But symbolically the ‘multitudes’ refers to the entire human society, which, the poet thinks, in a state of degeneration.

“…O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wing’d seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave.”

The West Wind carries the seeds with wing-like devices down to the ground where those remain dormant. During spring, however, when Zephyr, the warm and gentle wind will blow across the land, the seeds, shooting forth from the ground, will grow into plants. Here Shelley seems to have a very swift vision of the spring. He sees that just as with the onset of spring shepherds go out with their flocks of sheep for tending on the green field, the gentle breeze similarly causes the buds to bloom and carry the fragrances from one place to another. The West Wind moves with a terrific force and makes massacre of all that stand in its way. But it takes care to preserve the seeds under the soil so as to ensure a resurrection in the world of nature with the advent of the spring. In this way, the West Wind becomes both a “destroyer and preserver”.

In the second stanza the wind changes its field of operation; it is set in air, in the “steep sky”. The West Wind, while operating in the sky, moves along with all its might, Shelley imagines, just as the stream of a river. In so doing it forces accumulated clouds—right from the surface of the ocean up to the sky—to disintegrate. The Wind performs this kind of function by forcing the clouds to—just as it the leaves of the trees to fall off. Shelley here may be referring to the scientific fact that clouds are created in the sky out of the evaporation of water from the surface of the water bodies on earth. But in the immediate context of the poem, he must have observed the clouds to have been accumulated right from the surface of the ocean up to the great heights of the sky. That is why he imagines the clouds as the inter-connected boughs of the ocean and the sky. Shelley compares the clouds ravaged by the power of the wind to the uplifted hair of a Maenad in order to convey the sense that the West Wind operates possessed by some supernatural force.

In the European seasonal cycle, autumn is the season which stands just before winter, at the end of which a year closes. So before the coming of winter West Wind passes over earth destroying the old degenerate things and making horrible sounds. The howling of the wind is, therefore, imagined by the poet to be the dirge or the funeral song for the closing year. Shelley here addresses the clouds, accumulated from the surface of the ocean up to the great heights of the sky, as “angels of rain and lightning” because they obviously indicate that rain and lightning are approaching soon.

By the expression “the dome of a vast sepulchre” Shelley here refers to the closing night which will serve as the dome of a vast tomb, in which the closing year will be buried. The accumulated water vapors also make the roof over the dying year and the atmosphere seems to be solid because of thick layers of dense clouds. The point is that Wind operates with the same and single point agenda: it destroys the dead and preserves the living.

In the third stanza the realm of the ruling West Wind is the sea, both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and both the surface and the vegetation beneath. Shelley here has personified the Mediterranean, which perhaps in its sleep is dreaming of destruction of the palaces. During summer the Mediterranean and the Roman palaces and, the towers which remain submerged, are all quiet as if they seem to be sleeping because no storms appear to ruffle the surface of the sea in that season. But the wind agitates the sea and the palaces seem to quiver on account of the tremendous motion of the waves. This may be easily taken for allusions to Shelley’s hope for political change in Italy, for the collapse of the kings and kingdoms. Shelley here must have tried to bring home a political philosophy. The old palaces and towers symbolize corrupt, degenerate and old power, old order and institutions. All these should be destroyed, the poet dreams along with the sea, in order to make way for new beginning.

As the scene shifts to the Atlantic, “the somnolent summer yields to the ruthless autumn”. The reader is taken not only to the Atlantic, where its smooth surface has turned into a deep waves, but under it, where woods and foliage are forced to dispossess themselves of foliage upon hearing the Wind’s voice.

The fourth stanza begins, as pointed out by Michael Ferver somewhat the way Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” begins, by briefly recapitulating the themes of the first three movements. Now, the Wind is seen in the fourth stanza in relation to the poet himself:

“If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee.”

