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 When the Lamp Is Shattered
poem, analysis, commentary, exegesis

<     Percy Bysshe Shelley     >


Guernica (detail), Pablo Picasso

Posthumous Poems (1824, d2)
composed 1822 (30)

When the lamp is shattered, 
The light in the dust lies dead; 
When the cloud is scattered, 
The rainbow's glory is shed; 
When the lute is broken, 
Sweet tones are remembered not; 
When the lips have spoken, 
Loved accents are soon forgot. 

As music and splendour 
Survive not the lamp and the lute, 
The heart's echoes render 
No song when the spirit is mute: 
No song but sad dirges, 
Like the wind through a ruined cell, 
Or the mournful surges 
That ring the dead seaman's knell. 

When hearts have once mingled, 
Love first leaves the well-built nest; 
The weak one is singled 
To endure what it once possessed. 
O Love! who bewailest 
The frailty of all things here, 
Why choose you the frailest 
For your cradle, your home, and your bier? 

Its passions will rock thee, 
As the storms rock the ravens on high; 
Bright reason will mock thee, 
Like the sun from a wintry sky. 
From thy nest every rafter 
Will rot, and thine eagle home 
Leave thee naked to laughter, 
When leaves fall and cold winds come.

 

Commentary

The first two lines present significant difficulties to the understanding, though their import and, indeed, the import of the poem as a whole, is clear even on first reading. The important distinction to bear in mind in interpreting the first two lines is that between the lamp, the very physical object in the world, and the light, the metaphysical phenomenon. The violence of the first line, the use of the word 'shattered', not just broken, but broken beyond repair, hits us immediately. The second line follows from the observation that when the lamp is shattered, and the light extinguished, what remains is just oil splattered in the dust, literally light dead in the dust. It's one of those observations which demonstrate the miraculous in the ordinary, or science in action, depending on how you look on it. At all events, you have to look at the phenomenon of light again, with fresh eyes, if you can, and it is the poem that forces (or perhaps invites) you to do this. Plenty of people have refused the invitation, of course, finding the ideas trite and the poem bad.

In the second stanza, we pass to the application of these metaphors (lamp, rainbow, lute, lips) to the human heart, where Shelley observes that a similar principle applies when the 'spirit is mute'. The lamp is shattered, the light goes out; the cloud is scattered, the rainbow disappears; the lute is broken, there is no music; the lips are silent, we forget the 'loved accents'; the spirit is mute, no song is echoed in the heart. Except that something nonetheless continues in the heart: the song is a sad dirge sounding like the 'wind through a ruined cell' or the 'mournful surges' of a bell tolling for a dead seaman. As the poem continues by discussing what happens when lovers part, or become estranged, or the light of spiritual love disappears, we can now infer that Shelley is talking about a love relationship when the spiritual dimension of the relationship is extinguished.

In the third stanza, Shelley observes that after the first passion, Love chooses the weaker party in the relationship, who continues to cling to the relationship, to bear all the pain, 'to endure what it once possessed'. In fact, the weaker party is seen as providing first the cradle, then the home, then the bier for Love. He also introduces the metaphor of the 'well built nest', an illusion of security, as it turns out. He continues the metaphor of the nest in the next stanza.

In the fourth stanza, the initial 'its' can only refer to Love, which means that the 'thee' must refer to the weaker party, whose uncomfortable fate is spelled out fairly unambiguously. I don't think we have any difficulty in accepting 'ravens on high' and 'eagle home' in the same stanza. The former expression continues the metaphor of the nest, which is now seen as fragile, vulnerable, as being rocked by the storm: a common enough phenomenon, though raven's nests are nevertheless fairly resilient to all but the most violent storms, despite being constructed high up in the tallest trees. There is real genius in the simile of reason mocking the turbulent passions of the lover like 'the sun from a wintry sky': ie we can see the winter sun, but it has no power to warm us, just as we can listen to the words of reason, but it has no power to console us or change our course of action. The expression 'eagle home' very clearly evokes the idea that the state of blissful love in which the weaker party continues to attempt to live secure, and which in his / her mind is as inaccessible as the home of the eagle, will actually be stripped bare and subjected to ridicule when reality (winter) sets in. The concluding lines, especially the penultimate line, 'leave thee naked to laughter', are violent, sexual, humiliating, and the bald ordinariness of the final phrase 'When leaves fall and cold winds come' has an added sting of sexual innuendo which, when registered, links back to the idea of passionless sex which is the origin of these reflections: 'when the lamp is shattered'.

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