Tag Archives: Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Love’s Philosophy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

"The Kiss" by Gustave Klimt

“The Kiss” by Gustave Klimt

The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—

See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Since it’s Valentine’s Day today, I figured a love poem would be appropriate for today’s post, and what better than one from the romantic Shelley.

As is typical with the English Romantic poets, Shelley looks to Nature for metaphors to express his love. In the first stanza, he cites the interconnectedness of things in Nature, as well as duality in the natural world, as the reason why his spirit longs for the connection with the woman of his desire. And the loving connection between two people is not just something natural; for Shelley, it is something divine and spiritual. The wholeness which is attained through the passionate connection with your significant other is something that transcends this world and elevates us spiritually.

In the second stanza, we get a sense that all the beauty that we perceive in Nature is only a reflection of human love. And this begs an interesting question: If a person never experienced the joy and beauty of love, would that person be able to recognize beauty in the world around? It reminds me of the lyrics from one of my favorite George Harrison songs:

Some things take so long
But how do I explain
When not too many people
Can see we’re all the same
And because of all their tears
Their eyes can’t hope to see
The beauty that surrounds them
Isn’t it a pity

(from “Isn’t It a Pity”)

Myself, I lean toward the romantic philosophy here. I think that love helps us to see beauty in the world around us, and likewise, the beauty in Nature reminds us of the joy of sharing a deep connection with another person.

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 4 – The Sacred Work

PrometheusUnbound

Although I feel as if I could write forever about this play, I will stop at four (a nice symbolic number). In Act IV, there are two passages sung by the Chorus of Spirits which resonated deepest for me on this reading. They are somewhat lengthy, but need to be included in their entirety.

We come from the mind
Of human kind
Which was late so dusk, and obscene, and blind,
Now ’tis an ocean
Of clear emotion,
A heaven of serene and mighty motion

From that deep abyss
Of wonder and bliss,
Whose caverns are crystal palaces;
From those skiey towers
Where Thought’s crowned powers
Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!

From the dim recesses
Of woven caresses,
Where lovers catch ye by your loose tresses
From the azure isles,
Where sweet Wisdom smiles,
Delaying your ships with her siren wiles.

From the temples high
Of Man’s ear and eye,
Roofed over Sculpture and Poesy;
From the murmurings
Of the unsealed springs
Where Science bedews her Dædal wings.

Years after years,
Through blood, and tears,
And a thick hell of hatreds, and hopes, and fears;
We waded and flew,
And the islets were few
Where the bud-blighted flowers of happiness grew.

Our feet now, every palm,
Are sandalled with calm,
And the dew of our wings is a rain of balm;
And, beyond our eyes,
The human love lies
Which makes all it gazes on Paradise.

The first thing that struck me about this section were the references to Coleridge’s masterpiece, Kubla Khan. The image of the caverns as “crystal palaces” conjures images of the “caves of ice” in Coleridge’s poem. And of course, the image of Paradise.

Like Coleridge, Shelley is expressing the creative power of the human consciousness, particularly those deeper realms of the subconscious represented by the caverns. All great art is an expression of this deep subconscious. But what Shelley implies, which I think is so poignant, is that it is the emotion of love which allows us to glimpse into the deeper areas of our souls, to “gaze on Paradise,” and thereby create art which captures the true divine essence of our beings.

In the next passage sung by the Chorus of Spirits, Shelley connects the creative power of the human mind with the myth of Prometheus.

Our spoil is won,
Our task is done,
We are free to dive, or soar, or run;
Beyond and around,
Or within the bound
Which clips the world with darkness round.

We’ll pass the eyes
Of the starry skies
Into the hoar deep to colonize:
Death, Chaos, and Night,
From the sound of our flight,
Shall flee, like mist from a tempest’s might.

And Earth, Air, and Light,
And the Spirit of Might,
Which drives round the stars in their fiery flight;
And Love, Thought, and Breath,
The powers that quell Death,
Wherever we soar shall assemble beneath.

And our singing shall build
In the void’s loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.

The first thing that struck me about this section is the contrast between what I’ll call the trinity and anti-trinity. While there must always be a balance in nature, and therefore a balance within ourselves, we must turn to the positive trinity if we want to create art that is spiritual and conveys the beauty of the divine. Shelley expresses the trinity that fosters creative expression as “Love, Thought, and Breath,” and the anti-trinity, which clouds the creative ability of humanity, is “Death, Chaos, and Night.”

When Shelley states that “our singing shall build / In the void’s loose field / A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield,” he is asserting that it is through artistic expression, particularly poetry, that humanity will be able to elevate itself to the level of divinity.

