Ode to the West Wind: Terza Rima

Share this essay on:

Terza Rima is the poetic form used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, and it is frequently said to have been invented by him, though its origins have been variously traced to the Provençal sirventes and the early Sicilian antecedents of the sonnet.  It has been used in English since the fourteenth century.  Chaucer, who visited Italy in 1373, used the form in his “Complaint to His Lady,” perhaps having learned it from Dante’s Divina Comedia and from Petrarch’s trionfi.

 

Before going any further, we need to define a few terms so we can discuss the form with some precision.  A stanza is a group of lines with a set form which may function as part of a larger poem, or which may stand by itself as a complete poem.  Terza rima [third rhyme] is a way of interlocking tercets [ter-thrice], three-line stanzas.  Since it may continue for any length, it is not, strictly speaking, a stanza form (just as “blank verse” is not a stanza form).  If you look only at the final rhyming word in each line, and assign a new letter to each sound as you come to it, a tercet of terza rima would rhyme [aba], the rhyme-sound at the end of the first line being repeated at the end of the third.  Successive stanzas are interlocked by using the middle-rhyme-sound of each tercet as the beginning and ending sound of the next; thus, terza rima has the rhyme-scheme [aba bcb cdc etc.].

 

Despite the fact that terza rima has been written in English for almost as long as it has in Italian, it is relatively uncommon.  After Chaucer it disappears, but is used by Wyatt in the sixteenth century.  It languishes again until Shelly and Byron make use of it in 1819 (they were living in Italy!), and it has been used spasmodically since, especially by some twentieth century poets such as Archibald MacLeish.  The reason most often given to explain its rarity is the paucity of rhymes in English, as compared with a Romance language like Italian.  Because the Romance languages are highly inflected, there are (as every student of Spanish or Italian knows) tables of endings to be learned.  (Italian nouns and adjectives, for example, end in “o” and “a” in the singular and “i” and ”e” in the plural.  These constitute rhymes.)

 

There is something to be said for this argument, which is also used to explain why the English sonnet is contrived to use seven rhymes for fourteen lines while the Italian sonnet uses only five.  Still, it is worth noting that a very great many Italian sonnets have been written in English, and it seems to have been the form favored by some of our greatest writers, including Milton and Wordsworth.  What is more, forty-two lines of terza rima (14 tercets) uses 15 rhymes, exactly the same number as forty-two lines of the English sonnet (three sonnets).  The real difficulty, I think, is actually the related fact that the rhymes in English are more insistent.  Two tercets of the Inferno are given below.  The lines are hendecasyllabic; that is, they have eleven syllables.  And the accented syllables in the rhyming words are the next-to-last:  [VI-ta], [-vao-SCU-ra], [smar-RI-ta], [DU-ra], [FOR-te], [pa-U-ra].  The weakly accented syllables at the end temper the rhymes, make them less assertive.  (In English, such rhymes are called feminine rhymes, and those accented on the last syllable are called masculine rhymes.)

 

English terza rima tercets are written in iambic pentameter and generally have ten syllables a line.  The iamb is a poetic foot made up of a weakly accented syllable followed by a more strongly accented one:  [dihDAH].  Pentameter [penta-five, meter-measure] means that there are five feet to the line.  Here, for comparison, are the first two tercets of Dante’s Inferno in Italian and a fairly literal English translation which preserves the form.  (In general, if a word ends in a vowel and the following word begins in one, the two vowels are run together in a single syllable, as in [-a SEL][-vao SCUR-ra] in the second line.  A linguist might not think this is adequate, but it will help give you a sense of how the lines work.)

 

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

ché la dritta via era smarrita.

 

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura

esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte

che nel pensier rinova la paura!

 

In the midst of life’s long road I fell in doubt,

finding myself in a wood of somber grey,

quite lost, and it seemed that there was no way out.

 

It’s very hard for me to even say

how vast and harsh it was, this savage wood,

the thought alone makes me to fear fall prey!

