Structural Commentary — Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley

What’s this? Another ode? You may be wondering what my fascination with this form is. I acknowledge that by having two of the same form of poetry in a row could give this blog a one-note feel to it, but I can explain! You see, we analyzed John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” in class, and I wanted to explore it further. The reason I stumbled upon this gem by Percy Bysshe Shelley is because I was editing a piece (you guessed it, it was an ode) for a portfolio submission and came across this article from Web Exhibit’s Poetry Through the Ages site.

As someone who knows an underwhelming amount of poetry, I’m so excited to find more. So while “Ode to the West Wind” may be considered Shelley’s masterpiece, I’m new to the game and couldn’t wait to learn more.

Not to mention, apparently Shelley and Keats were fans of one another. Shelley even wrote an elegy after Keats’s death. So instead of seeing this as creating a theme for my blog, I’m going to see it as a nice, serendipitous transition.

Also, can we talk about how he was prettier than I am? Seriously. A very pretty man. Why.

I’m not salty. (Image from here)

Without further ado, let’s get into the structure!

Overall Structure

First, this poem is an example of a Horatian Ode, which basically means you create the structural rules and patterns. The other type of ode is a Pindaric Ode, which is the traditional Greek ode. I’ll get into that later.

Shelley breaks his ode into five parts, each with four stanzas followed by a final couplet. The parts are labeled with Roman Numerals, and from what I can find, this means it is a numeral poem. I’m still learning, so I might correct this later. We’ll see.

Rhyme Scheme

The general rhyme scheme is ababcbcdcdedee. It alternates by row. Observe from Part I:


Line Rhyme Scheme
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being, A
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead B
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, A
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, B
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, C
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed B
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low, C
Each like a corpse within its grave, until D
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow C
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill D
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) E
With living hues and odours plain and hill: D
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; E
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh hear! E

Note: there are stanza breaks after lines 3, 6, 9, and 12.

An especially interesting thing about the rhyme scheme in this poem is that in parts I, II, and III, the E lines have the same end rhyme. These are the 11th, 13th, and 14th lines of the parts respectively. I’ll list them below:
I. air/everywhere/hear
II. sepulchre/atmosphere/hear
III. wear/fear/hear
And notice, they all end with “oh hear!” The repetition emphasizes the action of listening to the West Wind. The couplets are usually describing sounds, so this makes sense, but I also couldn’t help being reminded of the common 17th/18th century phrase: “Hear, hear!” In which a crowd or a person beckons the others to listen to the person speaking. It was shortened from “Hear him, hear him!” and I get the feeling Shelley is beckoning the reader to do so to the wind and to the ode itself.

This pattern is broken in parts IV and V:
IV. cloud/bow’d/proud
V. mankind/Wind/behind
Which draws the eyes to this sudden split from the repetition. In these parts of the poem, Shelley discusses how the Wind is something to be revered and feared, that it’s bigger than mankind, that it makes nature itself shake in fear, and I think the break in pattern is very interesting.

Syllables and Meter

The lines, in central tendency, are 10 syllables in length, with a couple lines breaking into 11 or 12 syllables. Its pretty consistent throughout though. Plus, I find the challenge with reading pieces that are a couple centuries old is that language evolves, so those lines might very well be 10 syllables and I’m simply “mispronouncing” them.

It also appears that most of the poem is written in iambic pentameter—

Wait a minute.

10 syllables. Iambic pentameter. Regular rhyme scheme. A couplet following a volta?

Could it be?

This ode is built out of five sonnets!!

Shelley, you’re wild.

So there are my structural findings! I really enjoyed looking at this one. If you have a poem you’d like me to do next, be sure to let me know in the contact section of this blog. Share this post with all your poetry loving friends, and thanks for reading!

This post is part of a series commenting on the structure of poetry. Interpretation and analysis for this poem is coming soon.

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