This poem is only a hair’s breadth different from a prayer. If you imagine the speaker on his knees in front of the wind, trying to grab the hem of its jacket (not that the wind wears a jacket) and begging it to help him, you’ll get pretty close to the tone and sound of "Ode to the West Wind." "O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being" (1), the speaker implores, "you who do this and you who do that, you did this great thing and that great thing, so please help me!" But it’s a grand, rolling, melodic sort of begging, which is why it reminds us of a prayer. Using the formal and old-fashioned "thou" and plenty of alliteration, the speaker proclaims his request with dignity. It’s a wonderful contradiction: he’s pleading, but proudly, to "thou, O Uncontrollable!" (46). He knows that his prayer is unlikely to have any effect, but he’s going to make it sound as good as possible while he’s speaking.
The most important thing about the "Ode to the West Wind" is, of course, that it’s an ode. An ode is a lyric poem that has a complicated formal structure, a highfalutin’ tone, and a grand philosophical subject. If you read a short lyric poem and come away feeling a little patronized, chances that it’s an ode. Odes are an ancient form of poetry that first appeared in classical Greek; they were extremely popular among the Romantic poets. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley all wrote odes that are still among the most famous poems in the English language.
There are many different ways to classify the types of odes, which we won’t get into here, because they’re not that useful unless you plan to study odes for the rest of your life. The point is that, by titling the poem "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley is signaling to us as readers that he’s going to pull out all the stops. We know that we’ll need to look closely at the rhyme scheme, the rhythm, the stanza groupings, and all the little details of arrangement. We know that this is going to be a very serious poem. And we know that it’s going to deal with some of the Big Issues in life, art, and philosophy. Basically, calling the poem an "Ode" is like putting "Black Tie Only" on a wedding invitation – things are going to be formal perhaps even to the point of awkwardness.
Another feature of odes is that they tend to have two major shifts in tone, because they’re often divided into three general sections. (The sections are called the "strophe," "antistrophe," and "epode," but you probably don’t need to remember that.) The first section establishes one point; the second section establishes a contrary point, and the end of the poem brings them both together. Not every ode fits this pattern perfectly, but it works pretty well for "Ode to the West Wind," which shifts from second-person to first-person at the beginning of Canto IV and then moves on to consider the West Wind and speaker together in Canto V.
Oh, and what about the "West Wind" part of the title? Well, by writing an ode to a force of Nature, Shelley hints that he’s going to be considering the power of the natural world. We might even guess that he’s going to contrast what the natural world can do with what the poet can do. Why the West Wind? Well, think about what’s to the west of Europe in the nineteenth century (the answer is, of course, America) and what it might symbolize (revolution, freedom, new ideas, etc.).
We’re tempted to claim that the setting in this poem is "The Universe," and that wouldn’t be far wrong. While there are several geographical references here – the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and Baiæ’s Bay – it’s telling that all of them are to flowing bodies of water instead of urban centers, modern nations, or anything grounded. Shelley’s poem, like the West Wind that it describes, has the power to move freely over the world, ascending up to "the zenith’s height" (22) or plunging down into "The sea-blooms and the oozy woods" (39) that are "far below" (38) at the bottom of the ocean.
More than anything else, Shelley sets this poem in the human mind. Even though the speaker claims that his thoughts are "like withered leaves" (64), we learn that he is "tameless, and swift, and proud" (56) like Nature itself. In fact, by juxtaposing the wild West Wind blowing over the entire Earth with the desire of the speaker to scatter his thoughts, Shelley tries to fuse the mind of Man and the infinite range of Nature. So that’s where we are: everywhere. We’re trying to fit "everywhere" into your mind, so that we can change both of them.
The speaker in this poem is almost, but not quite, a fully-fledged character; he’s somewhere between the shadowy impersonal speaker that we assume is between the poet and the poem every time we read poetry and find an actual character who interacts with other characters in the poem. Even before the speaker starts talking about himself by saying, "I this" and "I that," we know that there is a speaker here. Not only does every poem have a speaker, but this speaker is addressing the West Wind, calling it "thou" and invoking its aid. That must mean there’s someone doing the invoking, someone talking to the "thou" – an "I." In fact, we could make that a rule: for every "thou," there’s an "I" lurking somewhere.
We know that this speaker is concerned about sending his ideas out into the world for other people to experience. He knows, or thinks, that his ideas aren’t any good; in fact, he describes them as "dead" and "withered." But he still wants to get them out there, because they might provide an opportunity for other people to develop their own ideas. He feels incapable of doing this on his own because of something that has happened to him. It might be some specific traumatic thing, but it might just be the general pain of living. He only refers to it as "the thorns of life" (54).
We also suspect the speaker might be a writer or even a poet, because he likes to pun on the word "leaves," which could be things that fall off trees but could also be pages of books. He also refers directly to the poem itself within the poem: "by the incantation of this verse / Scatter...my words among mankind!" (65-6, 67). So it’s not just Shelley writing a poem about this speaker – the speaker himself knows about and is composing the poem.
This poem is right in the middle of the range. It doesn’t have too many complicated references to things the poet thinks you should have read but you haven’t. But it does have metaphors that remind us of the analogy section on the SATs. It has a straightforward cast of characters – just two, the speaker and the West Wind that he’s talking to. But it also has sentences that are more twisted than a corkscrew. Take it slow, rearrange the phrases in each sentence to work out what Shelley’s saying, and you’ll be fine. You’ll be reading Prometheus Unbound, Shelley’s unperformable play about imagination, before you know it.
