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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ode to the West Wind

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1820

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Summary and Study Guide


Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is an exemplary piece of Romantic Era poetry. It explores such themes as personal freedom, creation and the craft of poetry, and the role of the poet in 19th-Century British society, among other themes. The speaker makes use of apostrophe and personification to paint a picture of the West Wind’s awesome powers. Moving through the tight terza rima form with playful alliteration, grandiose imagery gradually gives way to a vulnerable exploration of the speaker’s anxieties about modern life and the uncertainty of the future. The poem stands at a decisive moment in Shelley’s writing life, when the overtly political revolutionary themes in his work took a backseat to broader philosophical concerns. “Ode to the West Wind” balances formal mastery with invention, desperation with optimism, and the natural world with the personal, embodying all the reasons why Shelley’s work is still widely read today.

Shelley wrote “Ode to the West Wind” in 1819 in a forest outside of Florence, Italy. It was published in his collection Prometheus Unbound, A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, and Other Poems in 1820. It is one of only a few pieces Shelley published in his lifetime. Shelley wrote this poem following a year of personal and political tragedy. Scholars debate how much influence (if any) these events had on the craft of this poem.

Poet Biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4, 1792 in the village of Field Place, Sussex, England. His father, Sir Timothy Shelley, was a Whig Member of Parliament. His grandfather, Sir Bysshe Shelley, was First Baronet of Castle Goring. A target of vicious bullying throughout his childhood, Shelley found refuge in the world of his imagination. He threw himself into his studies, read voraciously, and conducted elaborate scientific experiments. He graduated from Eton College in 1810 and enrolled at Oxford University in October of that year. He was expelled in early 1811 for co-authoring and distributing his essay, “The Necessity of Atheism.” The expulsion triggered a falling-out with his father.

Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook in August 1811 and published his first long poem, Queen Mab, in 1813. Shelley and Westbrook had one daughter together when he fell in love with Mary Godwin: the daughter of his mentor, political philosopher William Godwin, and his wife, women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Godwin and Shelley eloped in July 1814. The Shelleys met poet Lord Byron in June 1816 through Mary’s sister, Clair Clairmont. A lifelong complex friendship formed during their shared summer in Geneva, during which Percy Shelley wrote the poems “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc” and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Harriet Shelley died by suicide in December 1816. When Percy was found unfit to rase their two children, the children were placed in foster care.

Shelley published his second long political poem, Laon and Cynthia, in 1817, but publishers quickly pulled it from print for provocative sexual content and anti-religious sentiment. Shelley made revisions and the poem was republished in 1818 as The Revolt of Islam. The family relocated to Italy in March of that year, hoping the milder climate might ease Shelley’s chronic lung issues. They travelled around the country, spending time with friends (including Byron and Claire) and enjoying more freedom than ever to explore radical ideas. The deaths of both their children—their daughter in 1818 and their son in early 1919—devastated Mary. Her severe depression waned when she gave birth to a son in late 1919, but the tragedy of the previous two years drove a permanent wedge between the couple.

Shelley wrote a number of his most noted works during this period, including the poems “Ozymandias” (1818), “Ode to the West Wind” (written 1819, published 1820), and The Mask of Anarchy (1820); the lyric drama The Cenci (1819); and the essay “A Defence of Poetry” (1821). Byron moved to Pisa in November 1821, forming a famous friend group with the Shelleys, Thomas Medwin, and Edward and Jane Williams. Jane Williams became the object of Shelley’s affection at the time and the primary subject of much romantic verse. Shelley’s final poem, “The Triumph of Life,” was never finished. As Shelley and Edward Williams sailed back to Lerici from Livorno in July 1822, their boat was lost in a storm at sea. Percy Shelley drowned on July 8, 1822.

Poem Text

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind.” 1820. Poetry Foundation.


“Ode to the West Wind” is a poem in five cantos, or sections. Each canto is 14 lines long, and the poem is 70 lines total.

Canto 1 begins with a direct address to the wind: “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being” (Line 1). The speaker continues to describe the West Wind, detailing its unique powers and qualities. The wind scatters dead leaves, all “pestilence-stricken” (Line 5) in various colors. The wind also scatters seeds, laying them to rest until spring comes. When spring arrives, she will blow her clarion, or trumpet, “o’er the dreaming earth” (Line 10). This signals the seeds to wake up and grow, filling the world with color and sweet smells once again. The speaker ends this canto with his plea to the “destroyer and preserver” to listen: “hear, oh hear!” (Line 14).

In Canto 2, the speaker shifts their attention to the clouds that ride on the West Wind “mid the steep sky’s commotion” (Line 15). The clouds spread across the sky like wild hair, forecasting a storm. The speaker compares the West Wind to a funeral dirge announcing the end of the year as well as the coming storm. The speaker predicts that the storm will be ferocious: “Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst” (Line 28). They plead again for the wind to hear them.

Canto 3 considers how the wind wields its power over water. The Mediterranean Sea lies tranquil, dreaming its “summer dreams” (Line 29) until the West Wind wakes it. In “Baiae’s bay” (Line 32) for example, moss-covered ancient ruins can be seen under the water’s surface while the sea sleeps. The West Wind also causes the Atlantic Ocean’s waters to “cleave themselves into chasms” (Line 38). As this happens, the plant life growing along the ocean floor listens to the wind working above it and cowers. The speaker makes a third and final plea for the wind to listen.

The speaker refers to himself for the first time in Canto 4, using the first person “I” (Line 43). He imagines himself flying free with the wind in several forms: as “a dead leaf” (Line 43), “a swift cloud” (Line 44), and “a wave” (Line 45). He recalls his childhood friendship with the wind: when he was a “comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven” (Line 49), he never imagined a life beyond the wind’s influence. Now, as an adult, he is “chain’d and bow’d” (Line 55), held down by his life. The speaker is suffering where he is, among “the thorns of life” (Line 54), and he is “too like” (Line 56) the wild wind to tolerate being chained down.

In the fifth and final canto, the speaker makes a request to the West Wind: he asks to become a “lyre” (Line 57) so the wind can play upon him. He wonders whether his “leaves are falling” (Line 58) like those in a forest in autumn, and he asks to become one with the wind so it will spread his “dead thoughts over the universe / Like wither’d leaves” (Lines 63-64). When the wind and the speaker join like this, his words will be carried far and wide even after he’s gone. His message, spread with the power of the wind moving through him, will become “the trumpet of a prophecy” (Line 69). The speaker ends with a question to the West Wind about the future: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” (Line 70).