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Percy Bysshe Shelley`s Ode to the West Wind

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  • Pages: 6
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  • Category: Poetry

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Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most prominent authors of British Romanticism that left a lasting imprint on the development of the genre. Many of his works carry distinct features of this style that took the readers’ imagination with its passionate and rebellious stance. `Ode to the West Wind` adheres to the canons of Romanticism in many important ways.

Let us review briefly the basic features of Romanticism to see if `Ode to the West Wind` uses any or most of these concepts. The Romantic period in literature is conventionally believed to have started in 1798 with Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge and ended in 1832 with the deaths of Walter Scott and Goethe (Brooklyn College). The evolution of Romanticism was heavily influenced by the revolutions in America and France as well as significant changes in the economic and social spheres triggered by the Industrial Revolution. Romantic artists reacted to these revolutions with an intense desire to change the world to meet the changed reality. Apart from the flaring revolutionary energy they added to the world of literature, their works are characterised by the prominence of imagination that was “elevated to a position as the supreme faculty of the mind” (Brooklyn College).

The Romanticists discarded the veneration of reason that was so prevalent in the Classicist eighteenth century. They systematically tried to separate themselves from “Versailles neoclassicism”, trying to underscore their scorn for mechanical rules. Unlike their predecessors who tried to concentrate on the universal manifestations of human nature and typical situations, the new movement was more interested in the individual hero who stands out from the often alien crowd. Romanticism is also widely known to favor descriptions of exotic localities and cultures, although many Romantic writers such as Woodsworth also initiated the trend of ‘local color’.

Concerning the society around them, Romantic authors tended to be “politically and socially involved, but at the same time they began to distance themselves from the public” (Brooklyn College). Henry R. Beers in his book “A History of English Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century” cites the following features of romanticism: “emotional stress, sensitiveness to the picturesque, love of natural scenery, interest in distant times and places, curiosity of the wonderful and mysterious, subjectivity, lyricism, intrusion of the ego, impatience of the limits of the genres, eager experiment with new forms of art” (Beers 1901:227).

Shelley’s poem exhibits Romantic features in its content. First, it addresses a peace of natural scenery, the west wind Zephirus, personifying this natural phenomenon to the extent that the whole poem is addressed towards this heartless creature. Second, the poem refers to the experience that happened in the area of Arno, near Florence, relatively far away from the poet’s motherland and thus focuses on the place that is not really exotic since it is in Europe, but still associated with outlandish southern beauty.

`Ode to the West Wind` clearly has the ‘emotional stress’ mentioned by Henry R. Beers. The author appears to be passionate about his message, imploring the West Wind to hear his words. The text of the poem is interspersed with impassioned appeals “oh hear!” Shelley describes his struggle with the words “I bleed!” instead of lengthy recounting of his numerous problems. This emotional tone makes `Ode to the West Wind` close in spirit to other Romantic writings. The poet tries to underscore the unendurable sufferings he is experiencing on this earth and pleads passionately with the wind to relieve him of his misfortunes.

The message of the poem appears to be thoroughly Romantic as well. Shelley seems to be eager waiting for changes to come in the world around him, thus letting the revolutionary spirit come out in every line. The author appears dissatisfied with the world around him and desperate to see the world awaken from its prolonged sleep. He is pushing for the wind to bring a new era to humanity, “to quicken a new birth”. The West Wind in the Ode is then taken to be the revolutionary force, able to shape the future of the world, something that can initiate changes well beyond the scope of human possibilities.

The wind is not to the poet a mere element of natural surroundings, it is “the trumpet of a prophecy”. Shelley shares the optimistic expectations of the rapidly approaching global social change that will end slavery and misery and create a new world of free and harmoniously developed people. He ends the poem with a rhetoric question: “O Wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” The poet thus expresses sure hope that the world will change for the better with the presence of a strong revolutionary impulse.

The Ode also bears the traces of revolutionary strength or intensity. The poet seeks to identify himself with the wind, to become “the impulse of thy strength, only less free”. He admires the wind since it is “uncontrollable”. This passion for everything that is strong and intense mirrors the fascination of Romanticism with the scope and intensity of contemporary revolutionary activities. The preoccupation with intensity also surfaces in the combinations such as “the wave’s intenser day” and “so sweet, the sense faints picturing them”.

A little biographical background is helpful in understanding the message of `Ode to the West Wind`. Percy Bysshe Shelley describes the wind that blew upon him as he was standing on the mountain of Arno near Florence, the home of the great Dante. The lyric is one of the few personal poems that accompanied the publication of Prometheus Unbound, one of Shelley’s most important poetic works (Lancashire 2002). As the name suggests, Prometheus Unbound referred to the story of the ancient hero who challenged the will of Zeus in order to share the gift of fire with mankind. The rebellious spirit embodied in the ancient myth combined well with Romantic ideals, and ‘Ode to the West Wind` agrees with Prometheus Unbound in spirit and message.

Shelley in his ‘Ode to the West Wind`, like most Romanticists, also places emphasis on imagination and its constructs rather than on meticulous proceedings of reason. The occurrence of the wind blowing upon him on a mountain triggers images well beyond those that would surface in a more ordinary mind. Shelley is conjuring the pictures of “angels of rain and lightning”, “fierce Maenad”, “a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay” and other images that weave together into a tale that unites many seemingly disconnected elements of the universe into a coherent whole.

To him dead leaves are nothing less than “ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” and “pestilence-stricken multitudes”. Shelley compares himself with “a swift cloud to fly with thee” or a dead leaf. Thus, the poem is full of poetic comparisons that show a highly imaginative mind, emphasizing the importance of imagination as a poetic feature in Romanticism.

Does Shelley really demonstrate his alienation from the crowd and his individualism as a romantic hero? Nowhere does he condemn the unfeeling and cold mob, but he does maintain the attitude of someone who is too tired of this world so that he is ready to leave his routine existence and fly away from his daily life together with the impetuous wind. The poet does not enjoy his life for whatever reasons: he is in “sore need” and claims to “fall upon the thorns of life”. The poem shows that the author really has more affinity with the free-travelling wind than with the world that surrounds him every day.

Thus, ‘Ode to the West Wind` demonstrates adherence to Romantic ideals and values in both form and content. The thematic matter of the poem, address to the wind in a foreign setting, displays interest in natural phenomena and love of outlandish places. Fascination with the intense potential for change embodied in the West Wind, importance of imagination in the poem, symbolic descriptions of natural phenomena, separation from the crowd all signify the connection with Romantic movement in literature.

Works Cited

Beers, Henry A. A History of English Romanticism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt, 1901.

Brooklyn College. Introduction to Romanticism. 6 Nov. 2005 <http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html>.

Lancashire, Ian. Commentary: Ode to the West Wind. 9 September 2002. 6 Nov. 2005 <http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem1902.html>.

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