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:
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.