The autumnal west wind sweeps along the leaves and "wingèd seeds." The seeds will remain dormant until spring. The wind is thus a destroyer and a preserver. The west wind also sweeps along storm clouds. It is the death song of the year. With the night that closes the year will come rain, lightning, and hail; there will be storms in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The poet pleads with the west wind to endow him with some of its power, for he feels depressed and helpless. If he were possessed of some of the power of the west wind, he would be inspired to write poetry which the world would read and by which it would be spiritually renewed, just as the renewal which is spring succeeds the dormancy of winter.
Shelley appended a note to the "Ode to the West Wind" when it appeared in the Prometheus Unbound volume in 1820: "This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains. They began, as I foresaw, at sunset with a violent tempest of hail and rain, attended by that magnificent thunder and lightning peculiar to the Cisalpine regions."
The note is interesting in that it shows that the poem came out of a specific experience. The imagery of the poem suggests a natural phenomenon that is observed while it is taking place. The fact that it was written near Florence, Dante's city, may explain why Shelley used terza nina, the stanza of Dante's Divine Comedy, but rare in English poetry, in the ode. Terza nina is a series of triplets with interlocking rhymes, aba, bcb, cdc, etc. Shelley modified the pattern by ending each of the five sections of the poem with a climactic couplet. In keeping with his terza nina stanza, he concentrates on the effects of the west wind on three classes of objects: leaves, clouds, and water. The combination of terza nina and the threefold effect of the west wind gives the poem a pleasing structural symmetry.
In the ode, Shelley, as in "To a Skylark" and "The Cloud," uses the poetic technique of myth, with which he had been working on a large scale in Prometheus Unbound in 1818. The west wind is a spirit, as is the skylark. It possesses great powers and for this very reason Shelley can pray to it for what he feels he is deeply in need of. He falls "upon the thorns of life," he bleeds; a "heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed" him. It was Shelley's belief that poetry, by appealing to the imagination, could stir the reader to action in a given direction. With Shelley, this direction was liberty and democracy. In Prometheus Unbound, he sketched the wonderful world of freedom that he dreamed of; readers, fascinated by Shelley's glowing descriptions, would be stimulated to want such a world too.
Unfortunately, readers seemed uninterested in his poetry, and democracy was not making progress in the Europe of 1819, when he wrote the poem. Shelley was profoundly discouraged, chained and bowed by a "heavy weight of hours." If he had the power possessed by his west wind's mythical divinity, readers would listen and freedom would prosper. "Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit / Be thou me, impetuous one! . . . Scatter . . . my words among mankind! / Be through my lips to unawakened earth / The trumpet of a prophecy!" By using the poetic device of myth, Shelley is able to indulge in wish-thinking without seeming to and, at the same time, he can strengthen the virtue of hope in himself. The poem ends optimistically: "O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" Freedom will grow, no matter what obstacles there may be, and Shelley's words will help it grow.
Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" is a good example of Shelley's poetic mind at work, and when it is at work, it is heaping up similes and metaphors. It is Shelley's extravagant fondness for metaphorical language that makes him all too often obscure and his subject matter thin. He is prone to be swept away by words, to be mastered by them, rather than to be a master of them. The leaves are driven from the presence of his west wind divinity "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing." The simile is not based in reality nor is it functional. No doubt it comes from Shelley's early reading, much of which consisted of pulp fiction that dealt in enchanters, demons, and all forms of the supernatural moving about in an atmosphere of horror. The wind then changes from an enchanter to a carter driving a load of wingèd seeds to "their dark wintry bed" where they will lie like corpses in their graves until they are summoned to arise by the trumpet of the spring wind. The spring wind drives sweet buds "like flocks to feed in air" just as the west wind drives the leaves. The buds are not left as buds; they are transformed into sheep.
In the second stanza, the clouds are at once leaves "shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean" and they are also "angels of rain and lightning." They are also, apparently, the "locks of the approaching storm," and they remind the poet of the locks on the head of "some fierce Maenad." The west wind is both a stream and a funeral song, and the coming night will be a huge tomb built by rain clouds carried by the wind.
In the third stanza, the west wind is the awakener of the Mediterranean Sea, lulled to sleep by its own currents and seeing in its sleep "old palaces and towers . . . overgrown with azure moss and flowers." The effect of the west wind on the Atlantic is to cut it into chasms as with a huge-bladed weapon and to inspire fear in the seaweed growing on the bottom. The contrast between the simplicity of the language in stanzas four and five, where Shelley is talking about himself, is the difference between dense jungle and treeless plain. When Shelley describes, the metaphors fall so thick and fast that the reader should perhaps simply yield without resistance to the incantation of the language. Shelley sometimes succeeds by sheer accumulation of language. Critics have noted Shelley's hypnotic power. The breathless sweep of accumulated language may perhaps be felt justifiable by the reader in a poem on a violent wind. Something which has the power of the wind is conveyed by the sheer mass of mellifluous, figurative language of the first three stanzas.