“Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelly and “Ode on Melancholy” by John Keats speak about two very different topics, the juxtaposing characteristics of nature and overcoming sadness respectively. However, both poems come to the same conclusion that every good experience comes with something bad and undoubtedly, after every bad phase, we will be blessed with something good. “Ode on Melancholy” is one of the five greatest odes by Keats; however this is by far the poet’s most mature take on sadness.
Previously, in his poems like “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, the poet expresses his desire to escape from his grief. But in this poem, the poet urges himself and the readers to look past sadness and discover all the joy that awaits. On the other hand, Shelley’s poem is far from Keats’s mature outlook; instead, it is violent and focused on revolution. He was born a revolutionary. He was a visionary and he wanted mankind to have hope and be optimistic of the change and the revolution that was incoming to change their lives for the absolute best. In this ode, Shelley desires to give this message to his readers; this poem is a manifestation of the optimism he wants to harbor in our hearts.
Both poems convey the same idea of a bad experience ending with something good coming out of it. In “Ode to the West Wind”, the duality of the wind’s power is emphasized all throughout the poem; the wind is simultaneously gentle and destructive. In the second stanza the poet writes, “Yellow and black, and pale, and hectic red/ Pestilence-stricken multitudes”, the use of these colors and vocabularies to describe the leaves, creates an imagery of sickness and death. The west wind drives away these dead leaves – the things that cause hindrances to new life and to a new harvest.
The dead, dry leaves are symbolic of useless, old ideas and norms which the wind gets rid of in order to make room for new, revolutionary ideas. Furthermore, to add to the idea of the wind being a symbol of change, the poet also explicitly describes the wind to have juxtaposing qualities of a destroyer as well as a preserver, “Destroyer and Preserver, hear, oh hear!” Interestingly, Destroyer and Preserver are traditional names given to Hindu Gods, Shiva and Vishnu respectively.
The west wind combines the two opposite figures to emphasize that good and bad always concurrently; one is incomplete without the other. This gives a message of hope that every bad episode of our lives will end in us finding peace and joy. Additionally, by apostrophizing the west wind here, the poet compares the wind to God which highlights its strength and power. On the other hand, in “Ode on a Melancholy”, the poet begins dramatically with “No, no” which immediately makes this ode different from all of his other odes, because the poet demands action rather than contemplation right away.
This poem urges its readers to avoid harming oneself or dwelling in grief thus reflecting a lot of modern self-help ideas written in self-help guide which resonates well with contemporary readers. Instead, the poet asks us to “glut thy sorrow”, that is, to feed our souls with the beauty of even a simple “morning rose” or of a globe of “peony”.
The poet urges us to embrace these subtle forms of nature because even when we are drowned in grief, nature will evoke positive emotions within us. Instead of “numbing” our pain, Keats asks us to use that pain as an inspiration to look into the smallest aspects of nature and those we love, “feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes”.
This line also emphasizes love and sensual desire. Out of melancholy comes a unique opportunity to experience soulful love in a lover’s eyes. Keats suggests that instead of taking a lover for granted, melancholy will teach us how to appreciate the lover because we’ll learn how to cherish small, intimate moments. The semantic field of feeding here, “glut”, and “feed” not only emphasizes the poet’s message to fill ourselves with positivity but it also highlights how the poet wants us to feed our sorrows in order to keep it alive. This idea connects back to the poet’s argument that melancholy is a fundamental part of beauty, joy and pleasure and hence, in order to fully appreciate even the smallest joys in life, we need to embrace melancholy.
Both of these poems regard sorrow and destruction as a transitory period of our lives. “Ode on Melancholy” looks at the transient beauty of nature and compares that to sadness whereas “Ode to the West Wind” looks at the seasons of winter and spring where one inevitably rolls into another season thus, suggesting that death and destruction too is simply a temporary season of life.
Both poets argue that because these are such temporary periods, we should always be hopeful for a better future. Shelley writes “…thou breathe of autumn’s being”, autumn is a transitional season when all the beauty and color of summer begins to fade. So whenever the speaker thinks of the west wind, he pictures it driving away all the beauty and sweetness of summer and bring with it death, decay and extreme weather.
Yet, Shelley celebrates the west wind and welcomes the destruction it brings along with it because he knows this will soon lead to rebirth and renewal. This idea is supported further in the last line, “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” In order to experience the rejuvenation and the colorful beauty of spring, one needs to learn to accept the powerful, destructive force of the mighty west wind. Similarly, in “Ode on Melancholy”, when the poet describes nature in the second stanza, he describes its beauty as being temporary.
He talks about a “morning rose”, which wilts by evening, he talks about “rainbows” which eventually fade away and he talks about peonies which will die as the season passes. Thus, the speaker argues that people should embrace their melancholy by bearing witness to the most melancholic fact of all: that the greatest beauty in the world is by its very nature temporary, and that’s why beauty contains and even intensifies melancholy.
This highlights the message that even though the beauty of nature is transient, we always stop and appreciate that beauty nonetheless. Similarly, in life, even though not all happiness comes to last, we must always appreciate them and also welcome the sorrow that may come afterward because surely those too will end in us finding joy.
While most romantic poems indulge and dwell in sadness, these two poems stand out because of the hopeful message they send out-to brave through every episode of sadness. Grief and sorrow are universal emotions for which using them to send out rays of hope was an excellent choice by both Shelley and Keats because this message will surely affect readers of all ages.
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