Shelley's Aesthetic of Creation and Destruction in his 'Ode to the West Wind'

Similar to other Romantics, Shelley also believed that the seeds of destruction and creation are contained each within the other. One cannot create something without destroying something else. Likewise, destruction leads to the creation of something new. As in The Rime of Ancient Mariner, after his destructive act, the Mariner gradually comes to realize the enormous consequences of his act and struggles to accept responsibility for it.

Ode to the West Wind by Shelly is a poem addressed to the west wind. It is personified both as a "Destroyer" and a "Preserver". It is seen as a great power of nature that destroys in order to create, that kills the unhealthy and the decaying to make way for the new and the fresh. Shelley believes that without destruction, life can not continue. The personification of the wind as both "preserver" and "destroyer" furthers this hypothesis.

Shelley creates a nature- myth in Ode to the West Wind. He envisions the West Wind as a devastating force that has the strength to destroy the evils of the existing society and preserves the good thing of it. He sees it as a symbol of destruction and preservation, decay and regeneration death and resurrection. He invokes the West Wind to free his “dead thoughts” in order to prophecy a Renaissance among humanity “to quicken a new birth”.
In the beginning of the poem we find the destructive loon of the West wind.

In the first stanza of the poem the poet addresses the west wind as "Wild" and the "Breath of Autumn's Being." It is a powerful force which drives the dead leaves which are yellow, black, pale and hectic red, to distant places like ghosts from an enchanter. The west wind carries winged seeds to their dark wintry beds underground.

“Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,”

The first movement of the poem is the clearing of the leaves of the previous year’s growth by mighty West Wind. The second movement of the poem is the West Wind’s preserving function, to clear the seeds to their wintry bed. Along with the dead leaves the West Wind scatters the seeds and covers them with dust. When the spring comes, the scattered seeds beget new plants. The new plants with their luxuriant foliage and flowers of bring colors and odors fill the landscape. Thus the nature gets a new life and a new look. Hence, the West Wind is a destroyer as well as a preserver. Symbolically, the dead leaves are the old customs and beliefs. The West Wind preserves the new ways of thoughts and new patterns of life that flourish in he new generation.

The attitude of Shelly’s mind is reflected in such characterization of the West Wind. In practical life he was keenly dissatisfied with the existing order of society. He uses four kinds of colors namely “yellow”, “black”, “pale” and “hectic red” in order to characterize the “leaves dead.” The colors are the colors of human diseases. “The leaves dead” also symbolize all the aged practices, customs, traditions, institutions, rites and rituals. Shelley wants the destruction of the old mode of thoughts like the dead leaves and preservation of new ideas and patterns. He logically finds a resemblance between his own nature and that of the West Wind.

Shelley further develops his idea in the forthcoming stanzas. He envisions that the invisible West Wind scatters the clouds in the sky. These clouds are the signals of the coming rain. Rain carries away all the evils from the nature and brings a new look change. Shelley hopes that his “rain” of thoughts would cause a regeneration among mankind sweeping away all the unjust. Thus, Shelley’s great passion for the regeneration of mankind and rebirth of a new world finds a fitting expression in the West Wind.

By the expression “the dome of a vast sepulchre” Shelley here refers to the closing night which will serve as the dome of a vast tomb, in which the closing year will be buried. The accumulated water vapors also make the roof over the dying year and the atmosphere seems to be solid because of thick layers of dense clouds. The point is that Wind operates with the same and single point agenda: it destroys the dead and preserves the living.

In the third stanza the realm of the ruling West Wind is the sea, both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and both the surface and the vegetation beneath. Shelley here has personified the Mediterranean, which perhaps in its sleep is dreaming of destruction of the palaces. During summer the Mediterranean and the Roman palaces and, the towers which remain submerged, are all quiet as if they seem to be sleeping because no storms appear to ruffle the surface of the sea in that season. But the wind agitates the sea and the palaces seem to quiver on account of the tremendous motion of the waves.

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!

This may be easily taken for allusions to Shelley’s hope for political change in Italy, for the collapse of the kings and kingdoms. Shelley here must have tried to bring home a political philosophy. The old palaces and towers symbolize corrupt, degenerate and old power, old order and institutions. All these should be destroyed, the poet dreams along with the sea, in order to make way for new beginning.

As the scene shifts to the Atlantic, “the somnolent summer yields to the ruthless autumn”. The reader is taken not only to the Atlantic, where its smooth surface has turned into a deep waves, but under it, where woods and foliage are forced to dispossess themselves of foliage upon hearing the Wind’s voice.

As an idealist and as an extremely sensitive soul, Shelley was in much distress to see mankind exploited and being dehumanized by the corrupt, degenerate and old political powers and institutions. He wanted to see mankind reach an ideal state of life based on fraternity, equality and democracy. And that is why he was seeking revolution, which he refers to as his “sore need”. He wishes that if he were a leaf rather than a human being the West Wind or the revolutionary force could carry him like dead leaves. The West Wind is uncontrollable and possesses unlimited freedom though he is not as free as the West Wind. The poet says:-

“Oh! Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”

His revolt is against the bond of human existence which makes life helpless, weak and miserable. The poet feels suffocated with the burden of life and desires relief from it. He appeals to the West Wind to raise him as wave, a leaf or a cloud. He thinks that the West Wind has the power to bring a revolutionary spirit in the poet. He prays to the West Wind to life him out of his social bondage and urges it to scatter revolutionary usage for a better social change in the world.

Again, the poet worships the West Wind to treat him as its lyre just as it treats the forest, which means that the poet wants to bring a harmonious tune in the course of human life. The poet thinks that his life has become gray, dull and barren. He appeals to the West Wind to be his spirit and drive away all dead thoughts. He also wants to announce the invitation to build the world in new form and design. Only the West Wind can do this by the poet. Shelly expresses the hope that his dead thoughts will quicken a new birth and bring about a new condition of human life. Thus the poem ends with a note of hope and optimism: -

O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

It becomes clear that the poet invokes the example of the operations of the west wind in nature because, in turn, he wants to spread his message of resurrection through this poem. Thus Shelley’s West Wind is a “spirit” “the Breath of autumn’s beings” which on earth, sky and sea destroys in the autumn to revivify in the spring.