Ode to the West Wind
< Percy Bysshe Shelley >
Vale of St Thomas, Jamaica, oil painting by Frederic Edwin Church (1826 - 1900)
published with Prometheus Unbound (1820, 28)
composed late October 1819 (27)
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
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingčd 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,
(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!
Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
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
Of some fierce Mćnad, 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,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull'd by the coil of his crystŕlline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baić's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers
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
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
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
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
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
One too like thee—tameless, and swift, and proud.
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?
This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began, 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 wrote to Peacock about his trip from Naples to the Bay of Baić, describing the sea as ‘so translucent that you could see the hollow caverns clothed with glaucous sea-moss, and the leaves and branches of those delicate weeds that pave the unequal bottom of the water.’ They sailed on, ‘passing the Bay of Baiae, and observing the ruins of its antique grandeur standing like rocks in the transparent sea under our boat.’ (Letters) There are ruined Roman villas under the water at Baiae.
Shelley notes : The phenomenon alluded to at the conclusion of the third stanza is well known to naturalists. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathises with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is consequently influenced by the winds which announce it.
There is little difficulty in understanding the content of this poem, other than that which is removed with the knowledge of the above facts concerning life underwater in the bay of Baiae and elsewhere. It's a poem full of self-explanatory but still fresh imagery: the wild west wind as the 'breath of Autumn's being', the dead leaves blown around by the wind 'like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing', the seeds of next year's plants lying cold and low 'like a corpse within its grave', Spring the 'azure sister' of Autumn, buds like 'flocks to feed in air', and so on, for the first three stanzas, which each end with the poet's supplication to the West Wind to hear his plaint.
In the fourth stanza, the poet introduces himself more fully. He seems to want to be anything but himself: a dead leaf, a cloud, a wave. He realises that he no longer has the optimism or prospects of his youth, and clearly sees himself almost as a Christ figure - 'I fall unpon the thorns of life! I bleed!'
In the fifth stanza, he pleads with the Wind to 'Drive my dead thoughts over the universe, / Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth...' The desire is repeated, using another simile: 'Scatter, as from an unextinguis'd hearth / Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!', and finally 'Be through my lips to unawaken'd earth / The trumpet of a prophecy!' Through all this, there seems to be a profound desire to cease to exist as an independent entity, to be, if not the wind itself, at least one of the things animated by the wind, and to leave his works to the West Wind to disseminate for posterity.
Finally, there is the somewhat comforting thought that 'If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?', rolling the poem back on itself, and showing perhaps that hope springs eternal, even in a dying poet.
Was Shelley dying? It is perhaps not uninstructive to recount one of Byron's reminiscences concerning Shelley (Letter to John Murray, 15 May 1819):
He was once with me in a Gale of Wind in a small boat right under the rocks between Meillerie and St Gingo [on Lake Geneva] - we were five in the boat - a servant - two boatmen - and ourselves. The Sail mismanaged and the boat was filling fast - he can't swim. I stripped off my coat - made him strip off his and take hold of an oar - telling him that I thought (being myself an expert swimmer) I could save him if he would not struggle when I took hold of him - unless we got smashed against the rocks which were high and sharp with an awkward Surf on them at that minute; - we were then about a hundred yards from shore - and the boat in peril. - He answered me with the greatest coolness - 'that he had no notion of being saved - and that I would have enough to do to save myself, and begged not to trouble me.' (LMBL, vol VI, p 126)
Byron is looking back to the summer of 1816, and it is clear that, even at this point, Shelley had no fear of being taken into one of the elements, in this case, water. He would die six years later in 1822, drowned in the Mediterranean. His sang froid may in part be explained by the hypothesis that he was in fact infected with syphilis, though the proofs of such an infection are somewhat tentative. (NCSV) Syphilis has three stages, erupts unpredictably, and, in the worst scenario, leads to a painful and humiliating death. The symptoms are not unlike those of leprosy in the advanced stages, and, of course, at the time Shelley was living, there was no cure, though there were several treatments, some of which proved to be worse than the disease itself. At the turn of the nineteenth century it was a huge, but generally undeclared, problem. If it is indeed the case that Shelley was infected, it may go some way towards explaining his pessimistic viewpoint.
Mary Shelley writes:
Ill health and continual pain preyed upon his powers, and the solitude in which we lived, particularly on our first arrival in Italy, although congenial to his feelings, must frequently have weighed upon his spirits; those beautiful and affecting 'Lines, written in dejection at Naples', were composed at such an interval; but when in health, his spirits were buoyant and youthful to an extraordinary degree. (EMSPP, p13)
Though Mrs Shelley is a very bad witness, liable to censor, expunge, falsify and conterfeit where it is in her interest to do so, there is no reason to suspect her here, since she has nothing to gain by lying. What she does not do, however, is to specify what was the cause of the 'ill health and continual pain that preyed upon his powers'.
The cumulative effect of the first four poems in this series: To Night, The Question, When the Lamp is Shattered, and Ode to the West Wind, is an effect of profound pessimism which is only relieved for Shelley by turning his thoughts to the Elements. He seems to imagine some sort of apotheosis in which he will himself be taken up into the elements, and escape from the pain and humiliations of life in society. That he arrived at these conclusions from the naďve and idealistic beginnings evident in his early poetry is perhaps a not uncommon experience of life: those who exaggerate the perfectability of man will surely end disillusioned because while words and abstract concepts can be twisted any way at all, men cannot. They are what they are. If we add to this disillusionment the disastrous personal affairs (the suicide of his first wife, the disillusionment with his second, the removal of his children by his first wife from his care), and the possibility that he was facing the consequences of prolonged and painful disease, we go some way to understanding his need to escape from his situation into the realms of abstraction, the elements, the forces of nature, which he expresses so powerfully in this poem.
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