Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "Ode to the West Wind" in 1819 while living in Florence, Italy. To be exact, when he published the poem with his unperformable play Prometheus Unbound in 1820, he claimed in a footnote to have written "Ode to the West Wind" while sitting in the woods near the Arno River on a windy day in October. Lucky man, we say, but although he loved Italy, he was feeling depressed about being detached from the political and social scene back in his native England. Many critics have suggested that this poem relates to that sense of powerlessness.
As a political, religious, and literary radical, Shelley was heavily invested in his own ability to influence society. Some poets need solitude and privacy and a retreat in the woods to do their best work, but Shelley needed stimulating arguments and social action. "Ode to the West Wind" is one of the poems in which he considers the role and power of the poet or philosopher to spread new ideas and effect change. It’s also, though you might find this difficult to believe, one of Shelley’s more accessible poems. Its brevity, smooth tone, and straightforward use of natural imagery present his abstract ideas about philosophy and poetry in a compact way. Think of it as Shelley’s own summary of himself – or at least one aspect of himself.
Shmoop cannot tell a lie: caring about Percy Bysshe Shelley can be hard. He’s probably the most difficult of the Romantic poets to fall in love with. Luckily, he’s not the most difficult poet. He’s hard to love, but not too hard to understand.
What are we talking about? Well, you may have heard from someone, like an English teacher, that good poetry has certain characteristics: it’s concrete instead of abstract; it’s detailed instead of general; it’s visceral instead of spiritual. Basically, what we think of as a "good poem" these days just isn’t one of the abstract flights of fancy that you tend to get from the neo-Platonic, head-in-the-clouds Percy Bysshe Shelley.
It’s not that Shelley doesn’t use detailed imagery or powerful language, because he does. If you wrote, "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" in a poem today, though, and sent it off to a prestigious magazine like The New Yorker, its poetry editors would laugh so hard they’d spray double-shot cappuccino out their noses. That’s if they didn’t recognize it as Shelley, which we hope they would. Anyway, the point is that it’s not hard to get what Shelley means with this "thorns of life" stuff. Life’s tough, and it’s getting to him, and the speaker of his poem is exclaiming about it. But it’s hard to understand, well, why we should care about a poet who can be so melodramatic.
Here’s the thing about Shelley’s "melodrama," though: it happens because he’s brutally honest all the time. If he feels like his life is fading away and his ideas stink, he’ll tell you. If he worries that his poetic philosophy isn't having the effect he hopes for, he’ll admit it. And if he feels like being alive is akin to being pricked all over with tiny sharp things and having your lifeblood slowly oozing out all over, well, he’ll tell you that, too. His passions are right on the surface. He sees no point in beating around the bush. He’s not going to pretend. More than any other poet, Shelley will throw you right into his emotional depths and let you sink or swim. We have a special respect for that kind of honesty and intensity.
Unfortunately, Shelley’s frankness about his feelings just isn’t where it’s at for us today in our über-ironic world. Sometimes Shelley seems like he has no sense of humor. It’s hard for us even to say, "I fall upon the thorns of life!" with a straight face. Luckily, Shelley doesn’t just tell us how he feels. He connects his feelings to larger philosophical and social problems and tries to understand them in a global context. Sure, this might be a little egocentric – literally – but it’s way more interesting than being emo-centric. Shelley balances his emotional intensity with attention to the grand sweep of nature, philosophy, and everything else. He’s the only poet we know who does it so well, so sit back and enjoy as you start figuring out how it works.
"Ode to the West Wind" Slideshow
This amateur video uses a slideshow of natural images to complement a reading of Shelley’s ode.
Reading of "Ode to the West Wind"
Listen to the full text of the poem read aloud for free at LoudLit.org.
Readings of Other Shelley Poems
This website for the BBC miniseries "The Romantics" has free audio readings of "Ozymandias," as well as selections from "Queen Mab" and "Adonais."
Percy Shelley’s grave in Rome reminds us of his intense life, sudden death, and preoccupation with mortality.
"Ode to the West Wind" Manuscript
The Romantic Audience Project at Bowdoin College provides access to this scanned image of Shelley’s manuscript for "Ode to the West Wind."
"Ode to the West Wind" Full Text – 1919 version
This version of the poem, first published in Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1919 anthology, the Oxford Book of English Verse, has very different punctuation and capitalization from that found in modern editions.
"Ode to the West Wind" Full Text – 1875 version
This is the poem as it was published in Francis T. Palgrave’s 1875 anthology The Golden Treasury. Try comparing this version to the one in the previous link. It’s interesting to see how different the poem feels with simple changes in line breaks, formatting, and punctuation.
Complete Poetical Works by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Google Books provides free and complete access to this four-volume 1892 edition of Shelley’s poetry.
Shelley’s Poetry and Prose
This annotated edition from W. W. Norton includes lots of useful background material on Shelley’s life and the history of his poetry.
The Major Works by Percy Bysshe Shelley
This edition of Shelley’s poetry from Oxford University Press is inexpensive and authoritative.
The Romantics 2006 BBC Miniseries
This three-part series from the BBC is part documentary, part reenactment, and provides a modern, intimate experience of Romantic poetry, including that of Percy Shelley.
The Percy Bysshe Shelley Resource Page
This site, managed by David J. Brookshire at the University of Maryland, is a great place to begin your research on Shelley.
Notes to "Ode to the West Wind"
An online copy of "Ode to the West Wind" with notes and commentary by Prof. Elizabeth Fay from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
"Ode to the West Wind" at Representative Poetry Online
Hosted by the University of Toronto library, this page includes the text of the poem, footnotes, and commentary by Ian Lancashire.