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"Ode to the West Wind" : A Symbolic Poem.

Generally speaking, a symbol means somebody or something that represents a more general quality or situation. For example,  “Mandela became a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle,” or “white is the symbol! of purity in some cultures”. In science, a symbol means a sign, a number, or a letter that has fixed meaning.For example, “x” meaning anything, may be used as a symbol. But in literature a symbol means something which stands for something else. For example, the flag of a nation means the sovereignty of that nation. In the poem Ode to the West Wind, the West Wind can be studied as a symbol at several levels.

First of all, Shelley personifies the West Wind as a destroyer and a preserver. The personified object may be regarded as a symbol also because it does not remain that particular thing, but becomes something else, per forming things in its own way. At a literal level the West Wind is just such a thing as drives away the decaying leaves  of autumn, and sends the seeds of trees under the earth to sprout into new growth of trees of fruits and flowers. But when the West Wind is personified, it becomes a symbol---- and here it becomes a symbol of destroyer of the old order things: traditions, beliefs and institutions existing in human society, and a preserver of things, that is, it preserves for the moment the seeds from which new, desired things will grow in future.

Secondly, the West Wind is a symbol of the dirge for the dying year. A dirge is a song of mourning. So the year is symbolized as a person and dirge is sung over his death, a sepulchre is built over his grave. The last night of autumn becomes the symbol of the dome of that sepulchre. The clouds, rain, lightning, and hail symbolize the dome of the sepulchre.

Thirdly, the West Wind is a symbol of the saviour of the poet. The poet is chained and bowed by the adverse circumstances of life, and is therefore, too weak to carry out his mission as a reformer. He says, “oh lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!/ I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” He entreats the West Wind to help him or save him from his helpless plight.

Finally, the West Wind becomes the symbol of the poet himself---- a symbol of the forces of regeneration that will bring about a millennium of Golden Age of ideal happiness for mankind. He says, “Be thou, Spirit Fierce,/ My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!” He wants the West Wind to merge itself into his own self, and become one with him. It will then scatter, as he himself would like to do, his revolutionary thoughts for the regeneration of mankind over the whole world, and be the trumpet of a prophecy.

Thus, Ode to the West Wind is a symbolic poem. But the symbol here does not remain a fixed one; it moves from one level to another. There is of course, a gradual and logical progression of the West Wind as a symbol. From the level of a personified natural power it moves from one sphere of the earth to another---- from the sphere of land through air to water. Then  it becomes a symbol of the savior of the poet, and finally, a symbol of the poet himself.

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