 

Why should this relative difference in the strength of the accent be important?  To begin with, as you can see from the little bit of the Inferno quoted above, each of Dante’s tercets tends to be complete in itself.  But anyone who imitates Dante closely in English will tend to create verse in which the separation of the tercets is emphasized, for the stronger accent decisively “closes” the tercets on the recognition of the repeated rhyme, and we have little sense that the middle-rhyme of the first tercet is actually the same as the outer rhymes of the second.  Thus, the poem loses something of its sense of continuity.  This would have been less of a problem for Chaucer since feminine rhymes were much more common in Middle English, but modern English abounds in masculine rhymes.  (This is one of the main difficulties in translating German poetry into English, since German rhymes tend to be feminine.)

 

In order to eliminate this problem, we must run the sense from one tercet to the next, and as it happens, there are many ways of doing this.  First of all, we can regroup the lines by punctuation into quatrains [quatr-four], which are stanzas of four lines:  [abab.  cbcd.  cded,  etc.].  We also have primary tercets and secondary tercets.  Primary tercets have the form [aba bcb cdc ded, etc], and the middle-rhyme is always a rhyming sound not heard before, but if we begin with a quatrain, it is followed by secondary tercets [abab cbc dcd ede, etc.].  Now, the middle-rhyme is a sound that has been emphatically introduced in the preceding stanza.  This can help build a sense of continuity.  Moreover, terza rima can be read as little sestets [ses-six] such as:  ababcb, cdcded, etc.].  And there are all possible combinations of these “alternative” stanzas.

 

We can also make use of a variety of devices to emphasize the middle-rhyme of a tercet.  We can, for example, invert the usual word order.  This is actually done in the last line of the English translation given above:  “makes me to fear fall prey” is less direct than “makes me fall prey to fear,” and this emphasizes the line’s end.  Another way to stress the middle-rhyme is to precede it with a pause in the middle of the line.  That is actually done in the next to the last line above:  “how vast and harsh it was, this savage wood.”  Suppose that the line had been:  “it was a very harsh and savage wood.”  This has a less emphatic stress on the last syllable, probably because that word is tightly drawn into the larger statement and has the falling tone of a completed utterance.

 

“The West Wind” is a major departure from the traditional terza rima we have been looking at.  Shelley wants five brief lyric stanzas, and he chose to write them in terza rima.  The usual way of bringing closure to a section of terza rima is to add a single line that ends with the preceding tercet’s middle-rhyme; that is, to close the terza rima with a quatrain.  But Shelley decided to write four terza rima tercets and to close with a couplet, thus creating a terza rima sonnet [aba bcb cdc dec ff].  Although Shelley is usually credited with having invented this form, it had been used earlier by Sir Philip Sidney in Arcadia (in the awful poem,“Feed on my sheep”), but I suspect Shelley developed it independently.  Within this framework, he uses all of the devices discussed in the preceding paragraphs to sustain and vary the movement of the poem.  (Sidney used none of them.)

 

He wants to do five things in this poem, and for the sake of convenience, I will assume that the voice in the poems is his own, and not that of a fictitious persona.  This is an easy assumption to make.  Shelley was a true Romantic, a non-violent social revolutionary and visionary who was characterized rather cruelly by Matthew Arnold as being–in his life and in his poetry–a beautiful and ineffectual angel beating his wings in a luminous void.  But back to the poem . . . first, he characterizes the west wind as a bringer of change—both a destroyer and a preserver:  it plucks the withered leaves from the trees, but it also spreads the seeds.  Second, he characterizes the wind as a bringer of clouds and rain that summons the winter—which is necessary to bring in the new year.  Third, he characterizes the wind as bringing waves that announce the change of seasons to the seas.  Fourth, he pulls the three notions together, leaf, cloud, and wave (which are earth air and water, the medieval elements!), and wishes to be driven by such a power himself.  And finally, he asks to be made a sort of Aeolian harp of the wind, a prophet of the power of change that it embodies.  It is a marvelous conception, rich, complex, and varied.  Let’s look at it.

 

I

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,                        hectic/consumptive (TB)

Pestilence-stricken multitudes:  O thou,

Who chariotést to their dark wintry bed

The wingéd seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow                                        azure/sky blue

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill                                   clarion/trumpet

(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)

With living hues and odors, plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;

Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!