Finally, “our work shall be called the Promethean.” Prometheus was the god who defied authority and gave light to humanity. This then becomes the task of the poet. The poet and the artist must challenge the established authority and bring the concepts of love, spirituality, and enlightenment to all humanity. The work of the artist is the work of Prometheus. It is the only through the Love, Thought, and Breath of the poet that our civilization can overcome the powers of Death, Chaos, and Night.

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you are now inspired to take on the Promethean work.


 

Other Posts on Prometheus Unbound:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 3 – The Earth

PrometheusUnbound

The character of the Earth is introduced early in the first act. Shelley presents Earth as a symbol of the Goddess, the divine mother of all.

I am the Earth,
Thy mother; she within whose stony veins,
To the last fibre of the loftiest tree
Whose thin leaves trembled in the frozen air,
Joy ran, as blood within a living frame,
When thou didst from her bosom, like a cloud
Of glory, arise, a spirit of keen joy!

(Act 1: Lines 153 – 159)

This is nothing new and did not really cause much interest for me, but the passage that follows the establishing of the Earth as the Goddess is nothing short of divinely inspired. It is somewhat long, but warrants being included in its entirety here.

They shall be told. Ere Babylon was dust,
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them and they part no more;
Dreams and the light imaginings of men,
And all that faith creates or love desires,
Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes.
There thou art, and dost hang, a writhing shade,
‘Mid whirlwind-peopled mountains; all the gods
Are there, and all the powers of nameless worlds,
Vast, sceptred phantoms; heroes, men, and beasts;
And Demogorgon, a tremendous gloom;
And he, the supreme Tyrant, on his throne
Of burning gold. Son, one of these shall utter
The curse which all remember. Call at will
Thine own ghost, or the ghost of Jupiter,
Hades or Typhon, or what mightier Gods
From all-prolific Evil, since thy ruin
Have sprung, and trampled on my prostrate sons.
Ask, and they must reply: so the revenge
Of the Supreme may sweep through vacant shades,
As rainy wind through the abandoned gate
Of a fallen palace.

(Act 1: Lines 191 – 218)

Here the Goddess expresses the dual nature of the divine. The dual image that Zoroaster saw symbolizes the duality of humans: body and spirit, good and evil, divine and earthly, conscious and subconscious. The two realms of existence are referenced, the state of being in which we inhabit during life, and the realm of shadows, to which we transcend after we die, a realm populated by forms and archetypes.

This passage is so rich, I feel that my commentary does not do it justice. I encourage you to just read it again, and think about the duality in the divine, in nature, and in ourselves.

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 2 – Opening Soliloquy

Painting by Christian Griepenkerl

Painting by Christian Griepenkerl

The play begins with a soliloquy in which Prometheus, bound to the rock, speaks out against God as the oppressor of humanity.

Monarch of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,
O’er mine own misery and thy vain revenge.
Three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours,
And moments aye divided by keen pangs
Till they seemed years, torture and solitude,
Scorn and despair, — these are mine empire: —
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, for ever!

(Act I: Lines 1 – 24)

Prometheus is immediately established as the archetype of rebellion, defiant and opposing the force of tyranny which is represented by God. What I find most interesting about this passage is how Prometheus compares and contrasts with Christ. Both figures are bound: Christ to the cross and Prometheus to the rock. The difference is in how each figure reacts. Christ, while questioning God’s motivation, is accepting of his fate. This is not the case with Prometheus. Prometheus, like Satan, refuses to accept God’s will. He is filled with self-righteous indignation and believes that he is justified in his actions.

The next part of this soliloquy which is worth pointing out is Prometheus’ description of his imprisonment and torture.

The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears
Of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains
Eat with their burning cold into my bones.
Heaven’s wingèd hound, polluting from thy lips
His beak in poison not his own, tears up [1.35]
My heart; and shapeless sights come wandering by,
The ghastly people of the realm of dream,
Mocking me: and the Earthquake-fiends are charged
To wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds
When the rocks split and close again behind: [1.40]
While from their loud abysses howling throng
The genii of the storm, urging the rage
Of whirlwind, and afflict me with keen hail.

(Act I: Lines 31 – 43)

Here we have images of captivity connected with ice. I see the ice as representing a several things. First, it symbolizes the cold, harsh judgment of God. Secondly, it symbolizes memory, clear, yet hard and painful. The coldness of the ice burns, implying that memory as well as God’s judgment both cause internal pain and turmoil. Finally, the imagery connects the text to Dante. In The Inferno, the 9th circle of Hell is the area in which sinners are imprisoned within an icy lake. It is worth noting that Judas is trapped in the 9th ring.

Toward the end of his soliloquy, Prometheus, ever defiant, emphasizes that his wisdom stems from his rejection of God and the suffering which he endured as a result.

How will thy soul, cloven to its depth with terror,
Gape like a hell within! I speak in grief,
Not exultation, for I hate no more,
As then ere misery made me wise.

