Posthumous Portait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound in Italy by Joseph Severn (1845)
The “Ode to the West Wind” is an ode that Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1819, and published in 1820 as part of the collection “Prometheus Unbound, A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, With Other Poems”. This first edition of the Ode featured a note by Shelley in which he stated: “This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began, as I foresaw, at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions.”
The wind is the “breath of autumn’s being”; but it is also the “breath of universal being”. According to Frank A. Lea, the wind is a symbol, in the sense that every object in which a poet perceives and reveals the infinite is a symbol; but it is more than that. The “destroyer and preserver” becomes, as the poem progresses, the creative and destructive power of nature herself, into which he longs to be reintegrated:
“oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”
The Ode was born out of a torturous conflict and despair: a despair we may associate, if so minded, with the death of his little son (Lea, 152). But the despair is over before the odes begins. The wind has already lifted the poet up, and it bears him through all the intricate and lovely verses up to the final, triumphant cry:
“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 thought in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!”
But the West Wind is Shelley’s spirit already. The deep, autumnal tone is there, sounding through the whole poem. He has become already the Aeolian lyre to which he compared the poet. The Ode is, in fact, a perfect illustration of the truth proclaimed in the Essay on Christianity: “Those who have seen God have, in the period of their purer and more perfect nature, been harmonized…to so exquisite a spontaneity of powers as to give forth divinest music when the breath of universal being sweeps over their frame” (Lea, 153).
Sources: Lea, Frank A. Shelley and the Romantic Revolution. London: Routledge, 1945. Print.