II

Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,

Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,

Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning:  there are spread

On the blue surface of thine airy surge,

Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge       Maenad/priestess of Bacchus

Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,                                zenith/point directly above

The locks of the approaching storm.  Thou dirge                           dirge/funeral song

Of the dying year, to which this closing night

Will be the dome of a vast sepulcher,                                                   sepulcher/tomb

Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere

Black rain, and fire,, and hail will burst:  Oh, hear!

III

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,                              Baia/an ancient Roman resort

And saw in sleep old palaces and towers                     near Naples, now submerged

Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers

So sweet, the sense faints picturing them!  Thou

For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves:  Oh, hear!               despoil/undress, plunder

IV

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free

Than thou, O uncontrollable!  If even

I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,

As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed

Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

Oh lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life!  I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed

One too like thee:  tameless, and swift, and proud.

V

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:                            lyre/harp-like instrument

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness.  Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit!  Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth              hearth/floor of a fireplace

Ashes and sparks, my word among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!  O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 

I’ve taken a few liberties with this to make it easier to read.  In the first stanza I have added accents to “chariotést” and “wingéd.”  These must be pronounced in order to find the right rhythm.  I have also put a comma between “odors” and “plain” in the third from the last line of that stanza:  the preceding verb, “fill,” doesn’t apply to the “hues and odours” but to the “plain and hill,” so some separation is necessary.  I’ve also substituted American spellings for British.

 

The poem begins with an apostrophe, a figure of speech in which the poet addresses the West Wind, itself:  “O wild West Wind . . . Thou”.  What follows is a description of the wnd, and this leads, at the end of the stanza, to an invocation:  “Oh hear.”  The invocation is a prayer for help, and since the apostrophe is actually a part of it, it is surprising that they are separated by the distance of the entire stanza.  We have a continuation of this pattern for the first three stanzas, one long invocation:  Oh wild West wind . . . hear! /Thou . . . hear! /Thou . . . hear!  To reduce this to the point of triviality, we might say that the three stanzas together amount to one thing, the statement:  “Listen to me O Wind!”  But the description of the wind fleshes out this extended invocation, and that is vital to the poem.  What Shelley wants the wind to do is suggested in the next-to-last stanza, and it is only spelled out fully in the last.

 

In the first two tercets, the wind, which is characterized as being like an enchanter, destroys the pestilence-stricken multitudes of dead leaves with their hectic (consumptive) flush.  This must be done to prepare for the new year, because the past is exhausted, and change must come.  In the next two tercets, it spreads the seeds that will bring about new life in Spring when they are awakened by the West Wind’s azure sister.  Then we have the invocation:  “Oh hear!”

 

The second stanza continues the apostrophe (“Thou”).  The heavens are viewed as if they are a vast tree from which the West Wind drives the clouds as if they were leaves– a marvelous concept.  These spread out across the sky like the hair of a priestess of Bacchus—intoxicated and wild—reaching from the horizon to the zenith directly above us, bringing rain, hail and lightning.  The wind is the death knell (dirge) of the dying year, and the sky is the dome of a great tomb through which the storm will rage.  And again, there is the continued invocation:  “Oh hear!”

 

The third stanza continues the apostrophe (“Thou”).  The wind awakens the Mediterranean from its peaceful summer dreams of old palaces and towers now buried beneath the intense blue of the sea and overgrown with beautiful plants.  By contrast, the wind creates rifts between the Atlantic swells, and in the deeps the sea plants tremble and are shaken.  Again, “Oh hear!)

 

The fourth stanza pulls together the first three.  If I (Shelley) were empowered by you (the wind), as a leaf, a cloud, a wave, sharing your strength, I wouldn’t be praying to you now.  If I were even what I was as a child, I wouldn’t be praying to you now.  Lift me up as a wave, as a leaf, as a cloud.  I need you, for I’m crushed by what I have experienced—what I know—and am chained and bound.  (For me it is a kind of Winter.)

