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Ode To The West Wind

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Overview: "Ode to the West Wind"

Introduction

"Ode to the West Wind" was first published in 1820 in Shelley's collection Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems. In his prefatory note to the poem, Shelley wrote: "This poem was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence, [Italy] and on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapors which pour down the autumnal rains." His description gives the location of the poem, but says nothing of the strained emotional circumstances in which it was composed. Four months before Shelley began writing "Ode to the West Wind" in October 1819, his son William had died; the year before, he had lost his daughter Clara. His wife Mary had consequently suffered a nervous breakdown, and he himself was plagued by ill health, creditors, rumors of illegitimate children, and the failure of his political hopes. To top it off, the public had been largely indifferent to or critical of his writings.

Explication

Lines 1-14:

In this first of the five sections of the poem, the speaker begins to define the domains and the powers of the West Wind. While stanza II addresses the wind's influence on the sky, and stanza III discusses its effects on the sea, stanza I describes the wind's effects on the land. The autumn breezes scatter dead leaves and seeds on the forest soil, where they eventually fertilize the earth and take root as new growth. Both "Destroyer and Preserver" (line 14), the wind ensures the cyclical regularity of the seasons. These themes of regeneration and the interconnectedness of death and life, endings and beginnings, runs throughout "Ode to the West Wind."

The wind is, of course, more than simply a current of air. In Greek and Latin--languages with which Shelley was familiar--the words for "wind," "inspiration," "soul," and "spirit" are all related. Shelley's "West Wind" thus seems to symbolize an inspiring spiritual power that moves everywhere, and affects everything.

Lines 2-3:

These lines ostensibly suggest that, like a sorcerer might frighten away spirits, the wind scatters leaves. But one might also interpret "leaves dead" as forgotten books, and "ghosts" as writers of the past; in this sense, the winds of inspiration make way for new talent and ideas by driving away the memories of the old.

Lines 4-5:

The colors named here might simply indicate the different shades of the leaves, but it is also possible to interpret the leaves as symbols of humanity's dying masses. In this analysis, the colors represent different cultures: Asian, African, Caucasian, and Native American. This idea is supported by the phrase "Each like a corpse within its grave" in line 8 that could indicate that each person takes part in the natural cycle of life and death.

Lines 6-7:

Here, the wind is described as a chariot that carries leaves and seeds to the cold earth. This comparison gives the impression that the wind has some of the aspects of those who are associated with chariots--gods and powerful rulers.

Line 8:

The leaves are personified as people within their graves, an image that harkens back to lines 4 and 5, where the leaves are considered as diseased "multitudes" of people.

Lines 9-12:

In Greek and Roman mythology, the spring west wind was masculine, as was the autumnal wind. Here, the speaker refers to the spring wind as feminine, perhaps to stress its role as nurturer and life-giver. She is pictured as awakening Nature with her energetic "clarion," which is a type of medieval trumpet.

Lines 13-14:

At the conclusion of the first stanza, the speaker identifies the wind as the powerful spirit of nature that incorporates both destruction and continuing life. In fact, these two processes are said to be related; without destruction, life cannot continue. At the end of line 14 is the phrase "Oh hear!" that will be repeated at the end of stanzas 2 and 3. This refrain emphasizes sound, which seems appropriate given that wind, an invisible force, is the poem's central subject.

Lines 15-28:

In stanza II, the wind helps the clouds shed rain, as it had helped the trees shed leaves in stanza I. Just as the dead foliage nourishes new life in the forest soil, so does the rain contribute to Nature's regenerative cycle.

Lines 16-18:

This passage has been heavily attacked by critics like F. R. Leavis for its lack of concreteness and apparently disconnected imagery; others have cited Shelley's knowledge of science, and the possibility that these poetic phrasings might indeed be based on natural fact. The loose clouds, for example, are probably cirrus clouds, harbingers (or "angels" as it is put in line 18) of rain. As the leaves of stanza I have been shed from boughs, these clouds have been shaken from the heavier cloud masses, or "boughs of Heaven and Ocean" (line 17). In Latin, "cirrus" means "curl" or "lock of hair"; it is thus appropriate that these clouds resemble a Maenad 's "bright hair" (line 20) and are referred to as the "locks of the approaching storm" (line 23).

Lines 20-23:

When Shelley was in Florence, he saw a relief sculpture of four maenads. These worshipers of the Roman god of wine and vegetation, Bacchus (in Greek mythology , Dionysus ) were wild, dancing women with streaming hair. Here, the speaker compares the appearance of the cirrus clouds streaked across the horizon with the maenads' blown tresses. This image seems especially appropriate in that Bacchus/Dionysus is associated with the natural world and the wind and clouds are primary elements of nature.

Lines 23-28:

The wail of the wind is compared to a song of grief, as if it were mourning the "dying" year. As the year draws to a close, Nature prepares for the funeral. The coming night is described as a "sepulcher," a burial tomb that will be marked by lightning and hail from a storm. This last day will end in darkness,

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