Beyond the Lines: Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”
It was out of an atmosphere of intensive study of the classics, impassioned dialogue with his collaborators on creative method, and a burning republican zeal to communicate to Mankind an awareness of their own creative powers, and thus enable them to be truly free, that Shelley produced his greatest poems. Perhaps none is greater than the “Ode to the West Wind” [See Appendix]. It never fails to evoke tears of intense sadness and longing, yet a triumphant transcendence of mortality which is universally recognized. How this is accomplished, is an inquiry which, even if never fully satisfied, is well worth the effort, so rich in poetic treasure is it.
As we read, or hear recited, the five stanzas of this “Ode,” Shelley accomplishes a transformation within our souls comparable to that achieved in a great tragedy—except, we are enabled to overcome the tragic, not merely through the poet’s saying “make me thy lyre,” etc., but because we have actually reproduced, in our own minds, the process of overcoming death through creativity which the poet went through to create this poem. We are made to identify with the creative process as our own truest self, our humanity, as the poet has.
But, imagine how empty, almost childishly naive it would be, to hear the last stanza by itself, without first having gone through the whole poem. Obviously, then, much to the contrary of the linguisticians and information theorists, words are not mere symbols of sense objects, or packets of discrete units of information. These words are imbued with a power which transcends their literal meaning, for they evoke a memory, a re-creation in the mind, of a series of transformations we have been brought through, to arrive here. These transformations are ordered, each stanza developing according to its own apparent internal order, followed by a discontinuity separating the stanzas, which leads to a new process of development on a higher level. It is only at the end, that we see the higher ordering process which subsumes the others; the reason they seem to make sense. The musical rigor with which Shelley does this, makes this poem one of the greatest works of art in any form.
There is a driving energy which seems to accelerate toward the ending couplet of each stanza, which is not only the product of the thought content, but also inherent in the form, which is called “terza rima,” the Italian three-line rhyme scheme, pioneered by Dante, whom Shelley was translating at the time he wrote this.
In each group of three lines, or tercet, the first and third lines rhyme, and the middle line’s ending becomes the rhyme for the first and third lines of the next group of three. This produces a continuous unfolding, which accelerates in the third and fourth group of three, as Shelley does not end the lines with punctuation, as he does in the first two groups, but lets the forward motion drive on, through the line endings, creating an almost urgent tension when compared to the first part. The vowel sounds have also shifted from the dark and somber tones such as in “thou,” “Autumn,” and “ghosts” (which are counterposed to the flat, lifeless quality of the short vowel in “breath,” “dead,” “red,” “pestilence,” and so on), to the still sonorous and dark “cold and low,” and “blow”; but containing within them, like a seed, the word “until,” which leads to the much brighter sounds: “fill,” “hill,” and “Spring,” “dreaming earth,” “sweet buds,” etc. Thus, we have established in our “mind’s ear,” so to speak, definite tonal relationships; the one corresponding to death, loss, mortality; the other to rebirth, regeneration, and hope.
The development of these musical themes drives on to the paradoxical ending couplet, expressed as “destroyer and preserver.” The musical development of this stanza has been brought to a point of singularity, an apparent discontinuity which, it is not clear until the end of the poem, is part of a higher continuity. In reciting this poem, as in performing a piece of music, it is crucial to “remember” the ending, so that it determines the beginning, creating the resonances in the first stanza which enable the process as a whole to be transparent in the end.
Stanza II begins, by immediately situating the metaphor which subsumes the entire previous process of development in stanza I, as the seed-crystal of a new, higher level metaphor. Now the “earth’s decaying leaves” are compared to the clouds which, like them, appear to be driven into wild disorder by this awesome, destructive force. The energy which drives this stanza onward, mirrors the exhilaration, the paradoxical excitement we feel at the approach of an intense storm. Friedrich Schiller, in his essay “On the Sublime,” called this phenomenon the Sublime of Nature, where we are made to feel small, physically, by some awe-inspiring natural object or event, such as a mountain, the ocean, or the night sky; yet, the experience of our mind’s ability to comprehend it as a concept, is a sensuous experience of our humanity, of our superiority, spiritually, over Nature.
But, what is Shelley really talking about here? Is it merely a storm? No, it is Death! We have been, quite literally, uplifted to see this process of death and the potential of rebirth (for it is only implied in this stanza), reflected from the earth and its living processes, into the sky, the great, extended inorganic universe. The musical qualities by which this is achieved are, again, remarkable. Once again, there is a development, generally, from “darker” vowels (tones of a lower musical pitch), to ones of, if not brighter quality, at least greater intensity. They are of a higher frequency, in physical terms. So what we have here, is a process which mirrors, on one level—(the formal)—the process we saw in the first stanza, exactly as does a musical composition when, say, a modulation into a different key takes place, while the continuity of the intervals between the notes is preserved. The mind perceives the change, not as arbitrary, but as lawful change. As we saw in “To Sophia,” Shelley again employs the musical principle of “stretto” at the end of this stanza: does not “Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!” seem to capture the essence of this entire stanza? And it also contains the “spark,” quite literally, of a metaphor which is the key to the last stanza, and should be recited accordingly.