 

The last stanza asks that I (Shelley) be made a lyre (like an Aeolian harp, an instrument played on by the wind—Aeolus was the god of the winds.)  For the West Wind, the forest is such a lyre—and if the wind scatters my leaves as it does those of the forest, there will be the same sweet, sad, autumnal music.  Now, the invocation becomes urgent:  Be thou, Fierce Spirit, my spirit—be me!  Drive my thoughts over the world like the leaves, and thereby bring about a new birth.  The wind has been likened to an enchanter at the beginning of the poem.  Now, the poem, itself, is seen as an incantation to scatter my (Shelley’s) thoughts among mankind so that they may be a trumpet to awaken the Earth.  And there is one last invocation:  Oh Wind, winter is here—but does that not mean that the new life of Spring must be coming soon!

 

This is a very wonderful poem, marred only by a matter of taste, which is Shelley’s inflated image of himself—Shelley has said that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”—but even this egotism is essential to the poem’s content.  Now let’s look at the prosody.  To begin with, Shelley has made extensive use of slant rhyme, approximate rhyme in which the vowel sounds are similar but not exactly alike:  thou/low; where/hear; dirge/sepulcher; wear/fear; even/heaven; is/harmonies; fierce/verse; birth/hearth; and wind/behind.  I am never disturbed by slant rhyme as long as it doesn’t call attention to itself as being inappropriate.  (Use of slant rhyme also increases the resources the poet can draw on, but I don’t think that Shelley needed that help.  I suspect that he used it because it created exactly the feeling he was seeking.)

 

To my ear, the first stanza moves in tercets, and the middle-rhymes are stressed by a wonderful variety of devices:  by the inversion (“leaves dead” instead of “dead leaves”); by the apostrophe (“Oh thou”); by the conjunction (“until”) set off at the very end of the line with a comma; and by the parenthesis which makes up the entire middle line of the fourth tercet.  Given all this, the couplet functions by itself, as one might expect, and it is separated from the tercets—preceded by a semicolon and followed by an exclamation point.  The stanza, itself, is one long sentence, and the verb is the very last word.

 

The second stanza also moves forward in tercets.  The middle-rhyme of the first is stressed in an interesting way.  The first line is dactylic [DAHdihdih] or anapaestic [dihdihDAH] in its movement.  I have scanned (analyzed) it as beginning with a monosyllabic foot [DAH] (thus shifting from dactyls to anapaests) and ending in a trochee [DAHdih].  The second line restores the iambs, and it is this little shock, the movement from the feminine to the masculine rhyme, that adds stress to the final syllable:

 

[THOU] [ on whose STREAM,] [‘mid the STEEP ] [SKY’S com] [-MO-tion],

[loose CLOUDS] [like EARTH’S] [de CAY] [-ing LEAVES] [are SHED]

 

This scansion emphasizes [SKY’S] and that is important because it is the subject of the stanza.  A heedless dactylic or anapaestic movement destroys this:  [THOU on whose] [STREAM ‘mid the] [STEEP sky’s com] [MO-tion].  But if we insist on finding five feet in the line, as we should, the problem disappears.  The next three middle-rhymes are stressed by the syntax.  In each case, the first line is not end-stopped, but there is a comma (pause) at the end of the second line marking the beginning or end of a parenthetical element.  And once again, the verb is delayed until the last word of the stanza.

 

The third stanza begins with a sestet [ababcb].  This is brought about by the lack of a pause in the first line of the first tercet, and the comma (pause) in the second line, which emphasizes that end-rhyme.  This sets up a pattern in which the [b] rhymes are emphasized in a two-line pattern:

 

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,

 

Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,

 

And saw in sleep old palaces and towers

Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

 

The last six lines are another sestet [cdedee].  The presence of two sestets fits the sense perfectly, for the first half of the stanza deals with the peace of the Mediterranean in its summer dreams, and the second half moves to the Atlantic and the power of the wind.

 

. . . Thou

For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear

The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,

And tremble and despoil themselves:  oh, hear!

 

These sestets are separated by lines that belong with the first sestet, but which set up a contrast with the imagery of the second:  “All overgrown with azure moss and flowers/So sweet, the sense faints picturing them!”  This refers to the summer sleep of the Mediterranean which precedes it, but also makes a link with the sea-blooms and oozy woods of the deep Atlantic which follow.

 

The fourth stanza falls into a quatrain, two secondary tercets, and another quatrain [abab cbc ded edee].  There are only two periods at the ends of the lines:  one after the first line in the last secondary tercet and one at the end.  These mark out the last quatrain unambiguously:

 

Oh, lift me up as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life!  I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed

One too like thee:  tameless, and swift, and proud.

