Shelley as a Revolutionary poet with special reference to “Ode to the West Wind”

Percy Bysshe Shelley was an English Romantic poet who rebelled against conservative politics and values.  He drew no essential distinction between poetry and politics, and his work reflected the radical ideas and revolutionary optimism of the era. In spite of the failure of the French Revolution, unlike Wordsworth or Coleridge, Shelley never abandoned the ideals of the revolution.

Shelley’s revolutionary attitude is constructive in the long run. In his preface to “The Revolt of Islam”, he points out that he wants to kindle in the bossom of his readers a virtuous enthusiasm for liberty and justice; faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor prejudice can ever wholly extinguish. As a poet, Shelley conceived to become the inspirer and judge of men. He had a passion for reforming the world which was the direct outcome of that attitude of mind which the French Revolution had inculcated in him. Another idea contained in the original conception of the Revolution was ‘The Return to Nature’. It held that the essential happiness of man consisted in a simple life in accordance with Nature.

In the "Ode to The West Wind" Shelley is seen as a rebel who wants revolution. He desires a social change and the West Wind is his symbol of change. This poem, in iambic pentameter, was written by the poet under the direct influence of his time. The moral, social and political regeneration seemed to Shelley possible in the atmosphere of Nature. Finding his life miserable, he implores the wind:
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 chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

Shelley’s revolutionary passion flows from his idealism. All his life he dreamed of an ideal world without evil, suffering and misery. It would be a world where reason would rule supreme, and Equality, Liberty and Fraternity wound be no empty words. “Ode to West Wind” expresses the poet’s intense suffering at the tyranny of life and his great hope in the bright future of humanity. The poem symbolizes three things; freedom, power and change. Thus the poet finds the “West Wind” a fit symbol to raise and enliven his spirit out of the depths of desolation, dejection and weariness. Moreover the ‘Wind’ should scatter his thoughts among the universe:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe/Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!/
…/Scatter, …/… my words among mankind!

In Shelley’s poetry, the figure of the poet is a grand, tragic, prophetic hero. His poetry becomes a kind of prophecy, and through his words, a poet has the ability to change the world for the better and to bring about political, social, and spiritual change. Shelley’s poet is a near-divine saviour, comparable to Christ, and to Prometheus, who stole divine fire and gave it to humans in Greek mythology. The poet asks the west wind to “make me thy lyre,” to be his own Spirit, and to drive his thoughts across the universe, “like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth.” He asks the wind to be the “trumpet of a prophecy.”

It may be said that the Revolution to Shelley was a spiritual awakening, the beginning of a new life. He traced all evil in life to slavery. Free and natural development is only possible when one enjoys liberty. And liberty in his opinion was freedom from external restraints. Freedom was the first watchword of the French Revolution. Thus the Revolution kindled the imaginative life of Shelley as it did that of Wordsworth. But the fire in Wordsworth extinguished before long; whereas in Shelley it kept burning all through his brief career and permeated all through his poetic work.

Last modified: Monday, 8 June 2020, 8:33 PM