Ode to the West Wind
IO 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!
IIThou 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 surface of thine aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, 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!
IIIThou 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 Baiae'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 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: oh, hear!
IVIf 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.
VMake me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy might 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?
--Percy Bysshe Shelley
People have trouble with Shelley. Partly it's that his revolutionary attitudes seem to us naive, partly that his verse is more rhetorical and less sharply focused in its imagery than his contemporary Keats's. But mostly, I think, it's his name. A line like "I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!" from the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" sounds like something a guy named Percy Bysshe Shelley would do.
It's too bad about the name Percy, and woe betide the kid whose parents are so cruel as to name him that. (Not that there are many of them; the name peaked in the 1890s and now is virtually nonexistent. I actually had an uncle named Percy, who was born back when it was still popular, but the only other Percys I can think of are Percy Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president, and Percy Kilbride, who played Pa Kettle opposite Marjorie Main's Ma in B-pictures of the 1940s.)
But Percy Shelley was no pantywaist (neither were Sutton, Kilbride and my uncle for that matter). Nor was he what Matthew Arnold called him, a “beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” Arnold's attempt to emasculate Shelley probably stemmed, ironically, from that eminent Victorian's shock at Shelley's revolutionary attitudes toward things like marriage and sex.
Anyway, the "Ode to the West Wind" is one of my half-dozen favorite lyric poems, and I think it has a sweep and power that rivals Shakespeare and Milton. So there. It's also one of those poems that, like Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," has a clear five-act structure:
Exposition: The autumnal west wind has arrived to scatter dead leaves but also the seeds that will reawaken in the Spring.
Conflict: The destroyer role of the wind seems to predominate over that of the preserver.
Crisis: Is it possible that only destruction will prevail?
Struggle: The speaker recognizes that his fear of the wind's power echoes his own loss of hope in the possibility of spiritual and social change and renewal.
Resolution: The speaker regains faith that renewal will occur, that Spring will follow Winter, and that his words and ideas will spread and take hold.
But of course it's not just a didactic poem. It's also a brilliant use of terza rima, the meter of Dante's Divina Commedia, which is also about death and rebirth. Shelley is not a hard-edged imagist like Keats. His verse depends on the reader's ability to hold all its elements -- imagery, sound, symbolism, dramatic tension -- in the mind at once. There are few more beautiful stanzas in English than the middle section of the poem, with its evocation of an underwater world that is touched by the wind's power, but it doesn't stand alone. And while I understand the objection that "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" is a little too melodramatic, a little too much like "I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstasy," I argue that it works in context, that it's a dramatic turn that precipitates the reconciliation in the last stanza.