The Theme of Shelley’s Ode to the West wind

          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 this turns inward to talk about
himself. 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 wind is itself a powerful and recurrent Romantic metaphor. But in
Shelley’s treatment it is not a “correspondent breeze”. It is rather ferocious
in its energy, and 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 a restless
anthropomorphizing energy –a “breath of Autumn’s being”—to blow away the dead
leaves. Here Shelley breathes life into the metaphor of dead leaves by
inverting the words not just for the sake of rhyme but to make us see that the
leaves are really dead, and therefore, resemble ghosts. The poet takes another
breath and recasts the metaphor:
                        “…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 intricate set of correspondence
reflects the unquestioned assumption that as far as the trees are concerned
Spring will come. We get both major phases of dying and rebirth, in equal
weight, with the phase between them confined to a dream.
        If
the stanza one is about earth, stanza two is set in air, in the “steep sky”.
Clouds resemble leaves and water; air and water which jointly produce clouds
must then resemble trees, whose boughs, entangled by the storm shake off their
leaves. The point is that the Wind is everywhere and it does the same kind of
operation everywhere. It destroys the dead and preserves the living. The second
image, about the Maenad, in part, restates the first.
         
The third stanza is divided into three long sentences carrying the
movement across the line with a gentle rocking caused by enjambments and the
brilliant use of a trochaic footat the beginning of  “crystalline streams”. Here 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 charmingly personifies the
Mediterranean, which perhaps in its sleep is dreaming of the emperors’ palaces
tottering and falling into its water, though all is now peaceful, before the
Wind comes. This may be easily taken for allusions to Shelley’s hope for
political change in Italy, for the collapse of the kings and kingdoms.
          
As the scene shifts to the Atlantic, the somnolent summer yields to the
ruthless autumn. We move not only to the Atlantic, where its smooth surface has
turned into a deep waves, but under it, where we find woods and foliage
despoiling themselves of foliage upon hearing the Wind’s voice.
          
The fourth stanza begins 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.”
Shelley erupts in Romantic agony,
                         “Oh! Lift me as a
wave, a leaf, a cloud!
                          I fall upon the
thorns of life! I bleed!”
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 is not only a prophecy but also a cry to the
world to be renewed, awakened and reinvigorated. As we know it is usually
spring that awakens the earth, but he chose the wind of autumn deliberately for
the obvious purpose to convince that he is not forcing the natural world to his
own mould, but that the poem is occasioned by a specific moment and he is
observing the process of rebirth as being naturally preceded by the destruction
of the old unregenerate world. Symbolically, he is seeking a better world, a
new life to replace the . thus the wind of autumn is a perfect symbol of moving
and cleansing power, an evidence in the natural world what is poignantly
missing in the human.              

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