Shelley, Ode to the West Wind. Text at the Poetry Foundation
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,
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,
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?
Written while Shelley was travelling in Italy with his wife Mary in 1819, this poem was published in 1820. It has been seen as an expression of his feelings of helplessness and anger at the news of the political and social turmoil home in England, and in particular the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819. The poem is also his message of life and hope for the future.
It’s written in the terza rima form (with added couplets after four triplets or 3-line stanzas) used by Dante in The Divine Comedy – a poem with which Shelley was familiar.
In the first four sections the speaker expresses his feelings of wonder and admiration at the power of the autumn wind, blowing clouds and leaves fiercely along. In the fifth he turns his thoughts to the future: he addresses the wind directly, praying that it will transform his lifeless, decaying spirit (his own poetic powers or ‘leaves’ are falling, as those on the trees are) and use him as its ‘lyre’ – rather as Coleridge and other Romantic poets had written: poets express a desire to be metaphorical Aeolian harps, musical instruments which are ‘played’ by the natural forces of the wind strumming through their strings to make them resonate. That is, they become, literally, inspired – filled with the life-giving breath, animus or breeze of Nature.
He goes one step further in addressing the wind in the second triplet: ‘Be thou me’.
His argument develops organically from this thought to the desire that the wind should ‘drive’ his ‘dead thoughts’ worldwide, disseminating them and causing them to ‘quicken’ into life, out of their silent, sterile, lifeless current state.
Therefore this poem itself becomes its own ‘incantation’, a magic charm or prayer of fertility, causing the dying embers of his imagination’s or spirit’s ‘hearth’ to be scattered universally, ‘sparking’ revolutionary change into the lives of humanity, especially, presumably, those in oppressed England.
The image develops: by doing this, his poetic ‘voice’ will be as a rousing trumpet call, like the last trumpet perhaps, except it won’t signal Judgement Day in the biblical sense, but rather a revolution in England, a political awakening, not just a personal one for him.
This poem will then be, he concludes, an invocation and a ‘prophecy’ of change for the better. Hence the note of optimism at the end; though winter is inevitably anticipated in this autumn gale, spring will surely follow – as political change will inevitably follow if the spirit of the wind heed his plea to be used as its prophetic, vatic voice – and as Nature restores life to the frozen land in spring after the long death of winter.
I quoted in my previous post from Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’, in which he wrote:
A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal [compare his image of sparks and embers in the poem] which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness…when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.
… Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of divinity on man. [just as the wind in this poem is urged to restore life into humanity through the poet’s voice, as surely as Nature restores life to the earth in spring]
In ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Shelley puts this theory into practice. In doing so he also enacts the famous closing words of his Defence: that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ – that is, in poems like this, they are Nature’s instruments for effecting change. Unlike the despised Lake poets, radicals like Shelley reject the solitary, reclusive and reflective life they advocated and, largely, lived.