(Act I: Lines 55 – 58)

This for me embodies the romantic ideal. Emotion is what makes us human and divine. And pain and suffering are powerful emotions which are often fuel for creative and artistic expression. Hence, Prometheus serves as a symbol for humanity’s creative and artistic spirit, which is often contradictory to the tyrannical forces of social mores which seek to instill conformity and compliance.

Thanks for stopping by, and I will post more on this great dramatic work soon.

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“Prometheus Unbound” by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Part 1 – Overview

PrometheusUnbound

By the time I was halfway through reading this again (I had read it a couple times in college), I realized that there was no way I could just write a single post about this work. It is just too complex. So, I am going to write a short series of posts on it. This is the first and I will update it with links to the subsequent posts after I get them written.

In his preface to the play, Shelley states that he drew inspiration from the lost drama of the same name by Aeschylus. Shelley uses the Prometheus myth to represent Satan as opposition to tyranny (symbolized by God/Jupiter) and as the champion of humankind.

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

Throughout the play, Shelley asserts that love is the ultimate human emotion which will ultimately lead to the defeat of fear, tyranny, and oppression. Love is the energy which permeates everything in the world, and the highest goal of art is the expression of this universal love which will ultimately deliver humanity to freedom.

Shelley, in his preface, seems as defiant as Prometheus and Satan. He asserts that he would rather burn in Hell than bow artistically to Christian law.

For my part I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon than go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus. But it is a mistake to suppose that I dedicate my poetical compositions solely to the direct enforcement of reform, or that I consider them in any degree as containing a reasoned system on the theory of human life. Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse. My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.

In my subsequent post, I will look closer at specific passages which in my opinion represent some of the key issues in this drama. As I mentioned, this is a very dense and complex work, and I will not be able to cover everything, but I will do my best to hit some of the main aspects.

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“Time” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Dali's Persistence of Memory

Dali’s Persistence of Memory

It’s Friday the 13th today, so I felt a poem on mortality would be appropriate.

TIME

Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are years,
Ocean of Time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!
Thou shoreless flood, which in thy ebb and flow
Claspest the limits of mortality,
And sick of prey, yet howling on for more,
Vomitest thy wrecks on its inhospitable shore;
Treacherous in calm, and terrible in storm,
Who shall put forth on thee,
Unfathomable Sea?

This poem immediately conjured an image of Dali’s “Persistence of Memory,” where time is depicted as fluid and rippling. It also reminded me a lot of the Pink Floyd song “Time.” I can’t help but wonder if Shelley inspired these other works.

If you think about it, this poem is way ahead of its time (pun intended). It’s my understanding that the view of time and space as waves is a fairly recent concept. The poem definitely does not present time in a linear manner; it is something that swirls around us, surging in waves, with a depth that is beyond our comprehension.

The strangest thing about this poem, though, is the sense of imminent mortality. Time is associated with death and the imagery used in the poem builds on this association. But here’s what really gets me. Shelley wrote this poem in 1821. He died the next year at the ripe age of 29. As I read through the poem a second and third time, I began to feel that Shelley was anticipating his death, that somehow he sensed that his life was nearing its end. I’ve always believed that poets and artists are able to tap into a state of consciousness that provides visions and promotes intuition, and I feel that Shelley certainly did so when he composed this poem.

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What Do John Lennon and Percy Bysshe Shelley Have in Common?

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Thumbing through the table of contents in my copy of English Romantic Writers, I spotted the sonnet “To Wordsworth” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The title piqued my interest so I figured I’d give it a quick read.

Poet of Nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return:
Childhood and youth, friendship, and love’s first glow,
Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
Which thou too feel’st, yet I alone deplore.
Thou wert as a lone star whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar:
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling multitude:
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty.
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

I find it interesting when artists criticize each other. In this poem, Shelley is clearly irked by Wordsworth. Even the tone of the opening line, referring to Wordsworth as “Poet of Nature” has a mocking feel to it.

The main criticism that Shelley casts at Wordsworth is his obsession with the past. Wordsworth longed to recapture the magic and joy of childhood through his poetry, and I can respect that. But Shelley makes a valid point. Wordsworth became so obsessed with nature and childhood that he neglected the present, the future, and adult responsibilities. And what makes it worse is that Wordsworth’s earlier works were “Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,” but then as he gained fame and fortune, he sold out.

I have to say, though, that Shelley does come off as a bit self-righteous. When he claims that “I alone deplore” the common woes, I want to say: “Really? You’re the only one?” If you want to champion the common cause, you need to get down from the pedestal.

ImagineCoverI like both Wordsworth and Shelley, and I respect both of their literary contributions, just as I respect Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Just because artistic paths diverge does not make one artist’s contributions more important than another’s. Still, jabs like this make for interesting reading, just as John Lennon’s song “How Do You Sleep?” is an interesting critique on Sir Paul.

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