1792-1822 29 years A brilliant poet, an avowed atheist, anti-monarchical and anti-war. Percy Bysshe Shelley
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Type of Work “ Ode to the West Wind” is a lyric poem that addresses the west wind as a powerful force and asks it to scatter the poet's words throughout the world. A lyric poem presents the deep feelings and emotions of the poet rather than telling a story or presenting a witty observation. An ode is a lyric poem that uses lofty, dignified language to address a person or thing.
Setting and Background Information The time is autumn of 1819. The place is western Italy, from the Mediterranean coast inland to Florence. Shelley makes a specific reference in the poem to the city of Baiae, called Aqua Cumanae by ancient Romans. Its favorable climate attracted vacationing Roman dignitaries to the city, including Julius Caesar and Nero, who constructed villas there. Volcanic eruptions plunged part of the ancient site into the sea, as alluded to in the poem in lines 32 and 33. Shelley wrote the poem inland, in a forest on the Arno River near Florence. His notes on the the poem explain that he received the inspiration for it one fall day when the strong west wind swept down from the Atlantic and through the Tuscan landscape of west-central Italy.
“ This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapors which pour down the autumnal rains. They begin, 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.” (Shelley 239)
Wikipedia adds: Ode to the West Wind is an ode written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1819 near Florence , Italy ; it was published in 1820 (see 1820 in poetry ). Some have interpreted the poem as the speaker lamenting his inability to directly help those in England owing to his being in Italy; at the same time, the poem expresses the hope that its words will inspire and influence those who read or hear it.[ citation needed ]Perhaps more than anything else, Shelley wanted his message of reform and revolution spread, and the wind becomes the trope for spreading the word of change through the poet-prophet figure. Some also believe that the poem is due to the loss of his son, William in 1819 (to Mary Shelley ), his son Charles (to Harriet Shelley) died in 1826, after "Ode to the West Wind" was written and published. The ensuing pain influenced Shelley. The poem allegorises the role of the poet as the voice of change and revolution; at the time of composing this poem, Shelley without doubt had the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819 in mind. His other poems written at the same time—"The Mask of Anarchy," "Prometheus Unbound," and "England in 1819"—take up these same problems of political change, revolution, and role of the poet.
This poem is a highly controlled text about the role of the poet as the agent of political and moral change. The last famous lines of his "Defence of Poetry": "Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
1 O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou 5 Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low, Each like a corpse within its grave, until Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill 10 (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) With living hues and odours plain and hill; Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!
Summary, Stanza 1 Addressing the west wind as a human, the poet describes its activities: It drives dead leaves away as if they were ghosts fleeing a wizard. The leaves are yellow and black, pale and red, as if they had died of an infectious disease. The west wind carries seeds in its chariot and deposits them in the earth, where they lie until the spring wind awakens them by blowing on a trumpet (clarion). When they form buds, the spring wind spreads them over plains and on hills. In a paradox, the poet addresses the west wind as a destroyer and a preserver, then asks it to listen to what he says.
2 Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion, 15 Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed, Shook from the tangled boughs of heaven and ocean, Angels of rain and lightning! there are spread On the blue surface of thine airy surge, Like the bright hair uplifted from the head 20 Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge Of the horizon to the zenith's height, The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge Of the dying year, to which this closing night Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre, 25 Vaulted with all thy congregated might Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O hear!
Notes, Stanza 2 Mænad: Wildly emotional woman who took part in the orgies of ....Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry. dirge: Funeral song. congregated: Gathered, mustered.
Summary, Stanza 2 The poet says the west wind drives clouds along just as it does dead leaves after it shakes the clouds free of the sky and the oceans. These clouds erupt with rain and lightning. Against the sky, the lightning appears as a bright shaft of hair from the head of a Mænad. The poet compares the west wind to a funeral song sung at the death of a year and says the night will become a dome erected over the year's tomb with all of the wind's gathered might. From that dome will come black rain, fire, and hail. Again the poet asks the west wind to continue to listen to what he has to say.
3 Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams The blue Mediterranean, where he lay, 30 Lull'd by the coil of his crystàlline streams, Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's bay, And saw in sleep old palaces and towers Quivering within the wave's intenser day, All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers 35 So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou For whose path the Atlantic's level powers Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear The sapless foliage of the ocean, know 40 Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear, And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
Notes, Stanza 3 In his notes, Shelley commented on lines 38-42: The phenomenon alluded to at the end of the third stanza is well known to naturalists. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathizes with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is consequently influenced by the winds announce it.(Shelley 239)
4 If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear; If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee; A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share 45 The impulse of thy strength, only less free Than thou, O uncontrollable! if even I were as in my boyhood, and could be The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven, As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed 50 Scarce seem'd a vision—I would ne'er have striven As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need. O! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! A heavy weight of hours has chain'd and bow'd 55 One too like thee—tameless, and swift, and proud.
