This poem was written in 1819 and published in 1820 along with Shelley's musical drama Prometheus Unbound. Shelley was living in Italy at that time. As Shelley tells us in a note, the poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood round the Arno, near Florence (in Italy). He wrote it on a day when the stormy wind was collecting the vapours that send the autumnal rains. At sunset, as Shelley had foreseen, there was a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by an exceptional thunder of of clouds and lightening.
It is one of Shelley's greatest poems. It has been called a 'matchless ode'. But it is not easy to understand. The main difficulty in understanding the poem arises from the abundance of similes and metaphors which follow one another with an astonishing quickness. In the course of the poem, Shelley passes from a magnificent realisation of nature's storm and peace to equally great self description. Finally he mingles nature and himself together in order to sing of the Golden Age of Mankind.
Stanza 1: The opening stanza describes the activities of the West Wind on land. The West Wind drives the dead leaves before it just as the magician drives away a ghost by his approach. The West Wind scatters the seeds far and near and covers them with dust so that they are buried underground where they remain, like dead bodies in their graves, till the coming of spring when they sprout into plants which bear flowers filling the valley with sweet smells and attractive colours. The poet addresses the West Wind as a 'wild spirit' moving everywhere, and a destroyer (of dead leaves) and a preserver (of living seeds).
"Wild spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, Oh, hear!"
Stanza 11: The second stanza describes the activities of the West Wind in the air. The West Wind carries on its surface loose clouds which seems to have fallen from the sky just as withered leaves fall from the trees in autumn. The clouds floating on the surface of the West Wind are messengers of rain and lightening. The locks of the approaching storm are spread on the airy surface of the West Wind like the bright hair uplifted from the head of a frenzied Bacchante. Furthermore, the West Wind is the dirge of the dying year for which the closing night will be the dome of a big tomb vaulted with all the aggregated strength of the West Wind as seen in rain, lightning and hailstorm. The poet calls upon the West Wind to listen to him. This stanza is an example of the abstract imagery which characterises much of Shelley's poetry. It is remarkable also for its various similes and metaphors.
Stanza 111: The third stanza describes the effects of the West Wind on water. The West Wind awakens from sleep the blue Mediterranean which was dreaming of old palaces and towers which once stood on its shores. When the West Wind blows on the Atlantic, the waves rise on both sides to prepare a sort of passage for the West Wind, while far below, the plants growing at the bottom of the ocean tremble with fear and shed their leaves. The stanza is remarkable for its vivid imagery and for the manner in which the two oceans ____ the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ______ are personified. The phenomena alluded to in lines 36-42 is well known to naturalists. In a note, Shelley pointed out that the vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathises with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is consequently influenced by the winds which announce that change.
Stanza 1v: The poet here establishes a link between his own personality and the personality of the West Wind. He recalls his boyhood when he was a swift, energetic and uncontrollable as the West Wind. In his boyhood he could excel the speed of the West Wind and could accompany it on its wanderings over the sky. But now the misfortunes of life have crushed him. He is bleeding on the thorns of life helplessly. He wishes that he were a leaf, a wave, a cloud, so that the West Wind could lift him. He makes a pathetic appeal to the West Wind to come to his help:
"Oh, lift me as a wave, 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."
Stanza v: The final stanza includes the whole universe in its sweep. The poet appeals to the West Wind to treat him as a lyre and to blow on him as it blows on the forest. Like the forest, he too is passing through the autumn of his life. The West Wind blowing on him and on the forest will produce a sad but sweet music. Addressing the West Wind as 'Spirit fierce' and as 'impetuous one', he appeals to it to become one with him and to scatter his dead thoughts over the universe in order that these thoughts may bring about a new period in human history. He would like the West Wind to broadcast over the whole world his prophecy about the coming of the Golden Age:"If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" In this stanza we find a clear expression of Shelley's idealism, his belief in the perfectibility of human nature and his belief in the golden age of mankind.
Stanza 1 (Lines 1-14):