Romanticism and Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"
M.H. Abrams wrote, "The Romantic period was eminently an age obsessed with fact of violent change" ("Revolution" 659). And Percy Shelley is often thought of as the quintessential Romantic poet (Appelbaum x). The "Ode to the West Wind" expresses perfectly the aims and views of the Romantic period.
Shelley's poem expresses the yearning for Genius. In the Romantic era, it was common to associate genius with an attendant spirit or force of nature from which the genius came; the Romantics perceived the artist as a vessel through which the genius flows. For instance, in "A Defence of Poetry," Shelley says that poets are
the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of
the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present . . .
In "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley implores the West Wind, a powerful force of nature that Shelley identifies with his rapidly-changing reality, to "lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!" He also expresses his almost-melancholy wish that he could be as
I were in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven (Ode 815)
"Ode to the West Wind" invokes the attendant spirit from which Genius comes to grant Creativity also. "If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear," he pleads, "If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee" (Ode 815). In the fifth section, he begs the West Wind (which he identifies with himself early in the section) to
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth,
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! (Ode 815)
Again, Shelley is asking the force that provides inspiration to act through him.
"Ode to the West Wind" also expresses the hungering for Imagination. Not only does Shelley want the force to make him the "trumpet of a prophecy" (Ode 815), but he also is trying to forge a oneness with the West Wind in the middle of the fifth section ("Be thou, Spirit fierce, / My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!"). A common Romantic notion was the idea that Imagination was the side of the mind that allowed a person to forge a link with someone or something.
Another of the central ideas of the Romantic literary figures was the inherent value of the "primitive and untrammeled" (Revolution 657). Shelley fills the third section of "Ode to the West Wind" with images of innocence and serenity. Descriptions of "azure moss and flowers," "sea-blooms," and "oozy woods" dominate this part of the poem.
The fifth section also expresses Shelley's belief that the quest for beauty is important. At the beginning of the fifth section, Shelley conjures the wind to "make me thy lyre" (Ode 815). The lyre is one of few instruments which existed in the seventeenth century which had taken the same form since ancient Greece. It is a symbol of art and beauty; it is also a frequent symbol for the artist being played by inspiration (Ode 815).
What is perhaps most important is that...