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Wind, from "Ode to the West Wind," by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Subthemes: Weather, Comfort, Speed and Direction,

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” likens the powers and grandeur of the Autumn Wind – Wild spirit – to his own overwrought genius. He sees himself as kindred, as tameless, and swift, and proud. Depressed by the world, he wrestles with the paradox of wind: Destroyer and preserver. But Shelley summons the image of the mighty and transformative Autumn wind to convey the power of his words among mankind if they could be spread around the world. This beautiful and laden poem suggests several aspects of Wind.

I
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear!

II
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aëry surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh hear!

III
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh hear!

IV
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem’d a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As 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!

A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

V
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Weather: The second stanza of the poem sketches weather with windy references such as Angels of rain and lightning as well as Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst. Our local weather depends crucially on wind flows. Currents of air can lead to parched land or flooded land; they can disperse smog or tiptoe in fog, or can clog us with dust and perfume the air. Thunderstorms, hail, tornadoes and blizzards, thermal inversions and polar vertexes are all wind-borne or wind-caused. Wind spreads above us heat domes and Loose clouds. Updrafts of warm humid air burden those clouds that cool and condense the water which then “droppeth as the gentle rains from heaven.” What we feel, see and hear when we step outside we owe to wind.

Comfort: Thank goodness for the cooling boon of the wind! Languid waving fronds refreshed Cleopatra. Breezes evaporating a wet cloth hung at a window cooled people years ago, before electricity powered fans, ceiling fans and air conditioners. Air conditioning would confer no relief without the artificially chilled air blowing through our buildings. In the U.S., the South thrives because of, indeed could hardly function in the summer without, vast streams of chilled wind. Now too, handheld fans that run on batteries spritz and cool us individually.

Besides keeping us from over-heating, blown air clears the noxious fumes out of tunnels. Leaf blowers’ raucous breaths tidy yards across the country as mechanized West Winds in whose

presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.

We could add ventilators in hospitals to the comforts of wind, although that is a stretch, and perhaps clothes dryers. The artificial winds that we can command makes our lives much more comfortable.

Speed and Direction: Given how influential wind is for many human activities, no wonder we carefully measure its speed and direction. Wikipedia tells us that “An anemometer is a device used for measuring wind speed and direction. … The term is derived from the Greek word “anemos,” which means wind … The first known description of an anemometer was given by Leon Battista Alberti in 1450.” Meteorologists calculate the timing of weather based on wind speed and direction. Windsocks flutter at every airport so that pilots and controllers can see the wind’s direction and approximate velocity. Weathervanes spin atop houses and helmsmen keenly track the mast’s wind wand.

At least one answer is blowin’ in the wind. We feel colder if there is wind. Called “wind chill,” the effect applies only below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and when the wind moves 3 mph or faster. The equation is complex. Much more on what meteorologists can measure regarding the wind is at Weather Station Guide.

 

Shelley captures many aspects of wind: defrocking trees of their leaves, tumbling clouds through the firmament, welling up waves in the ocean, hurrying seeds to their planting. The atmospheric oceans and rivulets create weather; they comfort us or blast us. Scientists have studied thermodynamic flows for centuries and continue to learn more about forecasting the weather.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept “Wind,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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