Poetry Review: “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Autumn Trees

“Autumn Trees” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

Autumn seems to be coming early this year in the North Country. Last weekend Sue and I stood on the round tower at Ft. Snelling and looked down on a grove of yellow cottonwoods. I look out at my neighbor’s cottonwood and see that what leaves have not already fallen are full gold against the early morning sky.

Autumn poems are on my mind: Frost, Stevens, Dickinson, Keats, and of course this poem by Shelley. “Ode to the West Wind” is a poem familiar to almost anyone who has taken a college-level English class.

Googling “Ode to the West Wind” I find an extensive critical article on Wikipedia. Everything you would ever want to know about the poem is there. Everything but how to enjoy it.

My youngest daughter began her senior year of high school this week. One class she is taking this year focuses on “what I am worst at in English, interpreting poems” (her words for herself, not mine).

I could tell her I suppose that all “interpretations” of poems are pure bullshit. I could tell her that whatever some scholar or critic or teacher tells her should be taken with a handful of salt. I could tell her to just concentrate on speaking the poems out-loud, to just listen for the lines that seem to ring most true, to remember the lines that keep coming back to the tip of her tongue. But that is not the way poetry is taught.

I will follow from a discrete distance her progress this year. Her older sister made it through the same aesthetic war and came out loving Blake and Wordsworth. Maybe Morgan will too. But they are different people. In the end a poet dad can only hope.

A Shelley poem is always a journey. His language picks us up, takes us through landscapes and ideas, and delivers us to another place we could not have gotten to if we would not have chosen to read Shelley in the first place. “Ode to the West Wind” is a perfect example of this. On a beautiful September morning, it is the perfect poem.

Enjoy!

 

Ode to the West Wind

I
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 winged 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!

 

II
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 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!

 

III
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d by the coil of his cryst’ lline 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!

 

IV
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 seem’d 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 chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

 

V
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 wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

 

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 

Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

 

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 

These famous final lines are hard to resist. Repeat them a few times and they will return unbidden every fall. This is Shelley at his best… which is to say poetry at its best. These lines need no interpretation, no paraphrasing nor critical enquiry. They have been captivating readers for 200 years precisely because they are perfect.

 

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