 

Bearing this in mind, we can look back up at the beginning of the stanza.  The first quatrain is created by the fact that the two tercets run on, and by the fact that the rhymes at the ends of all of the lines are emphasized by the end-punctuation or the comma (pause) near the ends of the lines; thus, we have [abab]:

 

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;

A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free

 

Then we have two secondary tercets:

 

Than thou, O uncontrollable!  If even

I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,

 

As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed

Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.

 

There is nothing at all problematic about the second of these, and that only leaves a slight question about the partial line:  “Than thou, O uncontrollable!”  Suffice it to say that something rather like what I am describing occurs, although the boundaries are sometimes blurred.

 

The final stanza begins unambiguously with a sestet.  The next six lines are prevented from becoming a sestet by the exclamation point at the end of the fifth line.  Nonetheless, the first four lines function as a quatrain, and the couplet at the end picks up the strong rhyme which precedes the exclamation point.  This fits the sense exactly.  The first six lines of the stanza implore, “Make me thy lyre . . . Be thou me . . . . “  The next five pray:  “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe.”  And the last three lines ask:  “Be through my lips . . . the trumpet of prophecy!” and “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

 

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness.  Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit!  Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!  O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

 

ADDENDDUM

 

Little more need be said, but the rhythms of the lines are greatly varied, and that may pose a problem for inexperienced readers.  Let’s begin by looking at the first stanza, quatrain by quatrain:

 

[O WILD] [WEST WIND], [ thou BREATH] [of AUT] [-umn’s BE-ing],

[THOU], [from whose UN] [-seen-PRES] [-ence the] [LEAVES DEAD]

[are DRIV] [-en, like GHOSTS] [FROM] [an en-CHANT] [-er FLEE-ing],

 

The first two feet of the first line are spondees [DAHDAH], and the last is an amphibrach [dihDAHdih].  (Any foot can be substituted for any other if the overall iambic pentameter rhythm remains functional in the background.)  I would stress all four of the first syllables since [O] is an exclamation and [WILD] is an important characterizing adjective.  In the second line [-ence the] is a pyrrhic [dihdih], but it could well be read as a trochee, thus giving more weight to “presence.”  The inversion in the last foot puts stress on both “leaves” and “dead,” creating a spondee.  In the third line, the second foot is an anapaest, and the following monosyllabic foot [FROM] preserves the anapaestic movement in the next foot.  The line ends with an amphibrach.

 

[YEL-low], [and BLACK], [and PALE], [and HEC] [-tic RED],

[PEST] [-il-ence STRICK] [-en MULT] [-i-TUDES]; [O THOU],

[who CHAR] [-i-o-TEST] [to THEIR] [DARK WINT] [-er-y BED]

 

 

The fourth line begins with a trochee, but otherwise it is perfectly regular iambic pentameter, and since the feet have the same repetitive construction—being made of the conjunction and the adjective [and BLACK] [and PALE] [and HEC]—they punch the rhythm out.  I have scanned the beginning of the fifth line as a monosyllabic foot followed by an anapaest.  It could be scanned as a trochee followed by an iamb.  And it could even be scanned as a dactyl followed by a monosyllabic foot.  These are all ways of describing the unit [DAHdihdihDAH].  The difference between these scansions might be seen as just a matter of shuffling the brackets, but I think that the first solution does better justice to the rhythms, and that is really what counts.  The invocation in the last foot is a spondee.  Line six shows you why I typed an accent on the last syllable of “chariotést.”  Some readers would want to read “dark” without a stress which is fine in that it would make that foot an iamb, but I still think that some stress is wanted.  The first syllables of the last foot could be combined [-er-y BED] = [-try BED], just as we might combine the syllables in the second foot [-i-o-TEST] = [-yo-TEST], but it doesn’t seem at all necessary, and in some cases this kind of “swallowing up” of syllables is quite undesirable.