In stanza III, we have one of the most beautiful examples of sublime melancholy in English poetry. Schiller, in his essay “Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” speaks of the use of lost beauty, lost love, or a lost golden age of humanity, to evoke the emotional state of longing for the eternal, for the Good. Here, it is evoked in a unique, almost unconscious way. Again, we are transported, lawfully, into a new metaphorical dimension; consistent with, and growing out of, the previous set of images, yet initiating a new process of development. With the second stanza’s overriding image, the Platonic “One” generated by it, in our minds, we now hear the “Thou,” which begins the stanza in a different way than in the first or second. It has been transformed, and now is not only the “destroyer and preserver,” but also contains within it all the force and energy associated with the second stanza’s evocation of a sublime exhilarating feeling, even toward death and destruction. It is important here to remember, that, as is the case in all great poetry, these things are not to be taken literally, as some have suggested. Shelley did not have some Romantic fixation on death. Rather, the tension created by this developing, in successive phases of the theme, as compared to the “One” which subsumes the entire poem, is essential to the ultimate comprehension of, and emotional identification with, that idea.
One should recite the entire sentence starting with “Thou who,” through “faints picturing them!” with special attention not only to the rich, sensuous beauty of the music, but with a muted reverence for the moral beauty of the idea presented. For we now have the “wind” awakening a sleeping ocean, which is dreaming of a lost civilization. Thus, metaphorically, this process of awakening, of regenerating, has connected to the highest objective—humanity. That is the special power of this beautiful passage. That is why the “sense faints” picturing it. But the tension that has been building between the process of Becoming, with its paradoxes, each being superseded by another, higher set, and that seemingly ineffable, unspoken “One” which lies somehow above and beyond the process, now causes a sudden shift in mood, in tonal quality, and even in the subject.
Suddenly, the imagery reflects the death-darkness modality, literally “from top to bottom”; even the ocean floor grows “gray with fear,” bringing to a sort of closure the entire metaphorical development up to now. One cannot imagine any other process beyond here, in this mode, so complete seems the metaphorical development. Yet, we are left so utterly suspended with a sense of incompleteness, because of the still unaddressed One which lies outside the development.
So, what does Shelley do here? In a manner very similar to Beethoven’s review, in the beginning of the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony, of the themes of the first three movements, the poet, for the first time in his own voice, identifies the “themes” of the first three stanzas, and where the tension is coming from. For, even the crassest nominalist who may have imagined that Shelley had been talking about the “wind” previously, would now begin to suspect that perhaps something more profound is being addressed. What could better capture the agonizing paradox of the relationship of Man’s mortal, time-bound existence, to the infinite freedom of universal creativity itself, than this stanza? To call up the memory of childhood’s innocent joy in this connection, adds a compelling universal appeal, as we all share in this sense of lost innocence; only, Shelley has here raised it to a profound level. If one can recite, or hear the concluding couplet of this stanza, without being nearly choked with tears, one hasn’t understood a thing of the poem’s true meaning.
The key to the transition which makes possible the final, remarkable stanza, unparallelled in poetry, is the word, “prayer,” for that is what it is. The poet undergoes, and takes us through, a kind of psychological death—the death of the “ego,” in stanza IV. This allows him to not merely be uplifted by the creative force, but to totally identify with it! With the “deep autumnal tones” we heard in the first stanza now totally transformed in their emotional content, we have reached a musical, as well as metaphorical, closure.
The lines “Make me thy lyre,” through “Be thou me, impetuous one,” are intensely uplifting enough, but the last two tercets and concluding couplet of this poem express a higher “cardinality” than even the whole previous process, which is the essence of the true “One” of Shelley’s poem—the Good which subsumes the ordered process of Becoming. Here, in the most selfless and agapic way, the creative artist does not merely describe the act of giving beauty to mankind, but actually does it. It is the way in which we are transformed, which scatters the “ashes and sparks” of creativity to ourselves and future generations. This is what overcomes death. And the triumphal tone of this ending cannot fail to remind us, again, of the Ninth Symphony; for it is born of the same love of humanity which inspired Beethoven, Schiller, and all the true creative geniuses of history’s Platonic-republican movement.
That Shelley should develop a creative method which parallels the Motivführung revolution in musical composition, is entirely lawful. For, to elevate us to such a high level, the artist must first re-create in our minds a series of metaphors, make us aware of their ascending development, and then make intelligible, transparent, the process which generated them. Only in this way can the mind come to know its own potential for creativity, and it is the zeal to communicate that, out of love of mankind, which drives the artist.
Appendix: “Ode to the West Wind”
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: 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 (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion, Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed, Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning; there are spread On the blue sufface of thine aëry surge, Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce M[ae]nad, even from the dim verge Of the horizon to the zenith’s height, The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre, Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams The blue Mediterranean, where he lay, Lulled by the coil of his crystàlline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Bai[ae]’s bay, And saw in sleep old palaces and towers Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below The sea blooms and oozy woods which wear The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear, And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!
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! 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. Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: What if my leaves are falling like its own! The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone, Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce, My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth! And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
For a longer discussion of Shelley's poetry, see "Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Motivführung Principle in English Poetry."
Daniel is a poet living in Houston, Texas. He has spent much of his life fighting for the ideals of classical culture and poetry. His latest volume of poems is entitled Places the Soul Goes.