The central thematic concerns of Shelley’s poetry are largely the same themes that defined Romanticism, especially among the younger English poets of Shelley’s era: beauty, the passions, nature, political liberty, creativity, and the sanctity of the imagination. What makes Shelley’s treatment of these themes unique is his philosophical relationship to his subject matter and his temperament, which was extraordinarily sensitive and responsive even for a Romantic poet, and which possessed an extraordinary capacity for joy, love, and hope. Shelley fervently believed in the possibility of realizing an ideal of human happiness as based on beauty, and his moments of darkness and despair almost always stem from his disappointment at seeing that ideal sacrificed to human weakness.
In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley imagines himself one of the infinite leaves blowing in the west wind of autumn that precedes the winter. The leaves of autumn that fall to the ground, mixing with the frozen dormancy of winter, grow to new life in the spring. Shelley yearns for his poetry to take part of the same natural cycle of death and life, life and resurrection. The image that runs through the poem is that his poetry is like the leaves blowing and falling upon the entire world, and growing into new creation that will summon mankind–like Christ’s resurrection–to see his vision. Hence, there are rampant religious analogies in the poem, yet Shelley uses them to reject a classic Christian vision for one that almost returns the poet to a pagan visionary. At the climax of the poem, line 54, Shelley cries out, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” The poet at the end may be spent after the act of poetry, as Shelley says to the wind, “Drive my dead thoughts ever the universe” (line 63), but his vision is “Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” Like the spring, his poetry will rise again, “And by the incantation of this verse” in order to become revelation for the world.
In Shelley’s poetry, the figure of the poet is a grand, tragic, prophetic hero. The poet has a deep, mystic appreciation for nature and this intense connection with the natural world gives him access to profound cosmic truths He has the power—and the duty—to translate these truths, through the use of his imagination, into poetry. Thus, 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 Prometheus, who stole divine fire and gave it to humans in Greek mythology, and to Christ. 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, by the incantation of this verse, to scatter his words among mankind, to be the “trumpet of a prophecy.” Speaking both in regard to the season and in regard to the effect upon mankind that he hopes his words to have, the speaker asks: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
Like Prometheus and Christ, figures of the poets in Shelley’s work are often doomed to suffer: because their visionary power isolates them from other men, because they are misunderstood by critics, because they are persecuted by a tyrannical government, or because they are suffocated by conventional religion and middle-class values. “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.” In the end, however, the poet triumphs because his art is immortal, outlasting the tyranny of government, religion, and society and living on to inspire new generations. “Ode to the West Wind” is a lyrical masterpiece, and encapsulates Shelley’s romantic vision of himself as a poet and the creative process.
“Ode to the West Wind” is a lyrical masterpiece, and encapsulates Shelley’s romantic vision of himself as a poet and the creative process.