Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the best-known English Romantic poets, along with William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and William Blake. His 1819 poem “Ode to the West Wind,” in which the speaker directly addresses the wind and longs to fuse himself with it, exemplifies several characteristics of Romantic poetry.
Romantic poetry often explores the symbolism of everyday objects or phenomena, such as an urn or the song of a nightingale. In an 1818 letter to his friend Thomas Love Peacock, a novelist and poet, Shelley wrote, “I always seek in what I see the manifestation of something beyond the present and tangible object.” In “West Wind,” the speaker meditates on the many metaphysical meanings the wind holds for him.
Poetry as a Moral Force
In his tract “A Defence of Poetry,” Shelley wrote, “The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” In other words, poetry inspires readers’ imaginations, and their imaginations move them to be better people. In stanza 5 of “West Wind,” the speaker thinks of the wintery wind as a spiritual force for renewal, playing on the multiple Latin meanings of “spiritus” -- “wind,” “breath” “and “inspiration.” As spring follows winter, he longs for the wind to breathe life into his “dead thoughts” so that they “quicken a new birth” in readers, and to “scatter … my words among mankind” to spread his poetry’s “prophecy.”
The Romantic period followed -- and reacted against -- the Neoclassical period, which drew heavily on classical literary forms and genres and focused on stylistic “correctness.” Romantic poets including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and Shelley created new forms, choosing creativity and imagination over rigid rules, yet participated in the poetic tradition by reworking established poetic forms. In “West Wind,” Shelley combines the forms of an English sonnet (such as Shakespeare wrote) and Italian terza rima (which Dante used in his “Divine Comedy”) to achieve a unique form of five 14-line stanzas. Each is divided into four tercets and a final couplet, rhyming ABA BCB CDC DED EE.
Apostrophe is a poetic convention in which the speaker directly addresses someone who’s not there or something nonhuman. It appears frequently in Romantic poetry, in keeping with the movement’s emphasis on capturing “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as Wordsworth wrote in the preface to “Lyrical Ballads.” The first words of “West Wind” are an apostrophe: “O wild West Wind,” and apostrophes pepper the poem throughout. The lines “O thou who chariotest to their dark wintry bed/The winged seeds”; “Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams/The blue Mediterranean”; “thou, O uncontrollable!” are a few of many.