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 Song : Rarely, Rarely Comest Thou 

  <       Percy Bysshe Shelley        >


detail from the Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch

Posthumous Poems (1824, d2)
composed 1821 (29)


Rarely, rarely comest thou, 
Spirit of Delight! 
Wherefore hast thou left me now 
Many a day and night? 
Many a weary night and day 
'Tis since thou art fled away. 

How shall ever one like me 
Win thee back again? 
With the joyous and the free 
Thou wilt scoff at pain. 
Spirit false! thou hast forgot 
All but those who need thee not. 

As a lizard with the shade 
Of a trembling leaf, 
Thou with sorrow art dismayed; 
Even the sighs of grief 
Reproach thee, that thou art not near, 
And reproach thou wilt not hear. 

Let me set my mournful ditty 
To a merry measure; 
Thou wilt never come for pity, 
Thou wilt come for pleasure; 
Pity then will cut away 
Those cruel wings, and thou wilt stay. 

I love all that thou lovest, 
Spirit of Delight! 
The fresh Earth in new leaves dressed, 
And the starry night; 
Autumn evening, and the morn 
When the golden mists are born. 

I love snow and all the forms 
Of the radiant frost; 
I love waves, and winds, and storms, 
Everything almost 
Which is Nature's, and may be 
Untainted by man's misery. 

I love tranquil solitude, 
And such society 
As is quiet, wise, and good; 
Between thee and me 
What difference? but thou dost possess 
The things I seek, not love them less. 

I love Love - though he has wings, 
And like light can flee, 
But above all other things, 
Spirit, I love thee - 
Thou art love and life! O come! 
Make once more my heart thy home!

Commentary

The theme and import of the poem is evident from start to finish: the poet is unhappy, and wishes that the Spirit of Delight will arrive, and inspire him to write poetry again, but the Spirit of Delight will not tolerate unhappiness, so does not come. It is, to use a more modern embodiment of the concept, a Catch 22 situation, which is expressed at several moments:

Spirit false! thou hast forgot
All but those who need thee not.

Thou with sorrow art dismayed

And reproach thou wilt not hear

The poet decides therefore to use a 'merry measure' because the spirit will never come for pity of his suffering. It is the measure of this poem. But in fact, this 'merry measure' only serves to heighten the sorrow of the sentiments, and the succeeding lines in which the poet proposes to make the Spirit of Delight stay by cutting away his wings is a horribly sadistic proposition clearly doomed to utter failure. Still, the 'merry measure' continues.

The poet enumerates the things he loves about nature, loves which, he says, he holds in common with the Spirit of Delight. What difference then between the two of them? He answers his own question by observing that the Spirit of Delight possesses the things that he seeks.

The poet also references the happiness that is possible in human society - 'such society / As is quiet, wise, and good', then on to Love, a reflection tempered, however, with the disappointment attendant on that emotion - 'he has wings / And like light can flee'.

Shelley ends with a supplication for the Spirit of Delight to return to 'Make once more my heart thy home'.

In all, the poem is not as desolate as the previous four. There is reference to human society, and the possiblity of happiness is still present as a memory, and as something to be hoped for. It has to be said, however, that the methods the poet proposes, in particular, the idea of cutting off the Spirit's wings to stop him from leaving again, are both mischievous and clearly self-defeating.

The beginning of the third stanza gives us what is perhaps the most difficult simile to interpret:

As a lizard with the shade
Of a trembling leaf,
Thou with sorrow art dismayed:

There is no difficulty with the third line: the Spirit of Delight is dismayed by sorrow, but how does that relate to a lizard with the shade of a trembling leaf? Perhaps we have to imagine that the lizard puts itself in the shade to cool down, but the fact that the trembling leaf gives alternate shade and sunshine defeats the object. The lizard becomes dismayed. I have found it difficult, however, to find anybody who has observed the dismay of a lizard under parallel circumstances.

The experience of being depressed, however, is everywhere the same, and is well expressed in the idea that although the poet loves the various phenomena of nature: the starry night, an autumn evening, the morn when golden mists are born, snow, and all the forms of radiant frost, waves and winds and storms and so on; he can take no delight in them. It is a reflection which almost parallels the question posed at the end of The Question, where, having detailed all the delightful things he has found in nature, and prepared a nosegay, he asks with whom he is going to share this joy, except that here it is not just a question of with whom he is going to share it, but rather of how is he going to re-discover the delight he used to feel in these things.

Thomas Medwin, Shelley's cousin, stayed with him for a time in November 1820, during which time he read many of Shelley's poems for the first time:

... which I devoured and enthusiastically admired. He was surprised at my enthusiasm, and said to me - 'I am disgusted with writing, and were it not for an irresestible impulse, that predominates my better reason, should discontinue so doing'; words not unresembling the pathetic lamentation of Tasso, that 'oppressed by the burthen of his calamities, he had lost every prospect of reputation and of honor.' And who can wonder or considering the poignancy of his sufferings - be surprised that the neglect of the world - then seeing his works one after the other fall dead from the Press - others who did not possess a tythe of his genius belauded by a hireling press and caressed by the public - should lacerate his heart and make him at times doubt that the light which he followed was not a steady flame, but an Ignis fatuus of the Imagination in which was no vividness or durability?

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