As an idealist and as an extremely sensitive soul, Shelley was in much distress to see mankind exploited and being dehumanized by the corrupt, degenerate and old political powers and institutions. He wanted to see mankind reach an ideal state of life based on fraternity, equality and democracy. And that is why he was seeking revolution, which he refers to as his “sore need”. Shelley erupts in Romantic agony,

“Oh! Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”

The poet wants to preach the words of revolution to mankind. But he knows that lacks the energy to do so. In order to acquire the strength and speed of the West Wind, he wants to be a piece of cloud, a leaf and a wave. The poet now remembers that in his boyhood he was full of energy and vigor, and as such that he would not refrain himself from competing with the cloudlets borne away in the sky by the wind. But now he lacks the energy to do so and that is why he seeks to be invaded by the fierce wind so that he may be supplied with energy and inspiration. Again, Shelley here thinks of himself as having accumulated the degenerate habits and ideas. In order to be refreshed and reinvigorated, the poet invites or rather prays to the Wind to invade his self. He wants this also with the intention of acquiring some of the fierce energy of the wind in this process. The West Wind comes into being during autumn with its predestined function of destroying the old and degenerate, thereby paving the way for the new. As it is destructive, its processes are bound to have certain sad implications. But destruction is also a necessary prelude to a new awakening, which implies sweetness.

He longs to be invaded by the fierce spirit of the Wind and cleaves with it to become,

“…through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of my prophecy!”

At last he is optimistic of the future and closes the poem with a prophecy:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

It becomes clear that the poet invokes the example of the operations of the west wind in nature because, in turn, he wants to spread his message of resurrection through this poem and other poems he plans to compose. In other words, an evidence of a natural phenomenon in nature turns out to be a poetic inspiration for him.



1. Why does Shelley compare the West Wind to a magician?

Or, Explain the expression, “Like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing".

Or, In what sense does the West Wind become an ‘enchanter’?

Ans: Shelley compares the West Wind to a magician because, just as a powerful magician drives away ghosts, the wind performs same kind of operation by sweeping away the dead things in autumnal nature by remaining itself invisible.

2. Why does Shelley address the Wind as “the breath of Autumn’s being”?

Ans: Shelley imagines the West Wind here as a restless anthropomorphising force, as a spirit, which comes to being as a result of special climactic condition during the season, autumn.

Who are referred to as “pestilence-stricken multitude”?

Ans: The phrase here, on the surface level, refers to the leaves, which are decomposing on the ground. But symbolically the ‘multitudes’ refers to the entire human society, which, the poet thinks, in a state of degeneration.

3. “Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air”—Explain the expression.

Ans: With the onset of spring shepherds go out with their flocks of sheep for tending on the green field. The gentle breeze similarly, the poet imagines, causes the buds to bloom and carry the fragrances from one place to another.

4. What is referred to here as “azure sister of the spring”? What is its significance in relation to the West Wind?

Ans: The West Wind carries the seeds with wing-like devices down to the ground where those remain dormant. During spring, however, when Zephyr, the warm and gentle wind will blow across the land, the seeds, shooting forth from the ground, will grow into plants.

Why is the West Wind called “destroyer and preserver”?

Ans: The West Wind moves with a terrific force and makes massacre of all that stand in its way. But it takes care to preserve the seeds under the soil so as to ensure a resurrection in the world of nature with the advent of the spring. In this way, the West Wind becomes both a “destroyer and preserver”.

5. Explain the expression “winged seeds”.

Ans: Certain plants and trees in nature produce seeds which are formed in such physical condition that those may be transported by the wind from one place to another. This natural device is employed by the plants and trees to perpetuate their lines over a wide area of land. Shelley suggests that the West Wind performs just this function in nature.

6. How does Shelley equate “Loose clouds” with “earth’s decaying leaves”?

Ans: The West Wind, while operating in the sky, moves along with all its might, Shelley imagines, just as the stream of a river. In so doing it forces accumulated clouds—right from the surface of the ocean up to the sky—to disintegrate. The Wind performs this kind of function by forcing the clouds to—just as it the leaves of the trees to fall off.

7. Explain the expression “...tangled boughs of heaven and ocean”.

Ans: Shelley here may be referring to the scientific fact that clouds are created in the sky out of the evaporation of water from the surface of the water bodies on earth. But in the immediate context of the poem, he must have observed the clouds to have been accumulated right from the surface of the ocean up to the great heights of the sky. That is why he imagines the clouds as the inter-connected boughs of the ocean and the sky.

8. Who is a Maenad? Why does Shelley compare the clouds to the uplifted hair of a Maenad?

Ans: Maenad is a frenzied woman-worshipper of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. Shelley compares the clouds ravaged by the power of the wind to the uplifted hair of a Maenad in order to convey the sense that the West Wind operates possessed by some supernatural force.

9. Why does Shelley call the West Wind, “dirge of the dying year”?

Ans: In the European seasonal cycle, autumn is the season which stands just before winter, at the end of which a year closes. So before the coming of winter West Wind passes over earth destroying the old degenerate things and making horrible sounds. The howling of the wind is, therefore, imagined by the poet to be the dirge or the funeral song for the closing year.

