Now that a hard November wind is whirling the leaves about, it’s time for Shelley and his Ode to the West Wind. Percy Bysshe Shelley had a brief life, but it was so vivid with poetry, so politically radical, so sexually unrestrained, so romantic and Romantic, that he still arouses controversy among readers who know even a little about him.
He was born in England on August 4, 1892 and drowned in a stormy sea off the coast of Italy on July 8, 1822, not having quite reached age 30. Shelley ran afoul of law and convention a number of times. He wrote some great poems, many political and social pamphlets, and a number of papers which advocated atheism. He also indulged in sexual shenanigans, inspired loyal friendships, and left a few ruined lives in his wake.
Technically, Ode to the West Wind is composed of five cantos in iambic pentameter and the overall rhyme scheme is terza rima – a beautiful method of linking three-line stanzas with aba, bcb, cdc, and so forth. Terza rima had been rarely used in English. It was most famously used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, that poem of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, where the number three recurs in a multitude of ways. Terza rima isn’t easy to work, and nobody has succeeded in doing a good job of translating Dante into English using his rhyme scheme. As for the meaning of Shelley’s Ode, that’s impossible to cram into a brief paragraph — yes, it’s about the weather, but much, much more as well. Don’t sweat it. You can read a bit now and come back to it later. OK, here’s the poem:
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 5
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 10
(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, O hear!
Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion, 15
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 airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head 20
Of some fierce Mænad, 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, 25
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst: O hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay, 30
Lull’d by the coil of his crystàlline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers 35
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 40
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O 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 45
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 50
Scarce seem’d a vision—I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
O! 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 55
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, 60
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, 65
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? 70