Guess who’s back. It’s me, and my man Percy Shelley.
What’s it about?
In this poem, Shelley is expressing an unusual disconnect from the natural world. Following the death of his daughter, he became solitary and withdrawn. In this poem he looks at the beauty of the world around him, and realises that it feels distant, strange and untouchable. He muses about the relief of death, and how his heart has been reshaped by circumstance.
Structure and form:
This is a lyric poem, meaning that it is a largely introspective account of personal feelings and sensations, told in the first person. Consider it a little like a diary entry. Shelley is allowing us right inside of his head. This poem is told in iambic tetrameter, meaning each line is 8 syllables or four feet. In the English language, it is most pleasing to the ear for a poem to be in pentameter, so here Shelley allows us to feel his sense of discomfort through the shortened lines. It sticks fairly closely to this rhythm throughout, mimicking the monotony of his life, and the repetitive nature of his depressing and intrusive thoughts. Also notice that each verse begins with an ABAB rhyme scheme, which breaks down in the latter half. This rhyme scheme has a typically jovial tone, but here instead it becomes a driving force to the poem, as Shelley tries to persist in spite of his depression.
Shelley creates a sense of dissociation through his contrasting imagery. The natural world that he describes is grounded in concrete nouns such as “earth” “shore” and “waves”, visible things that tie him to his environment. He contrasts this with “transparent might”, “light dissolved”, “nor hope nor health”, vivid but abstract ideas that make the world appear like a corrupted dream-scape. Shelley no longer feels in harmony with nature, instead he is trapped in his depression, and cannot connect himself directly to the beauty of Naples.
These feelings of loss and despair are anchored by repeated use of negations. Each absence in his life is emphasised by a “nor”: “nor hope nor health, nor peace, nor calm, nor that content, nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.” This use of polysyndeton makes it laborious to read this stanza, allowing us to feel empathy for how laboured living now appears to Shelley. Polysyndetic lists place equal emphasis on each article, hence each missing thing is equally lost as the last.
Notice the use of the condition tense:“death like sleep might steal on me” “I might feel in the warm air.” The conditional suggests a hope or a future possibility, but not a definite. Shelley is clearly suicidal, but does not act on this. Instead he speculates about the possibility of death.The first stanza establishes a classic romantic landscape of beautiful nature, and he places himself within this, yet it is clear that he has lost his lust for life, shown again through the conditional suggestion that he ‘could lie down like a tired child’- this simile contradicts a lot of Romantic ideals about the beauty and purity of childhood, the idea of weariness and childhood are essentially oxymoronic.
Shelley wrote this on holiday in Naples with his wife. Their child had been ill on the journey, but Shelley had insisted on continuing. When she died, he blamed himself for her death, and never truly recovered from grief. His wife Mary also became reserved, hence in this poem he is alone, suffering his thoughts with no-one to share them with.
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