Study Guide

Ode to the West Wind Canto I: I, the West Wind

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Canto I: I, the West Wind

Lines 1-5

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:

  • The speaker appeals to the West Wind four times in this first canto, or section, of the poem. (We don’t find out what he’s actually asking the wind to do for him until the end of the canto.)
  • Lines 1-5 are the first appeal, in which the speaker describes the West Wind as the breath of Autumn.
  • Like a magician banishing ghosts or evil spirits, the West Wind sweeps away the dead leaves. These dead leaves are multicolored, but not beautiful in the way we usually think of autumn leaves – their colors are weird and ominous and seem almost diseased (like "pestilence-stricken multitudes").

Lines 5-8

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

  • The speaker appeals to the West Wind a second time.
  • This time, the West Wind is described as carrying seeds to their grave-like places in the ground, where they’ll stay until the spring wind comes and revives them. The wind burying seeds in the ground is like a charioteer driving corpses to their graves.

Lines 8-12

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:

  • Once the West Wind has carried the seeds into the ground, they lie there all winter, and then are woken by the spring wind.
  • Shelley thinks of the spring wind as blue (or, to be specific, "azure").
  • The spring wind seems to be the cause of all the regeneration and flowering that takes place in that season. It blows a "clarion" (a kind of trumpet) and causes all the seeds to bloom. It fills both "plain and hill" with "living hues and odours." It also opens buds into flowers the way a shepherd drives sheep.

Lines 13-14

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!

  • The speaker appeals to the West Wind twice more, describing it as a "Wild Spirit" that’s everywhere at once.
  • The West Wind is both "Destroyer and Preserver"; it brings the death of winter, but also makes possible the regeneration of spring.
  • Now we find out (sort of) what the speaker wants the wind to do: "hear, oh, hear!" For the moment, that’s all he’s asking – just to be listened to. By the wind.