A first-person persona addresses the west wind in five stanzas. It is strong and fearsome. In the first stanza, the wind blows the leaves of autumn. In the second stanza, the wind blows the clouds in the sky. In the third stanza, the wind blows across an island and the waves of the sea. In the fourth stanza, the persona imagines being the leaf, cloud, or wave, sharing in the wind’s strength. He desires to be lifted up rather than caught low on “the thorns of life,” for he sees himself as like the wind: “tameless, and swift, and proud.” In the final stanza, he asks the wind to play upon him like a lyre; he wants to share the wind’s fierce spirit. In turn, he would have the power to spread his verse throughout the world, reawakening it.
The poet is directing his speech to the wind and all that it has the power to do as it takes charge of the rest of nature and blows across the earth and through the seasons, able both to preserve and to destroy all in its path. The wind takes control over clouds, seas, weather, and more. The poet offers that the wind over the Mediterranean Sea was an inspiration for the poem. Recognizing its power, the wind becomes a metaphor for nature’s awe-inspiring spirit. By the final stanza, the speaker has come to terms with the wind’s power over him, and he requests inspiration and subjectivity. He looks to nature’s power to assist him in his work of poetry and prays that the wind will deliver his words across the land and through time as it does with all other objects in nature.
The form of the poem is consistent in pattern. Each stanza is fourteen lines in length, using the rhyming pattern of aba bcb cdc ded ee. This is called terza rima, the form used by Dante in his Divine Comedy.
Keeping in mind that this is an ode, a choral celebration, the tone of the speaker understandably includes excitement, pleasure, joy, and hope. Shelley draws a parallel between the seasonal cycles of the wind and that of his ever-changing spirit. Here, nature, in the form of the wind, is presented, according to Abrams “as the outer correspondent to an inner change from apathy to spiritual vitality, and from imaginative sterility to a burst of creative power.”
Thematically, then, this poem is about the inspiration Shelley draws from nature. The “breath of autumn being” is Shelley’s atheistic version of the Christian Holy Spirit. Instead of relying on traditional religion, Shelley focuses his praise around the wind’s role in the various cycles in nature—death, regeneration, “preservation,” and “destruction.” The speaker begins by praising the wind, using anthropomorphic techniques (wintry bed, chariots, corpses, and clarions) to personalize the great natural spirit in hopes that it will somehow heed his plea. The speaker is aware of his own mortality and the immortality of his subject. This drives him to beg that he too can be inspired (“make me thy lyre”) and carried (“be through my lips to unawakened earth”) through land and time.
The first two stanzas are mere praise for the wind’s power, covered in simile and allusion to all that which the wind has the power to do: “loosen,” “spread,” “shed,” and “burst.” In the fourth and fifth stanzas, the speaker enters into the poem, seeking (hoping) for equal treatment along with all other objects in nature, at least on the productive side. The poet offers humility in the hope that the wind will assist him in achieving his quest to “drive [his] dead thoughts over the universe.” Ultimately, the poet is thankful for the inspiration he is able to draw from nature’s spirit, and he hopes that it will also be the same spirit that carries his words across the land where he also can be a source of inspiration.