Notes, Stanza 4 Skiey is a neologism (coined word) whose two syllables maintain iambic pentameter . The s in skiey alliterates with the s in speed , .... scarce , seem'd , and striven .
Summary, Stanza 4 The poet says that if he were a dead leaf (like the ones in the first stanza) or a cloud (like the ones in the second stanza) or an ocean wave that rides the power of the Atlantic but is less free than the uncontrollable west wind—or if even he were as strong and vigorous as he was when he was a boy and could accompany the wandering wind in the heavens and could only dream of traveling faster—well, then, he would never have prayed to the west wind as he is doing now in his hour of need. Referring again to imagery in the first three stanzas, the poet asks the wind to lift him as it would a wave, a leaf, or a cloud; for here on earth he is experiencing troubles that prick him like thorns and cause him to bleed. He is now carrying a heavy burden that—though he is proud and tameless and swift like the west wind—has immobilized him in chains and bowed him down.
5 Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: What if my leaves are falling like its own? The tumult of thy mighty harmonies Will take from both a deep autumnal tone, 60 Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce, My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! Drive my dead thoughts over the universe, Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth; And, by the incantation of this verse, 65 Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? 70
Summary, Stanza 5 The poet asks the west wind to turn him into a lyre (a stringed instrument) in the same way that the west wind's mighty currents turn the forest into a lyre. And if the poet's leaves blow in the wind like those from the forest trees, there will be heard a deep autumnal tone that is both sweet and sad. Be "my spirit," the poet implores the wind. "Be thou me" and drive my dead thoughts (like the dead leaves) across the universe in order to prepare the way for new birth in the spring. The poet asks the wind to scatter his words around the world, as if they were ashes from a burning fire. To the unawakened earth, they will become blasts from a trumpet of prophecy. In other words, the poet wants the wind to help him disseminate his views on politics, philosophy, literature, and so on. The poet is encouraged that, although winter will soon arrive, spring and rebirth will follow it.
Summary The speaker invokes the “wild West Wind” of autumn, which scatters the dead leaves and spreads seeds so that they may be nurtured by the spring, and asks that the wind, a “destroyer and preserver,” hear him. The speaker calls the wind the “dirge / Of the dying year,” and describes how it stirs up violent storms, and again implores it to hear him. The speaker says that the wind stirs the Mediterranean from “his summer dreams,” and cleaves the Atlantic into choppy chasms, making the “sapless foliage” of the ocean tremble, and asks for a third time that it hear him.
The speaker says that if he were a dead leaf that the wind could bear, or a cloud it could carry, or a wave it could push, or even if he were, as a boy, “the comrade” of the wind’s “wandering over heaven,” then he would never have needed to pray to the wind and invoke its powers. He pleads with the wind to lift him “as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!”—for though he is like the wind at heart, untamable and proud—he is now chained and bowed with the weight of his hours upon the earth.
The speaker asks the wind to “make me thy lyre,” to be his own Spirit, and to drive his thoughts across the universe, “like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth.” He asks the wind, by the incantation of this verse, to scatter his words among mankind, to be the “trumpet of a prophecy.” Speaking both in regard to the season and in regard to the effect upon mankind that he hopes his words to have, the speaker asks: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
Irresistible Power .......The poet desires the irresistible power of the wind to scatter the words he has written about his ideals and causes, one of which was opposition to Britain’s monarchical government as a form of tyranny. Believing firmly in democracy and individual rights, he supported movements to reform government. In 1819, England’s nobility feared that working-class citizens—besieged by economic problems, including high food prices—would imitate the rebels of the French Revolution and attempt to overthrow the established order.
On August 16, agitators attracted tens of thousands of people to a rally in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, to urge parliamentary reform and to protest laws designed to inflate the cost of corn and wheat. Nervous public officials mismanaged the unarmed crowd and ended up killing 11 protesters and injuring more than 500 others. In reaction to this incident, Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy in the fall of 1819 to urge further nonviolent action against the government. This work was not published during his lifetime. However, "Ode to the West Wind," also written in the fall of 1819, was published a year later. The poem obliquely refers to his desire to spread his reformist ideas when it says, "Scatter, as from an unextinguish'd hearth / Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!" Shelley believed that the poetry he wrote had the power bring about political reform: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World," he wrote in another work, A Defence of Poetry .
1. Write an essay that attempts to answer whether Shelley succeeded in his goal to "scatter . . . my words among mankind"? The essay will....require you to read other works by him and to research sources evaluating the impact of these works. 2. Shelley's poem uses nature imagery to convey his theme. Write a poem of your own that uses nature imagery to convey a theme. 3. To whom does line 56 refer? 4. In line 62 ( Be thou me, impetuous one! ) is Shelley describing himself as impetuous? 5. What is an ode? In what ways does Shelley's poem fit the definition of an ode?