Study Guide

Ode to the West Wind Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    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! (43-47)

    Freedom is one of the most important objects of desire for the speaker of this poem, but ironically his idea of near-freedom is the state of a leaf or cloud carried at the mercy of the wind. Treasure this: Shelley’s not big on irony.

    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 seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven

    As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need. (47-52)

    Like the speakers in poems by other Romantic poets (William Wordsworth comes to mind), the speaker here recalls that he had a different relationship to the natural world when he was young. For the Romantics, youth is a privileged time, when Man and Nature are mysteriously (and mystically) close.

    Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
    I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! (53-54)

    The literal "lift" of the wind is juxtaposed with the metaphorical "fall" onto the "thorns of life."

    A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
    One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud. (55-56)

    The speaker describes himself as "too like" the West Wind – that is, he’s too much like a wild natural power, instead of an adaptable human being. Notice that this is basically bragging: he’s saying "I’m so quick and proud and larger-than-life, I’m not like a person at all, more a force of Nature!" He’s glad to be somewhat inhuman.

    Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
    What if my leaves are falling like its own! (57-58)

    The speaker positions himself between two comparisons to the natural world here. First, he suggests that he – or at least his mind – is like an autumn forest, where the leaves are falling and everything is decaying. But then he suggests that another force of nature, the West Wind, could turn him into its instrument and use him to create beautiful art.

    Be thou, Spirit fierce,
    My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! (61-62)

    Here the speaker demands complete unity between himself and the West Wind, between man and the natural world; but the difference between a human "spirit" and Nature’s "Spirit" is more than just a matter of one capital letter.

  • Transformation

    O Thou,
    Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

    The wingèd 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
    [. . .]
    With living hues and odours plain and hill (5-10, 12)

    The West Wind plants seeds in the ground in the autumn that will germinate next spring. But the seedbeds are like graves, the seeds are like corpses, and their transformation in the Spring is like the resurrection of bodies during the Apocalypse. The Spring wind even blows a "clarion" that reminds us of the Last Trumpet. So there are two kinds of transformation here: the cycle of the seasons, and the linear finality of the Apocalypse. Somehow, Shelley suggests, every spring seems like the end of the world.

    there are spread
    On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
    Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

    Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge
    Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
    The locks of the approaching storm. (18-23)

    Shelley introduces yet another kind of transformation into the poem – the breaking of an autumn storm. The entire world, from the sky’s edge to its center, seems affected by this storm, and we know that, whatever the transformation that’s coming actually is, it will be utterly complete and leave nothing unchanged.

    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 (36-42)

    The West Wind transforms things it touches directly, like the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, but also things that it touches indirectly or that it only affects in a very distant way, like the beds of kelp, seaweed, and other marine plants on the ocean floor.

    O! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
    I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! (53-54)

    The transformation experienced by human beings in their lives is one of pain, suffering, and martyrdom – the "thorns of life" aren’t a direct Biblical reference, but they certainly imply a Biblical atmosphere by reminding us of the "crown of thorns."

    Be thou, Spirit fierce,
    My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! (61-62)

    The only transformation that the speaker believes can remedy the effects of the "thorns of life" is a complete fusion of Man and Nature, or maybe even a replacement of Man’s puny "spirit" with Nature’s immense "Spirit."

  • Mortality

    Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
    Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing (2-3)

    The second image of Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind" involves not one but two references to death: the "leaves dead" that are strewn over the ground in autumn, and the "ghosts" of which they remind us.

    O Thou,
    Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

    The wingèd 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
    [. . .]
    With living hues and odours plain and hill (5-10, 12)

    The West Wind plants seeds in the ground in the autumn that will germinate next spring. But the seedbeds are like graves, the seeds are like corpses, and their transformation in the Spring is like the resurrection of bodies during the Apocalypse. The Spring wind even blows a "clarion" that reminds us of the Last Trumpet. Even the quickening of life in a tiny seed reminds Shelley more of death than it does of birth.

    Thou dirge

    Of the dying year, to which this closing night
    Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre (23-25)

    If the West Wind is a dirge and the autumn night is a tomb, then who is the corpse? The speaker? Nature? The entire world? All or none of the above?

    If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear (43)

    Not only does this remind us that the speaker is obsessed with dead leaves, it reminds us that "leaf" could mean a page in a book as well as something that dropped from a tree. If the speaker is a poet, as he implies, then his obsession with "dead leaves" might have more to do with his own writing than with Nature.

    Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
    Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth! (63-64)

    Death always results in resurrection in this poem; even though the speaker doesn’t anticipate that he himself will be resurrected, he believes that spreading his own "dead thoughts" around will create an opportunity for new ideas to be developed.

    If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? (70)

    It’s important to read this as an open question. For the West Wind, which is autumn’s breath and ushers in the winter, spring is always on its way; for the speaker, though, whose "Winter" is more metaphorical, it’s entirely possible that his ideas, or even the intellectual current of the world, could wither away and not be renewed. He hopes that the death of some ideas and philosophies means that we’re about to come up with some better ones – but he’s not certain.

  • Language and Communication

    Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
    What if my leaves are falling like its own! (57-58)

    When the speaker asks the wind to use him as its instrument (see our discussion of these lines and the "æolian harp" in the "Detailed Summary"), he implies that on his own he can’t communicate his thoughts to the world in the form of art – he needs the West Wind’s help.

    The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

    Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
    Sweet though in sadness. (59-61)

    The speaker suggests that he’s not just a mouthpiece for the wind; he will create "music" similar to, but ultimately different from, the wind whistling in the trees.

    Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
    Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth! (63-64)

    The speaker believes that it’s important for him to communicate his ideas, not because they are great in themselves, but because they will establish an intellectual climate in which even better ideas can be generated.

    And, by the incantation of this verse,

    Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
    Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! (65-67)

    In a comparison rather different from the running metaphor of "dead leaves," the speaker compares his ideas to "ashes and sparks," suggesting that some of them are dead and others are capable of kindling new fires.

    Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

    The trumpet of a prophecy! (68-69)

    The combination of the speaker’s mouth and the West Wind’s power will result in a "trumpet" that wakes the Earth – just as in Canto II, the metaphor here is the Last Judgment.