Shelley wrote Ode to the West Wind in 1819 while living in Florence, Italy. To be exact, when he published the poem with his unperformable play Prometheus Unbound in 1820, he claimed in a footnote to have written this poem while sitting in the woods near the Arno River on a windy day in October. Although he loved Italy, he was feeling depressed about being detached from the political and social scene back in his native England. Many critics have suggested that Ode to the West Wind relates to that sense of powerlessness.
As a political, religious, and literary radical, Shelley was heavily invested in his own ability to influence society. Some poets need solitude and privacy and a retreat in the woods to do their best work, but Shelley needed stimulating arguments and social action. “Ode to the West Wind” is one of the poems in which he considers the role and power of the poet or philosopher to spread new ideas and effect change. It’s also, though you might find this difficult to believe, one of Shelley’s more accessible poems.
Its brevity, smooth tone, and straightforward use of natural imagery present his abstract ideas about philosophy and poetry in a compact way. Feels like it is Shelley’s own summary of himself, or at least one aspect of himself. He is probably the most difficult of the Romantic poets to fall in love with. Luckily, he’s not the most difficult poet. He’s hard to love, but not too hard to understand. What are we talking about?
Well, you may have heard from someone, like an English teacher, that good poetry has certain characteristics: it’s concrete instead of abstract; it’s detailed instead of general; it’s visceral instead of spiritual. Basically, what we think of as a “good poem” these days just isn’t one of the abstract flights of fancy that you tend to get from the neo-Platonic, head-in-the-clouds Percy Bysshe Shelley. It’s not that Shelley doesn’t use detailed imagery or powerful language, because he does.
If you wrote, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! ” in a poem today, though, and sent it off to a prestigious magazine like The New Yorker, its poetry editors would laugh so hard they’d spray double-shot cappuccino out their noses. That’s if they didn’t recognize it as Shelley, which we hope they would. Anyway, the point is that it’s not hard to get what Shelley means with this “thorns of life” stuff. Life’s tough, and it’s getting to him, and the speaker of his poem is exclaiming about it.
But it’s hard to understand, well, why we should care about a poet who can be so melodramatic. Here’s the thing about Shelley’s “melodrama,” though: it happens because he’s brutally honest all the time. If he feels like his life is fading away and his ideas stink, he’ll tell you. If he worries that his poetic philosophy isn’t having the effect he hopes for, he’ll admit it. And if he feels like being alive is akin to being pricked all over with tiny sharp things and having your lifeblood slowly oozing out all over, well, he’ll tell you that, too.
His passions are right on the surface. He sees no point in beating around the bush. He’s not going to pretend. More than any other poet, Shelley will throw you right into his emotional depths and let you sink or swim. We have a special respect for that kind of honesty and intensity. Unfortunately, Shelley’s frankness about his feelings just isn’t where it’s at for us today in our A? ber-ironic world. Sometimes Shelley seems like he has no sense of humor. It’s hard for us even to say, “I fall upon the thorns of life! with a straight face. Luckily, Shelley doesn’t just tell us how he feels.
He connects his feelings to larger philosophical and social problems and tries to understand them in a global context. Sure, this might be a little egocentric “ literally “ but it’s way more interesting than being emo-centric. Shelley balances his emotional intensity with attention to the grand sweep of nature, philosophy, and everything else. He’s the only poet we know who does it so well, so sit back and enjoy as you start figuring out how it works.