 

[the WING] [-ed SEEDS], [where THEY] [lie COLD] [and LOW],

[EACH] like a CORPSE] [with-IN] [its GRAVE], [un-TIL]

[thine A] [-zure SIS] [-ter of] [the SPRING] [shall BLOW]

 

As scanned, this is mostly iambic pentameter, but there are other choices we could make.  The third foot could be read as a spondee:  [WHERE THEY].  The reason for doing this would be the fact that “where” refers back to the “grave” of the preceding tercet.  Moreover, “where” has long quantity—it takes longer to pronounce than a word like “in” or “at,” and quantity is an aspect of stress.  Stressing “where ”at this point would be like saying,  “in their graves, they lie,” and that is fitting.  The first foot of the second line is a monosyllabic foot and it is followed by an anapaest.  It might be read as an iamb if we wish to stress the similarity to corpses rather than the fact that our statement is true of each seed.

 

[her CLAR] [-ion O’ER] [the DREAM] [-ing EARTH], [and FILL]

(DRIV-ing] [sweet BUDS] [like FLOCKS] [to FEED] [in AIR])

[with LIV] [-ing HUES] [and O] [dors ,PLAIN] [and HILL):

 

[WILD SPIR] [-it, WHICH] [art MOV] [-ing EV] [er-y-WHERE];

[de-STROY] [-er AND] [pre-SERV] [-er; HEAR] [OH HEAR]!

 

These lines are very straight-forward.  The trochee at the beginning of the second line is perfectly natural.  The spondee at the beginning of the fourth might be read as an iamb, but I think that would be a mistake:  “wild” is a very important word in describing the wind.  “Oh” in the last line is an interjection and it needs to be emphasized, but it is probably not as strongly stressed as either “hear.”

 

From this point on, I will just look at isolated lines, identifying them by a Roman numeral for the stanza and an Arabic numeral for the line number.  We’ve already looked at the first two lines of the second stanza so we will go on from there.

 

II-3  [SHOOK] [from the TANG] [-led BOUGHS] [of HEAV’N] [and O-cean]:  This is one case where I think  it makes sense to “swallow up” a syllable:  “heav’n” as opposed to “hea-ven.”  Not only does it sound right to do so, it also simplifies the analysis.

 

II-6:  [LIKE the] [BRIGHT HAIR] [up LIFT] [-ed FROM] [the HEAD]:  a spondee is needed for the second foot.  We are describing something out of the ordinary, and every detail counts.

 

II-7:  [of SOME] [FIERCE MAE] [-nad E] [-ven from THE] [DIM VERGE]:  I think this is best, but it merits discussion. The first foot could be a pyrrhic.  Some people would object to placing a strong stress on “the” in the fourth foot (not a well thought out position):  where do the signs of the storm begin?  At (drumroll!) “THE DIM VERGE.”  “The” is a part of this.

 

II-11:  [will BE] [the DOME] [of A] [VAST SEP] [-ul-CHER]:  The same people who might object to the stress put on “the” in the preceding example, will object even more strongly here.  In general, the function words like “a,” “an,” and “the” will not be stressed, but pragmatic and rhetorical needs take precedence over that “rule.”  Stress is not just a matter of punching out a syllable with a strong accent—it is also the thoughtful prolongation of a syllable.  (Remember that quantity is an aspect of stress.)  Notice that both “a” and “vast” can be drawn out, but “sep-” and “-cher” are punched out.  The only alternative might be to make the third foot a pyrrhic [of a].  We need to have five feet because that creates the coherent rhythmic thread which unifies the poem.  In other words, we can’t have these four feet:  [will BE] [the DOME] [of a VAST] [sep-ul-CHER].

 

III-2:  [the BLUE] [med-i] [ter-RAN] [-ean WHERE] [he LAY]:  The only problem here is to find a way of reading “Mediterranean that fits into the rhythm.  Pronouncing the second foot as a pyrrhic makes everything else fall into place.  Our tendency is to simply swallow up all of the syllables before the stressed [RAN], and, here, that is just a bad habit.

 

III-5:  [QUIV-ring] [with-IN] [the WAVE’S] [in-TEN] [-ser DAY]:  Another case where it is desirable to “swallow up a syllable [QUIV-(e)-ring].   Try it both ways to see.