10. Whom does Shelley address as “angels of rain and lightning” and why?

Ans: Shelley here addresses the clouds, accumulated from the surface of the ocean up to the great heights of the sky, as “angels of rain and lightning” because they obviously indicate that rain and lightning are approaching soon.

11. What does Shelley refer to as “the dome of a vast sepulchre”?

Ans: By the expression Shelley here refers to the closing night which will serve as the dome of a vast tomb, in which the closing year will be buried. The accumulated water vapours also make the roof over the dying year and the atmosphere seems to be solid because of thick layers of dense clouds.

12. How does Shelley personify “the Mediterranean”?

Ans: During summer the Mediterranean and the Roman palaces and, the towers which remain submerged, are all quiet as if they seem to be sleeping because no storms appear to ruffle the surface of the sea in that season. But the wind agitates the sea and the palaces seem to quiver on account of the tremendous motion of the waves.

13. Explain the line: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”.

Ans: At the very end of the fourth stanza of the poem “Ode to the West Wind” Shelley refers to the troubles, sorrows and the bitter disappointment of life which are inevitable to every human being. Shelley was no exception to it. More importantly, as he was an idealistic and Romantic, he was deeply hurt by the bitter experiences of life.

14. Where is Baiae’s Bay?

Ans: The Baiae’s Bay is situated on the western coast of Italy near Naples. Vesuvius stands close to the Bay. The Bay is famous for islands formed from the deposit of lava.

15. What is the significance of the phrase “old palaces and towers quivering”?

Ans: Shelley here must have tried to bring home a political philosophy. The old palaces and towers symbolise corrupt, degenerate and old power, old order and institutions. All these should be destroyed, the poet dreams along with the sea, in order to make way for new beginning.

16. What does the poet refer to as “sore need”

Or, What is the “sore need” the poet refers to?

Ans: As an idealist and as an extremely sensitive soul, Shelley was in much distress to see mankind exploited and being dehumanised by the corrupt, degenerate and old political powers and institutions. He wanted to see mankind reach an ideal state of life based on fraternity, equality and democracy. And that is why he was seeking revolution, which he refers to as his “sore need”.

17. “If even I were in my boyhood...seemed a vision”—Explain.

Ans: The poet now remembers that in his boyhood he was full of energy and vigour, and as such that he would not refrain himself from competing with the cloudlets borne away in the sky by the wind. But now he lacks the energy to do so and that is why he seeks to be invaded by the fierce wind so that he may be supplied with energy and inspiration. (The expression “scare seemed a vision” means it did not seem impossible in his boyhood.)

18. Why does the poet wish to be “a dead leaf”, “a swift cloud” and “a wave”?

Or, Why does the poet wish to “share the impulse of thy strength”?

Ans: The poet wants to preach the words of revolution to mankind. But he knows that lacks the energy to do so. In order to acquire the strength and speed of the West Wind, he wants to be a piece of cloud, a leaf and a wave.

19. “Make me thy lyre”—Explain.

Ans: Shelley here in the poem Ode to the West Wind thinks of himself as having accumulated the degenerate habits and ideas. In order to be refreshed and reinvigorated, the poet invites or rather prays to the Wind to invade his self. He wants this also with the intention of acquiring some of the fierce energy of the wind in this process.

20. “The tumult of thy mighty harmonies/

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone

Sweet though in sadness—”

Why does Shelley say this? How can sweetness remain side by side sadness?

Ans: The West Wind, the poet thinks, comes into being during autumn with its predestined function of destroying the old and degenerate, thereby paving the way for the new. As it is destructive, its processes are bound to have certain sad implications. But destruction is also a necessary prelude to a new awakening, which implies sweetness.

21. What does Shelley want to mean by “Thy mighty harmonies”?

Ans: The West Wind, as it blows across the world, produces horrible sounds. The poet takes it for granted that the wind possesses a pattern of its operation like musical composition. But since it is destructive in nature, its sounds are horrible.

22. “Drive my dead thoughts...my words among mankind”—Explain.

Ans: Towards the end of the poem “Ode to the West Wind”, it becomes clear that the poet invokes the example of the operations of the west wind in nature because, in turn, he wants to spread his message of resurrection through this poem and other poems he plans to compose. In other words, an evidence of a natural phenomenon in nature turns out to be a poetic inspiration for him.

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