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Analysis of Shelley's Ode To the West Wind

 

        In "Ode to the West Wind," Percy Bysshe Shelley tries to gain

transcendence, for he shows that his thoughts, like the "winged seeds" (7) are

trapped.  The West Wind acts as a driving force for change and rejuvenation in

the human and natural world.  Shelley views winter not just as last phase of

vegetation but as the last phase of life in the individual, the imagination,

civilization and religion.  Being set in Autumn, Shelley observes the changing

of the weather and its effects on the internal and external environment.  By

examining this poem, the reader will see that Shelley can only reach his

sublime by having the wind carry his "dead thoughts" (63) which through an

apocalyptic destruction, will lead to a rejuvenation of the imagination, the

individual and the natural world.

 

        Shelley begins his poem by addressing the "Wild West Wind" (1).  He

quickly introduces the theme of death and compares the dead leaves to "ghosts"

(3).  The imagery of "Pestilence-stricken multitudes" makes the reader aware

that Shelley is addressing more than a pile of leaves. His claustrophobic mood

becomes evident when he talks of the "wintry bed" (6) and "The winged seeds,

where they lie cold and low/ Each like a corpse within its grave, until/ Thine

azure sister of the Spring shall blow" (7-9).  In the first line, Shelley use

the phrase "winged seeds" which presents images of flying and freedom.  The

only problem is that they lay "cold and low" or unnourished or  not elevated.

He likens this with a feeling of being trapped.  The important word is "seeds"

for it shows that even in death, new life will grow out of the "grave."  The

phrase "winged seeds" also brings images of religions, angels, and/or souls

that continue to create new life.  Heavenly images are confirmed by his use of

the word "azure" which besides meaning sky blue, also is defined, in Webster's

Dictionary, as an "unclouded vault of heaven."  The word "azure," coupled with

the word "Spring," helps show Shelley's view of rejuvenation.  The word

"Spring" besides being a literary metaphor for rebirth also means to rise up. In

line 9, Shelley uses soft sounding phrases to communicate the blowing of the

wind. This tercet acts as an introduction and a foreshadow of what is to come

later.

 

        Shelley goes on to talk of the wind as a "Destroyer and Preserver" which

brings to mind religious overtones of different cultures such as Hinduism and

Native Indian beliefs.  The poem now sees a shift of the clouds which warns of

an upcoming storm.  This helps Shelley begin to work towards a final climax.

He then writes of the mourning song "Of the dying year, to which this closing

night/ Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre/ Vaulted with all they congregated

might" (23-25).  Again, the reader feels somewhat claustrophobic.  The "closing

night" feels as if it is surrounding the author as he writes and the reader as

he or she reads.  The "closing night" is used also to mean the final night.

Shelley shows how he cannot have a transcendence even in an open sky for even

the sky is a "dome."  The "sepulchre" is a tomb made out of rock and his

imagination and the natural world will be locked and "Vaulted" tight.  But in

following lines Shelley writes how this "sepulchre" will "burst" (28).  In that

sense, "Vaulted" takes on the meaning of a great leap and even a spring.

Shelley uses the phrase "congregated might" not just to mean a collaborative

effort, but to represent all types of religion. Shelley seems to use obtuse

phrasing to frighten the reader  and to show the long breath of the wind.

Shelley wants the reader to visualize the "dome" as having a presence like a

volcano. And when the "dome" does "burst," it will act as a "Destroyer and

Preserver" and creator.  The use of the words "Black rain and fire and hail..."

(28) also helps the reader prepare for the apocalyptic climax which Shelley

intended.

 

        As the rising action continues, Shelley talks of the "Mediterranean"

(31) and its "summer dreams" (30).  In the dream, the reader finds the sea

laying "Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay/ And saw in sleep old palaces and

towers/ Quivering within the wave's intenser day" (32-34). Shelley implants

the idea of a volcano with the word "pumice."  The "old palaces and towers" stir

vivid images of ancient Rome and Greece in the readers mind.  Shelley also uses

these images in the sea's dream to show that the natural world and the human

social and political world are parallel. Again, he uses soft sounding words,

but this time it is used to lull the reader into the same dream-like state of

the Mediterranean. The "pumice" shows destruction and creation for when the

volcano erupts it destroys.  But it also creates more new land.  The "pumice" is

probably Shelley's best example of rebirth and rejuvenation.  The word

"Quivering" is not just used to describe the reflection of images in the water.

It is also used to show a sense of fear which seems to be the most common mood

and emotion in this poem.  Is Shelley perhaps making a comment that at the root

of people's faith is fear of vengeful god?  Maybe, but the main focus of this

poem is not just religion, but what religion stands for which is death and

rebirth.  Could line 34, also be a comment on Shelley himself?

 

        In the final stanzas, Shelley has the wind transforming from the natural

world toward human suffering.  Shelley pleads with the wind:  "Oh! lift me as a

wave, a leaf, a cloud!" (54).  He seeks transcendence from the wind and says:

"I fall upon the thorns of life!  I bleed" (55). Shelley shows Christ not as a

religion, but as a hero of sacrifice and suffering, like the poet himself.  He

again pleads for the wind:  "Drive my dead thought over the universe...to

quicken a new birth!" (63-64).  He asks the wind to "Scatter, as from an

unextinguished hearth/  Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!/ Be through

my lips to unawakened Earth" (66-68).  The words "unextinguished hearth"

represent the poets undying passion.  The "hearth" is also at the centre of the

earth which helps make the connection between humanity and nature.  Both are

constantly trying to reinvent themselves.  When one scatters "ashes" it's at

one's death and that person becomes one with the earth.  When one scatters

"sparks" it is these sparks that create new fires of creation and destruction.

These new "sparks" arise when the "dome" explodes and abandons old ways. Can

one ever escape the roots of creation?  Shelley has many Blakean overtones of

creation and destruction in the final tercet of this poem.  Shelley's says that

his lips are the "trumpet of prophecy" (69).  And many say that Wordsworth is

egotistical? Again, he uses biblical sounding words to add drama and importance

to his prophetic vision. And it definitely helps achieve Shelley's intended

climax when he asks with hope: "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

(70).This sentence could be rewritten substituting the word death, for the word

"Winter," and the word rebirth, could take the place of "spring."

 

        Shelley, like all of the Romantic poets, constantly tries to achieve a

transcendence to sublime.  In "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley uses the wind as

a power of change that flow through history, civilization, religions and human

life itself.  Does the wind help Shelley achieve his transcendence?  It seems

it has in some sense, but Shelley never achieves his full sublime.  In poems

such as "Stanzas written in Dejection Near Naples" Shelley uses images of

"lightning" (15) and "flashing" (16) which help demonstrate that he can only

attain a partial sublime unlike a poet like William Wordsworth.  Perhaps that's

why he tries to give rebirth to his individual imagination. One can never

restart totally new. Even the trees that will grow from "the winged seeds" are

not totally new, but that is the point Shelley is trying to make. He feels

himself to be part of a continuing cycle. Since Shelley is an atheist the only

way his soul can live on is through the "incantation" of his words.  So, if his

transcendence is to live on in eternity and create inspiration and change in

others like the West Wind, then he has achieved something greater than he could

have imagined.  But whether he grasped a complete transcendence for himself

while he was alive remains to be answered.  It seems that it is only in his

death that the "Wild Spirit" (13) could be lifted "as a wave, a leaf, a cloud"

to blow free in the "Wild West Wind" (1).

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