Analysis: “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley, Immortality, and the Cycle of Inspiration


As a poet, one must willfully engage with poetic tradition, yet cannot help but be engaged by it. This is a dialectic of past with present, of inspiration with inspired, of coercion with choice, synthesized into a hopeful future, where the cycle will continue. After our deaths, we will simultaneously have no control over our poetic children yet exert a tremendous control over them in the form of inspiration. This dialectic is expounded beautifully in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” Armed with a romantic ambition of world change, Shelley utilized traditional poetic forms — the “ghosts” of past “enchanters” — but expressed through them his own influence, refusing to leave them resting in “their dark wintry beds.” He allowed himself to be a slave to inspiration, but willed through it his voice.

As Shelley wished to be inspirational, himself, he wished to exert influence beyond his own existence, to “waken from… summer dreams” his fellow human beings and stir them to action as the West Wind stirs the “Blue Mediterranean”, as even dead leaves are lifted from the ground. The reawakening of those slumbering, the reincarnating of those laid to rest, is the West Wind’s primary power, as it is, too, the finest glory of inspiration. The constant change brought about by a constant wind is the promise, then, of immortality: even the dead may live once more in its gust.

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Joseph Severn, 1845, “Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound” in Italy.

Shelley, who was not very popular in his lifetime due to his radical politics, is a fitting prophet of this immortal Wind. Posthumous influence was not just a calling to him, but, as it happens, his fate. (Of course… If we believe Fate speaks at all / Then what else would it do but call?). In death, one cannot be seen, but one’s words still live. Similarly, the West Wind, as well as the Skylark, are both unseen in Shelley’s poems, yet emit incredible influence; both overflow and permeate, both awaken “[sleeping] old palaces and towers… overgrown with azure moss and flowers”. Yet the West Wind is not a metaphor here, for the poet himself, anymore than the Wind is Autumn itself. The Wind is not Autumn, but “Autumn’s breath.” It is not, in other words, the poet, who will one day die, but the poet’s voice. A voice which will pick up Shelley’s ideas — as dead leaves, as pregnant clouds of rain and thunder, as vast, open seas — and spread them over the Earth.

The Wind, it must be noticed, is an empty wind without its luggage. Its function is to stir, shake, change, and carry — and this requires a dance partner. Even in its power, the West Wind needs “a dead leaf”, “a swift cloud”, a “lyre”, to make its presence known. Here the Wind itself, as immortality, again becomes metaphoric of tradition. The form of a poem is empty without the poet’s influence, just as the influence of others produces nothing new without the creative input of the influenced individual. The form of Shelley’s “West Wind” is at once an ode as well as a series of sonnets, representing two significant, yet unique, poetic traditions while also uniquely combining them.

An ode would typically march across the stage one way (strophe), then march the opposite way, as a counter, in which the mood would change (antistrophe), and then chant at center and in unison (epode). But Shelley’s “ode” begins its march and never looks back; signifying excess and a longing for the future. Stanza’s I – III concern the Wind and its effects, all ending in a plea from Shelley: “Oh hear!” Stanzas IV and V do not counter these pleas, nor do they caution against the preceding exuberance; they merely skip the antistrophe and jump straight into the “unison” of the epode, where Shelley begs the Wind to merge with him. This unity is further embraced through Shelley’s seamless incorporation of iambic pentameter and a five-part sonnet cycle into the ode form. The poem shifts from third-person in its first three stanzas, to first-person in the final two, altering another tradition of the ode — that it celebrate and glorify external achievement — by invoking the individual poet’s desire. The author’s passion had no place in any of the various ode forms; but this is a perfectly historical use of the sonnet. “Ode to the West Wind” is, therefore, a very intimate appropriation of two historic mediums.

Yet the forms themselves, passed down to Shelley from those who influenced him, are empty without Shelley’s own adaptations and twists. Just as the West Wind existed before Shelley, and he seeks only to add his voice to its, to have his ideas carried by it, the poetic form of the ode and sonnet come to Shelley from his predecessors, and will succeed him. Shelley can only hope to submit something of a proper weight for abduction — that is, something heavy enough to make an impact on the eyes of others, yet light enough to be carried by the Wind. This dialectic of somberness of subject with lightness of lyric is central to Shelley’s desire to move from influenced to influential, from that which is possessed and inspired to that which possesses and inspires. Once more, this requires a lightness of voice, that it might sail gaily off in an artistic rapture, into the Universal; but it also requires a heaviness of subject, that it might, having been carried elsewhere, fall again to Earth, embed itself in new listeners, possess new souls; that the cycle of inspired-inspirational may continue. This means precisely that the Universal cannot be inhuman, but must, in order to inspire man and woman alike, speak to both in what is common to them. Shelley, an atheist and, arguably, an anarchist, makes room in this piece, too, for the criticisms of authority he was notorious for.

Louis_Edouard_Fournier_-_The_Funeral_of_Shelley_-_Google_Art_Project

Louis Edouard Fournier, “The Funeral of Shelley”.

The Universal, born not of God or Authority, but of Woman and Man, carries itself out of the individual as specific instance of type — man or woman, alone — into the air as Relation between types — something shared and back down into a new individual as instance of type again. The strict form and meter, and their traditional functions, are the weight of that expression, its Relation; the lyric beauty its lightness, its unique touch. All are necessary. The form is a bottle in which the poet’s voice can be placed; the bottle then sent to sea. The poet’s written words alone, thrown into the ocean, would deteriorate and be swallowed. But in the bottle of form, they are preserved as in a vessel, which, with the aid of the West Wind, will carry them to new shores. The form can be copied, but the content is wholly Shelley’s. Or at least it was. He carefully preserved it in a sturdy tradition just for you and I to open, that it may inspire us, that we may inspire others, and that we may, together, live.

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