You know you’re reading Shelley when the color red is "hectic," the earth is "dreaming," the surges are "aery," and the trumpets all play prophecies. Shelley belonged to a philosophical movement called "neo-Platonism," which held that there was a perfect world of "forms" out there somewhere, and his resulting idealism usually causes him to leave the Earth entirely behind and soar up into the heavens with the "angels of rain and lightning" and "Spirit[s] fierce." The most down-to-earth image in "Ode to the West Wind" is Baiæ’s Bay, an obscure area near Naples where ancient Romans went on their vacations; everything else literally happens in the sky, in heaven, or at the bottom of the ocean.
The most important form here is the ode. We talked about that in the "What’s Up With the Title?" section, so you can go and read about it there. Let’s think about the rhyme scheme and meter in this poem. A lot of, ahem, other study sites will tell you that "Ode to the West Wind" is written in terza rima and leave it at that. That’s true, but terza rima is just one of the traditional poetic forms that Shelley is playing with here. Let’s cover both of them. Ready?
First, there’s terza rima, or "third rhyme," an Italian rhyme scheme most famously used by Dante in The Divine Comedy. (Go check out what Shmoop has to say about Dante's Inferno.) Shelley’s grabbing some extra poetic street cred by using a form associated with a great Italian poet who came before him.
The idea with terza rima is that the lines are in groups of three, and the middle rhyme of one set of three becomes the outside rhyme of the next set. Handbooks of literary terms will tell you that this means the rhyme scheme is "ABA, BCB, CDC" and so on. We prefer to think of it in a sandwich metaphor: the filling of each "sandwich" (or stanza) becomes the bread of the next one. Of course, it’s hard to end this form, because every set of three lines has a new middle that demands another set of three lines to use its rhyme. Shelley fixes this problem by following each set of four three-line stanzas with a couplet.
As if using terza rima weren’t enough to make "Ode to the West Wind" remind us of Dante, Shelley also divides the poem into cantos, the Italian poetry equivalent of chapters.
In this poem, Shelley also plays with another form: the sonnet. "Wait a minute," we hear you saying. "This doesn’t look like a sonnet. For one thing, a sonnet is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter." Not too fast: "Ode to the West Wind" has five cantos, each of which is fourteen lines and ends in a couplet. That sounds suspiciously like an English sonnet. (Italian sonnets often don’t end in couplets.) And even though there’s a lot of variation in the number of syllables in each line, one could maybe generally call this iambic pentameter. Think about lines seven and eight: "The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, / Each like a corpse within its grave, until" – hear that? Some iambic pentameter is peeking through here. So "Ode to the West Wind" is almost like a miniature sonnet sequence of five sonnets.
OK, so what’s the take-away message about the form and meter of this ode? Well, don’t forget that Shelley is an English expatriate living in Italy, writing, at least in part, about how frustrating it is for him to feel totally out of sorts in a different country. The poem imagines one solution to an individual feeling weak in the face of the world: unity between Man and Nature. But the form creates another solution: unity between a prestigious Italian rhyme scheme and a famous English style of sonnet writing. That way, Shelley the Englishman in Italy brings his two countries closer together with the structure of the poem.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The West Wind is the object of the speaker’s plea in this poem, the powerful force that could deliver him from his inability to make himself heard or to communicate his ideas to others. Blowing from the west suggests an association with the revolutionary, liberating aspects of the young United States, or perhaps simply a favorable wind for ships returning home to ports in Europe. Associated with autumn, the West Wind brings with it decay and the certainty of a wintry death, but it also makes a spring rebirth possible by clearing away the old dead leaves and planting seeds.
Dead leaves are referenced no less than five times in this short lyric poem. Dead leaves are the remnants of the previous season which the wind clears away; they’re also a metaphorical representation of the pages of writing and poetry generated by the speaker, or perhaps even the author. Once ideas are put down on paper, they’re printed on the "leaves" of a book. At that point, they seem to be declining.
Although there aren’t any literal funerals in "Ode to the West Wind," there’s plenty of funereal imagery and symbolism. We’ve got dirges, corpses, the "dying year," a sepulcher, and ashes, just to name a few. Of course, they don’t all come at once – they’re spread throughout the poem as parts of different metaphors and trains of images. Taken all together, though, 9they make us feel like this poem is a kind of elegy (or lament) just as much as it’s an ode.
The æolian harp was a common parlor instrument in the nineteenth century. Sort of like a wind chime, the æolian harp (or "æolian lyre" or "wind harp") was meant to be left in a windy spot, perhaps a window, so that the wind could play its own natural tunes on the instrument. For Romantic poets like Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, the æolian harp came to represent the way that the individual poet could turn himself into an instrument that expressed something more universal about the natural world. In "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley’s speaker begs the West Wind to treat him as its lyre or trumpet or other instrument.
Although "Ode to the West Wind" is mostly about, well, the wind, the middle of the poem moves away from the airy breezes and considers a different element: water. This slippage starts to happen in Canto II, where the wind is described as having a "stream" (15) and a "blue surface" (19), which makes it sound like a body of water. We’re also reminded that the clouds being carried by the wind came originally from the water that evaporated from the ocean and that they’ll rain back down into it. In the next canto, we learn how the wind wakes the Mediterranean Sea from his "summer dreams" (29) and chops up the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The water almost washes away the wind for a moment there – but the poem reminds us that the West Wind is always stronger than the calm, passive seas.
Unless you can turn the words "Make me thy lyre" into some kind of weird sexual innuendo, this is a totally sexless poem. There might be something sort of like sexual desire in the speaker’s wish that he could totally fuse himself with the West Wind, but it’s an ethereal head-in-the-clouds kind of fusion, not a hot, steamy, physical one.