Critically analyse Shelley’s use of imagery in his “ode to the west wind.”
Literarily imagery means imaginative language that produces pictures in the mind of people reading or listening. It refers to visual pictures of other sensory experiences evoked by the writer. It conveys word pictures. It evokes an imaginative, emotional response, as well as providing a vivid, specific description. Its application ranges all the way from the “mental pictures” experienced by the reader of a poem, to the totality of the elements which make up the poem. It is used, narrowly, to signify only descriptions of visible objects and scenes. P. B. Shelley’s poems are full of fine word paintings. At times he presents these pictures with details at once simple and sumptuous and characterized by graphic certainty. The images that Shelley often gives in his lyrics are of light, wind, cloud and water, seaweeds and flowers, the bright and beautiful things of air and sea, unsullied by the debasing touch of man or his machine. His images are often highly daring, sweeping and drawn on a large scale. The best example is found in the images in “Ode to the West Wind.”
Shelley’s this ode abounds with dazzling images (His “Ode to the West Wind” is rich in imagery. The images used here are, decorative, apt and compelling and shows the influence of Greek literary art upon him. The images are effectively used to explain the theme of the poem clearly. They are characterised by their boldness and splendour. They are simultaneously natural, scientific, mythical and even Biblical. In the first three stanzas, Shelley praises the West Wind as the great symbol of force and power, of its destructive and creative might. In the first stanza, the West Wind is the destroyer of leaves and of seeds which are buried under the earth in autumn and in winter to be regenerated in spring The same theme is repeated in the second stanza, where this praise and invocation is continued with the change-over to the description of the Wind as a bringer of clouds, vapours, rain, hail and lightning. In the third stanza, the praise and description of the wind as the source of power and thought rise to a crescendo, with the twin images of the exertion of the force of the wind. In the fourth stanza there is an outpouring of his anguish and suffering, which culminates almost into a shriek of agony in the image:
“I fall upon the throne of life! I bleed!”
In the last stanza comes the mighty prophecy of Hope and Faith on the triumph of love and spirit over tyranny and forces of darkness.
In the first stanza, the Wind sweeps away withered leaves of trees as quickly and mysteriously as ghosts vanish from the presence of a magician. The ghosts. symbolize death, which image is further enlarged upon, the use of the sickly colour effects. The “yellow”, “black” and “pale” are colour words that give us pictures of disease, calamity and death. This death imagery reaches its climax when the fleeing, dead leaves are compared to people rushing away “pestilence stricken”. This plague is perhaps the most violent form of death imagery. The image of the “chariot” is very significant. A chariot carries a king with due ceremony; likewise, the wind conveys the seeds amidst splendid dusty displays. The images of the archangel blowing clarion are biblical.
In the second stanza, the imagery of the leaves is replaced by the human imagination. The sky is imaged as a forest on a mountain slope. It is also imaged as a tree from whose boughs the leaves are shaken down. Shelley employs the mythological image of the fierce Maenad. The dark masses of moving clouds are imaged as the glossy hair of a Macnab streaming up from her head as she dances in religious frenzy. In the second half of the stanza, the images are drawn from the world of death and destruction. The blue Mediterranean sea is placid. This is represented by the images of the sea lulled to sleep and dream by “the coil of his crystalline streams”. These images are expressive of Shelley’s high imaginative power.
There are two main images in the third stanza. The placid Mediterranean in summer is imaged as asleep, dreaming of old palaces and towers. The underwater vegetation shedding the leaves is imaged as a man losing his glowing appearance when fears grip him. In the fourth stanza, the autumnal forest is imaged as a lyre. The poet brings in the images of a dying hearth to describe his mind. He compares his mind to a hearth. The poem ends with the image of the cycle of seasons of spring following on the heels of winter. This image is suggestive of the autumnal decay and the barrenness of winter, making the world desolate.
The poem is remarkable for the kaleidoscopic fertility of images. Shelley has presented before us many images in quick succession. Shelley here presents evocative descriptions of the West Wind, enacting its drama on the three levels of Nature – the land, the sky and the sea. The telescoping of the images that can be noticed here gives the poem a beauty of its own. The images add to the beauty and excellence of this poem.
Shelley shows his special interest in using the image of musical instruments. In this poem, the forest is a lyre on which the wind plays mighty harmonies. The poet appeals to the wind to make him his lyre. He asserts the essential harmony existing between humanity and nature, with all living things participating in the oneness of the universe. The poem ends with the image of dreary winter followed by spring which symbolizes regeneration.