 

III-8:  [so SWEET] [the SENSE] [faints PICT] [-ur-ING] [them! THOU]:  the stress on “-ing” is essential.  In “picturing,” the strongest stress is on “pic,” and “-ing” takes a secondary stress.  But our system of analysis is generally concerned only with the relative stress on adjacent syllables, and “-ing” is marginally stronger than “-ur-.”

 

III-9:  [FOR] [whose PATH] [the At-LAN] [-tic’s LEV] [-el POW-ers]:  This seems to be the only solution.

 

III-10:  [CLEAVE] [them-SELVES] [in-to CHASMS] [while FAR] [be-LOW]:   Notice that “chasms” is pronounced as one syllable, another.  If you wish to read it as two, the following foot becomes an anapaest [-ms while FAR], and that works well, too.

 

IV-1:  [if I] [ were a] [DEAD LEAF [thou MIGHT] [-est BEAR]:  This solution has the advantage of stressing “dead leaf,” and the same pattern can be used in the next line to stress “swift cloud.”

 

IV-4:  [the IM] [-pulse OF] [thy STRENGTH] [ON-ly] [LESS FREE]:  What we must avoid is the dreadful chime of: [on-LY] [less FREE].  This works because the sense continues:  “less free than thou . . . .”  It is necessary to remember that when the sense runs on the scansion of the lines cannot be rigidly line by line.

 

V-1:  [MAKE me] [thy LYRE] [ev-en AS] [the FOR] [-est IS]:  An alternative reading would be:  [MAKE me] [thy LYRE] [E-ven] [as the FOR] [-est IS].  The stress is surely on “make” rather than “me.”

 

Shelly may have had the best ear for the rhythms of the language of any of the English poets.  This poem is a tiny symphony in five movements.  It has everything, a sweeping development that grows steadily in strength, passion, and imagery; and leitmotifs of leaf, cloud, and wave.  But all of these images of icy, destructive power are based on a belief in a regenerative cycle, and it ends on a doubting but hopeful note:  in this moment of darkest winter can it be the case that spring is not near.

 

Note

This poem is—if not autobiographical—at least an expression of Shelley’s deepest feelings about the world, and about his impotence, his inability, to transform it, which he could not accept.  It was written in a black period of his life, following the death of a child, and the anguished cry, “I fall upon the thorns of life!  I bleed!” is not mere hyperbole.

This article is based on a paper, “Shelley’s Use of Terza Rima Sonnets in ‘Ode to the West Wind,’” which I gave at a conference in Florence, Dante and the Romantics in Italy.  That paper took up two questions raised by Drummond Bone in the Keats Shelley Memorial Bulletin:  “When is terza rima not terza rima” and “When is a sonnet not a sonnet.”  This essay is a partial answer to one of these, and the “Sonnet” essay on this site is a partial answer to the other.

Such questions are raised by opinions like the one voiced by John Crowe Ransom in an essay entitled “Shakespeare at Sonnets.”  He says of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “generally they are ill constructed.”  And his reason is this:  If the English sonnet exhibits the rhyme-scheme abab cdcd efef gg, it imposes on the poet the following requirement:  that he write three co-ordinate quatrains and then a couplet which will relate to the series collectively.”  The rhyme scheme imposes requirements on the poet?  That is absurd.  A poetic form is not a fixed mold into which the thought is poured, to set hard like concrete.  It is the set of restrictions that creates the expressive possibilities, like the grain in a piece of wood or the shape and texture of a piece of marble for a sculptor.  Poets make use of the resources provided by the forms.  Ransom’s doctrinaire prescription would prevent us from regarding Browning’s “My Last Duchess” as being in couplets because he has not closed the sense at the end of every pair of lines.

The controlling element in both the sonnet and terza rima is the iambic pentameter meter which underlies them.  This is the element that cannot be abandoned, and without it, we are writing prose libre, not poetry.  But “The West Wind” shows the enormous variation that can be superimposed on this framework.  Because the terza rima rhyme scheme has been preserved, the poem is terza rima, and that is all there is to it!  In both terza rima and the sonnet, we can run the sense beyond the lines to whatever degree we want and find effective, and we can control the movement of the thought by punctuation and syntax.  We most certainly are not obliged to put stops at the ends of the quatrains in the sonnet or the tercets of terza rima.