Revisiting Ode to the West Wind by Percy Shelley

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Ode to the West Wind by Percy Shelley
Posthumous Portrait of Shelley – Wikimedia

I read this poem written by Shelley when I was 15 years old. To be honest, I didn’t read it because I was a fan of Shelley’s poetry, but because I had no choice. I had to study it thoroughly because the poem happened to be a part of my course curriculum. At 15, I was a bit too young to understand the details and the wide range of ‘scattered’ thoughts portrayed in the poem.

The Basic Thought

Shelley, who wrote of loss, pain, and sorrow, beautifully captures the life cycle of a human being. Shelley, in the very first line of the poem, describes the west wind as “wild”.

Popular Bollywood singer Sonu Nigam captured a similar expression in his song “Satrangi Re”. There comes a line in the song wherein he sings “Iss Baar bataa mun’zor Hawa thehregi kahaan” (Tell me, where will this wild wind stop). The poem tries to shed light on the fact that the west wind possesses the power to change seasons. (Seasons symbolize the trials and tribulations a person comes across in his life.

The Broader Perspective

Moving on, Shelley reiterates the fact that the west wind is powerful enough to annihilate anything and everything that comes in its way. The wind, while marching on its way ferociously, ends up blowing away the pale and dead autumn leaves. Furthermore, the unborn seeds are scattered all over the place because of the west wind’s intervention. These seeds bloom during spring.

To top it all, the west wind is being showcased as a formidable force that has the power to change seasons. These seasons symbolize a person’s life cycle(birth, growth, decline, and death). The cycle, untouched by joy and sorrow, keeps repeating itself.

Shelley’s Turmoil

Percy Shelley urges the wind to inspire him. He further states that he’s gone through a lot in life. The same is stated in the lines:

“And 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”

This stanza also highlights the emotional turmoil Shelley had to go through during his lifetime. Shelley, often considered the most pessimistic of all English poets, was often seen overthrowing pre-existing rules and societal conventions. His revolutionary ideas were often met coldly by the world. Shelley’s love for eternal beauty and charm can also be seen in many of his poems.

Also, Shelley’s heart sunk in gloom after his first wife (Harriet) passed away. The extent of pain he was going through is evident in the lines mentioned above. After marrying Mary Wollstonecraft, he traveled through Europe. Upon the couple’s return, Mary was pregnant with Shelley’s child. The couple faced debt, and the death of their daughter (born prematurely) intensified Shelley’s pain, grief, and sorrow.

Subtle Optimism

The poem, decorated with countless traces of pessimism, paints a gloomy and murky picture in the reader’s mind. Winter, a season wherein life ceases to move, has been chosen to portray sadness and gloom. Despite being pessimistic, Shelley ends on a largely optimistic note. The lines that bring to light his subtle optimism are:

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

The line mentioned above reiterates the fact that despite all the hardships, atrocities, failures, and death, life gives you ample opportunities to succeed. These lines also shed adequate light on Shelley’s personal belief that bodies are perishable, but thoughts and ideologies live forever. Lastly, he urges the west wind to scatter his thoughts over the universe, just as dead and dry leaves and unborn seeds are scattered over the face of the earth by the west wind.

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