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NOTES: The Ode to The West Wind
The ‘Ode…’ is one of Shelley’s best known lyrics. The poet describes vividly the activities of the West Wind on the earth, in the sky and on the sea, and then expresses his envy for the boundless freedom of the West Wind, and his desire to be free like the West Wind. Shelley calls upon the mighty wind to inspire him to write and also to carry his hopeful message of regeneration to the decaying world.
Shelly personifies the West Wind and thinks it to be the very breath of autumn. He refers to the West Wind as ‘wild’ and further goes on to explain its powerful nature. When the West Wind blows, it seems as if the dead leaves are being (scattered) driven by its unseen presence just as spirits take flight on the approach of a magician. The west wind destroys these yellow, black, pale, hectic red, disease afflicted and withered leaves by carrying/bearing them to their resting places. The west wind also carries along with it the wind borne winged seeds which would then be buried under the soil and would lie like corpses in their graves till the approach of spring. These seeds would lie dormant under the cold earth until the gentle East Wind blows in spring. Shelley personifies the East Wind as it blows its trumpet in order to awaken the sleeping Earth. Nature is aroused and wakes to a new life just as a trumpet is blown to call soldiers to their duty.
Shelley paints a bright and cheerful scene after the drabness and death of winter. The dormant seeds sprout to life under the influence of the East Wind, the hill sides and plains are then covered with a myriad of beautiful colours and fragrances. The wind borne seeds springing into buds remind Shelley of the pastoral image of a Shepherd taking its flocks of sheep to graze. Shelley says that it moving everywhere- it is all pervasive and is not confined to this Mediterranean location. The West Wind plays a dual role- that of a destroyer and a preserver too. Shelley considers it to be a destroyer for driving the last signs of life from trees and simultaneously scattering healthy seeds for future growth in the spring season. Shelley appeals to this wind to lend him a ear.
In this stanza Shelley goes on to describe the activities of the West Wind in the sky and the violence and terror or air storms The West Wind wreaks/causes a turmoil high up in the sky and scatters loose clouds like dead leaves from an imaginary tree of cloud masses. These clouds are the messengers of rain and lightning and are dispersed on the blue surface of the sky like the streaming hair of a frenzied woman who is a follower of Bacchus, the Roman God of wine and fertility. These clouds form a canopy as ‘far as the eye can see’-from the dim brink of the horizon to the highest point in the sky. These clouds are referred to as the locks of the approaching storm. The West wind is like a funeral song being sung at the death of the passing year. The poet further adds that a huge tomb would be erected over the dead body of the year and the darkness of the closing night would be its dome. The collective strength of the clouds would form the arched roof of this tomb. The solid seeming vapours of the clouds will give birth to the terror striking forces of nature like rain, fire and hail. The downpour would appear black due to the darkness of the night. The poet requests such a mighty wind to hear his appeal.
This section (3rd) describes images of peace and serenity (‘blue Mediterranean’, ‘summer dreams’, ‘sleep’, ‘old palaces and towers’, ‘oozy woods’) which are disturbed by the coming of the west wind, The fury of the West wind disturbs the blue Mediterranean from its sleep.
The Mediterranean had fallen asleep near an island formed by lava in Baiae’s Bay. The streams flowing into the Baiae’s Bay produce a sleep inducing music. The Mediterranean sees in its sleep the quivering reflections of the ruins of old palaces and towers overgrown with non flowering plants like mosses of such overpowering sweetness that the very though of them intoxicates the senses.
Even the Atlantic Ocean does not remain unaffected under the onslaught of the West Wind. The calm Atlantic is thrown into a state of agitation/turmoil when the West Wind blows and the waves rise so high that they seem to be breaking apart to make way for the West Wind. The West Wind strikes terror in the marine vegetation growing at the bottom of the sea. The sea blossoms and the saplese plants hear the sound of the West Wind. Recognising the voice of the West Wind they quiver with fear and tend to lose their leaves. The poet seeks the help of such a mighty wind to come to his aid.
In this stanza the poet strikes a personal note. He feels that if he had been a dead leaf, a swift cloud or a wave then he could have been helped by the West Wind.
He wants the wind to carry him away like a leaf, drive him away like a cloud and lift him like a sea wave. But all this is not possible for him for he is not as free as the West Wind. He feels that if he had the same poetic vigour which he possessed in his youth he could have accompanied the wind in the sky. In such a state, to surprise her speed was hardly a dream. At that time he would never have felt the necessity of seeking the help of the West Wind. But he seems to have fallen on difficult times. He has got weighed/bogged down by the bitter experiences and hardships of life. He wants to escape from it. To be rescued by the West Wind. He, who was as wild, swift and proud as the West Wind seems to have been enchained by the burdens of life.
In this stanza the poet beseeches the West Wind to blow on him as its lyre just as it treats the forest. He feels as if both the forest and he seem to be passing through the autumn of their lives. His own leaves are also falling like the leaves of the forest. He means that he has lost his creative vigour while the forest has shed its own leaves. If the wind were to blow through him and inspire him to write it would produce some sweet yet sombre music which would be melancholic (as both the forest and the poet being in the autumn of their lives would respond gloomily).
Shelley then appeals to the West Wind to unite with his spirit. He seeks a union with the impulsive West Wind. He pleads with the West Wind to scatter his dead thoughts over the universe as it scatters the withered leaves. He is hopeful that just as these dead leaves have the capability to enrich the soul which then hastens the birth of a new plant, similarly his worn out thoughts would give birth to a new era. Shelley hopes that the chanting of this verse would have a magical effect. The West wind would spread his message among the sleeping mankind in the same way as it scatters ashes and sparks from an unextinguished fireplace. The poet’s words will also work as living sparks to quicken the birth of a new and better place.
The poet ends the poem on an optimistic note for he wants the West Wind to broadcast his message of hope to humanity. He rhetorically asks whether the cyclical inevitability of changes within Nature apply to social and political change. Just as seasons succeed each other in a cyclical pattern and winter is always followed by spring. Similarly, he wants to rekindle hope in the peoples’ hearts that the days of decadence, darkness and hardships would be followed by a new age of joy, revival and rebirth.