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The Question

<     Bysshe Bysshe Shelley        >


The Literary Pocket-Book: or, Companion for the Lover of Nature and Art (1820, 28)

I dreamed that, as I wandered by the way,
Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring,
And gentle odours led my steps astray,
Mixed with a sound of waters murmuring
Along a shelving bank of turf, which lay
Under a copse, and hardly dared to fling
Its green arms round the bosom of the stream,
But kissed it and then fled, as thou mightest in dream.

There grew pied wind-flowers and violets,
Daisies, those pearled Arcturi of the earth,
The constellated flower that never sets;
Faint oxlips; tender bluebells, at whose birth
The sod scarce heaved; and that tall flower that wets--
Like a child, half in tenderness and mirth--
Its mother's face with Heaven's collected tears,
When the low wind, its playmate's voice, it hears.

And in the warm hedge grew lush eglantine,
Green cowbind and the moonlight-coloured may,
And cherry-blossoms, and white cups, whose wine
Was the bright dew, yet drained not by the day;
And wild roses, and ivy serpentine,
With its dark buds and leaves, wandering astray;
And flowers azure, black, and streaked with gold,
Fairer than any wakened eyes behold.

And nearer to the river's trembling edge
There grew broad flag-flowers, purple pranked with white,
And starry river buds among the sedge,
And floating water-lilies, broad and bright,
Which lit the oak that overhung the hedge
With moonlight beams of their own watery light;
And bulrushes, and reeds of such deep green
As soothed the dazzled eye with sober sheen.

Methought that of these visionary flowers
I made a nosegay, bound in such a way
That the same hues, which in their natural bowers
Were mingled or opposed, the like array
Kept these imprisoned children of the Hours
Within my hand,--and then, elate and gay,
I hastened to the spot whence I had come,
That I might there present it!--Oh! to whom?

 

Commentary

This poem is a loose adaptation of Canto 28, lines 1-51 of Dante's Purgatorio.

It is a piece of bravura poetry. Unlike Milton, Shelley is not only able to produce evocative and well written poetry, but he gets his descriptions from nature correct as well. He could be speaking of himself when he writes to Peacock after visiting Pompeii:

I now understand why the Greeks were such great poets, and, above all, I can account, it seems to me, for the harmony, the unity, the perfection, the uniform excellence, of all their works of art. They lived in a perpetual commerce with external nature, and nourished themselves upon the spirit of its forms. (Letters, II, 666)

I don't know about 'the spirit of its forms', but certainly the particulars of natural forms, and their vernacular names, and that, quite possibly, is more important. Pied wind-flowers, violets, daisies, oxslips, bluebells, egalantine, cow-bind, may, cherry blossoms, white cups, wild roses, ivy, flag flowers, sedge, water-lilies, oak, bullrushes, reeds .... we are not confronted here by a simply generalising knowledge with amorphous content, but rather with an understanding which encompasses specific forms, and uses them as a stepping stone to the general, perhaps a little uncommon in Shelley. It is this combination of particulars very much of this world, almost a catalogue of wild flowers, with some exquisite poetic imagery, that gives this poem its intense charm.

As in much of Shelley's poetry, however, there also exists a strongly personal dimension. The poem ends on a note of regret. With whom is he to share this experience? Harriet Westbrook, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Cornelia Turner, Elizabeth Hitchener, Emilia Viviani, Jane Williams ... we get the feeling that Shelley was still searching for his soulmate through all these more or less fleeting relationships.

There were plenty who would not forgive his dilettante playing with the human hearts of those around him. Concerning his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, who comitted suicide, the poet Robert Southey wrote to him:

... ask your own heart, whether you have not been the whole, sole and direct cause of her destruction. You corrupted her opinions; you robbed her of her moral and religious principles; you debauched her mind... you have reasoned yourself into a state of mind so pernicious that your character, with your domestic arrangements, as you term it, might furnish the subject for the drama more instructive, and scarcely less painful, than the detestable story of the Cenci, and this has proceeded directly from your principles.

At all events, we are a long way from Dante's stately flow of verse. The differences are as conspicuous as the similarities. Dante is accompanied by two other poets, he meets a 'woman all alone' who explains to him the mystery of the place, which is, in fact, the Garden of Eden. He also calls on references to both classical and christian mythology, and, of course, there are no such references in Shelley, only the bald statement that these are 'visionary flowers', which could be interpreted as meaning that they actually represent his own poetry, which, we learn, is unappreciated. And there we are left hanging.

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