Ineffectual in Purgatory: Confidence and Anxiety in “Ode to the West Wind”

In 1819, the Shelleys were residing in Florence, Italy and, after quickly reconnecting with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley had renewed inspiration to write. “Ode to the West Wind” emphasizes Shelley’s sadness at being separate from the political and social turmoil of his home. Because Shelley is so politically and socially radical, his time away from the centers of this activity depresses him as he resigns himself to his powerlessness in the countryside. Through “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley gives the west wind spiritual significance in his purgatory-like existence as he dually asserts his intellectual confidence while bemoaning the loss to society should he never be able to share it.

In this poem, Shelley repeatedly calls to the west wind to help him spread his knowledge. When he says, “If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear; If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee,” he utilizes a popular Romantic strategy of postulating and speaking directly to nature (43-44). In doing this, Shelley not only seems desperate to be reunited with a place where his opinions can be heard, but also seems mildly presumptuous in assuming that the west wind thinks his ideas are important enough for natural intervention. In personifying this aspect of nature, Shelley is creating a strong entity to be bent by his will. But additionally, in considering the positive aspects of being an inanimate object that the wind can carry, Shelley seems to be objectifying himself. This is echoed when he says, “Make me a lyre” (57). The Romantics viewed the Aeolian harp as a passive way to experience the transcendent power of nature (“Aeolian Harps and…”). In expressing a desire for the west wind to turn him into this object, Shelley is emphasizing his Romantic nature and his wish to experience what he considers to be the essence of nature. If he was the harp, the wind could blow through him and spread his music, or ideas. This is a passive way to spread his ideas, almost placing him in a bystander role. This hypothetical and impossible situation allows him to be removed from the unrest in England while still espousing his opinions. It is almost as if he does not care about the state of his physical form so long as the spirit of his ideas can be passed on to the rest of the world. He wants his intellect to make lasting changes and understands the temporality of his body in comparison to the eternal nature of his mind. As an atheist, he may not believe in the idea of body and soul, but he certainly seems to subscribe to the idea of body and mind. He could live forever with the widespread reading of his works and ideas, while his body is decidedly mortal. With this in mind, the desperation he feels to be making an intellectual difference in his home becomes more understandable, as his writings in the countryside are not immediately viewed and regarded by the people of England.

Another piece in this desperation lies in his fear of not living for much longer. As the Longman Anthology cites, Percy Shelley died in 1922, only three years after writing this poem. While his death was sudden and unexpected, the audience can see some preeminent fear when he writes, “What if my leaves are falling like its own?” (58). He appears to carry some fear that his death is coming and he cannot see it. But this fear does not lie in the idea of a life unlived, rather in the idea of works unwritten. Shelley has so much knowledge he wants to share with the world, but mortality limits his ability to share everything he knows. The idea of dead leaves is also significant in that they are reminiscent of the seasons changing. The leaves die and fall off the trees for the harsh winter, but their removal makes room for the new leaves in spring. But also, leaves can be pages of a book. Shelley’s writings may be falling away or drying up, but if he can make it through the metaphorical winter, the spring can bring with it new ideas and new works. But this winter period where he cannot spread his knowledge weighs heavily on Shelley. When he writes, “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” there exists a feeling of desperation (70). His impatience is evident, but it is mixed with sadness. Percy Shelley lost many people he was close to preceding the writing of this poem (Longman 870). This contextually alters the tone of that final line. Spring becomes a light at the end of the tunnel, a reward for a period of suffering; yet, the majority of this poem exists in this period of suffering.

Shelley’s suffering comes from a variety of sources, but through his poem “Sonnet: England in 1819,” audiences know that the state of England was a cause of stress for him. Nearly every part of British society, from the corrupt monarchy to the degradation of religion, angers Shelley, but he views himself as the answer for these problems. When he writes, “Be through my lips to unawakened earth / The trumpet of a prophecy!” Shelley puts forth the idea that he is a prophet and that his word can change England for the better. The aura around this statement is audacious and pretentious. The use of the word “unawakened” implies an ignorance on the part of the world, as if all the problems Shelley sees in the world could be easily solved if people were paying attention. Also, Shelley comparing himself to a trumpet is another musical reference, eliciting the idea that the spreading of his knowledge is beautiful and melodic or harmonious. This comment dually asserts Shelley as believing he is intellectually superior and his Romantic tendency to intertwine knowledge and beauty. But this beautiful intellect can do nothing for the state of England when Shelley is not in England.

Shelley seems to consider the time where he cannot be in England as a kind of death. When he writes, “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,” the audience can understand what he means in two distinct ways (63). Initially, he appears to be speaking of publishing his works post-mortem, but he could easily be referring to his time out of England as a kind of death. Especially when considering he requests this of the west wind, this gives the impression that he feels trapped in a potentially purgatory-like state. He is unable to physically spread his knowledge and this fact has confined him mentally. Shelley can only express his opinion through writing and cannot directly affect the things that frustrate him. He is ineffectual this far away, and therefore feels he needs a very powerful entity to bring his ideas to England. Shelley believes that nature plays a vital part in the reception of his ideas, as can be seen in regards to the lyre and the titular west wind. Only through nature can his knowledge be heard or potentially exist.

“Ode to the West Wind” is a desperate plea of a poem, one in which Shelley can express his anguish and desperation at being a removed force on the political and social spheres in England. Because he is a Romantic, he uses beautiful language that invokes nature to portray this feeling. He idolizes the west wind because it has the freedom to move where ever it wants to go and make change. Shelley is relatively stuck, with ideas just brimming over and no one to tell them too. He has an incredible desire to be known and heard. He feels as though his ideas are vital to the righting of England, and in not being able to share them, he feels inconsequential. His brilliance is being squandered, but his ego remains nearly intact. Even though he is disconnected from English politics, he still believes he has superior knowledge and even considers himself a prophet. This desperation he feels during this period of detachment could simply be that he is not getting enough attention. Shelley wants people to care about his ideas and agree that he is brilliant. And because he is an atheist, Shelley’s only higher power he can call on during times when he feels lost is nature. The west wind becomes a God-like embodiment that can save Shelley from his purgatory where his opinions cannot affect the masses.

Works Cited

“Aeolian Harps and the Romantics.” British Literature Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.

Longman Anthology of British Literature Vol. 2a, 5th Ed., Vol. 2b, 4th Ed. and Vol. 2c, 4th Ed.

N.p.: Longman Pub Group, 2011. Print.