122. (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

A poem by Shelley, with critical commentary following:

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.

 

Let’s begin with the final two stanzas, where the poem culminates in an extended metaphor, and then work backward to pull in the earlier images, asking how they ground and enrich the image.

Derided by a generation of modernist poets for failing to follow through on images with the logical ‘rigor’ of the metaphysicals, Shelley provides ample evidence here and elsewhere for wondering what grounds the charge: here he seems a direct descendent of Donne, with the union of hearts compared to birds in a nest, giving birth to Love, which in turn leaves the nest behind to find another nest of its own.

Love, Shelley seems to be saying, takes on a life of its own after a consummation between two hearts; in so doing, the hearts that created it no longer can be said to possess it–the weaker of those hearts, at least, is forced “to endure what it once possessed.” And what it endures is the sad fate of love in the world: it suffers to watch the fate of its offspring fly away, choosing the frailest nest of its own making.

The final stanza is addressed to Love itself; the hearts and persons responsible to love have fallen out of the poem. It might seem a strange fit of fancy on Shelley’s part, but it is an insight also into the precarious self-sufficiency and autonomy of love, an entity or force brought into being by two hearts but confined to neither: love, after all is a relationship, dependent on individuals, but not comprehendible solely in terms of them.

The challenge in reading the poem lies in reconciling the first and second and third and fourth stanzas. As I’ve presented them, the final two stanzas offer a coherent and developed thought. That thought does not easily square with the second stanza, where love is not mentioned, but the heart, the spirit, and a song are:

As music and splendour

Survive not the lamp and the lute,

The heart’s echoes render

No song when the spirit is mute–

From the first stanza of the poem, we understand that “when the lamp is shattered| the light in the dust lies dead” and “when the cloud is scattered| the rainbow’s glory lies dead.” The splendor of light in the dust requires the lamp to be whole; the music of tones requires the same of the lute. In the same way, the heart’s echoes require the spirit to be alive and active, or else the heart’s echoes do no resound as a song.

Once more, we are on firm ground; but the ground threatens to give way beneath our feet when we ask what any of this has to do with love leaving the nest built by two hearts together. There, it seems that there is no spirit, no heart’s echoes…

To make sense of the poem, we need to recognize its center of gravity: the moment, or set of lines, where Shelley’s concern comes into focus.

By beginning with the last two stanzas, it may be that I set myself on the wrong track –but the extended metaphor of Love having left the nest and braving the weather in those stanzas, and the fact of their being an apostrophe to Love, gives them prominence in the poem; if those two stanzas stood alone, they might form a poem unto themselves. That they do not implies that Shelley did not want for the image of Love as a solitary, threatened creature, found in those stanzas and in those stanzas alone, to be the central focus of the poem as it stands.

Instead, the image of the suffering heart connects the poem’s first and second parts, its second and third stanzas. The second stanza’s image of the heart rendering no music because deprived of spirit opens a question that the final two stanzas answer: what would deprive the heart of its spirit? what would render its music into a sigh comparable to a dirge or the sound of mournful surges? The answer is: love’s departure, and love’s fragile and imperiled existence in the world; its seeming foolishness in finding a haven for itself; its exposure to derision; its distance from the warmth of Reason; all of which the weaker heart must endure.

Shelley’s grasp on form was exacting, subtle, and innovative; where a poem’s shape and movement gets away from him, it is owing to a sense of possibilities that few other poets could even see. Asking why Shelley’s metaphors begin and end where they do, why the stanzas break off where they do, and why a poem’s thought and address leap and turn as they do, is helpful with any poet; with Shelley, though, the task can feel daunting and the rewards unclear; all the more reason to pursue the questions.

In this poem, the question is why he addresses Love in the final two stanzas, rather than remaining with the image of the heart; it is as if the vision of Love lost on the airs, buffeted by the world’s storms, has usurped the neat mathematical correspondences of the first two stanzas. And it has: Shelley begins the poem in a contemplative mode (philosophically contemplating the world) and he ends it in a pathetic (invested with pathos) mode; along the way, his investment in the subject matter has changed: he comes to sympathize with the “weaker heart” that has been singled–

and in so sympathizing, his poem performs a feat: it rescues that heart from its fate, joining with it so that, though it is singled out from among the two hearts in the nest, and even singled out in the degree of suffering it must endure, it is no longer entirely alone in what it feels. Shelley offers fellow-feeling. (Some might think that he is really talking about his own heart when he says the “weaker heart” but a generous reading of the poem’s logic, below, will show why it cannot be the case).

The weaker heart endures, we are told. The nature of its suffering is the stuff of the second stanza: its spirit is muted, and its song is rendered mute. But here, as Shelley apostrophizes love, the song is not mute at all, and so Shelley would be baldly hypocritical if the weaker heart was his. But Shelley, understanding the function of the poet as providing an animating sympathy, as entering into esoteric comprehension of the world and offering it his voice, letting it, like a wild west wind, sing through him, does the same here for the heart that endures. The song addressed to love in the final two stanzas is the song that the weaker heart would sing if it could; Shelley sings on its behalf.

Presumptuous? Perhaps. But generosity, sympathy, and understanding must risk that charge. And notice how Shelley ends the poem; he cannot redeem or repair the weaker heart entirely. Though, owing to his having lent it his spirit, it is not rendered mute, it is neither capable of perfect song, as it watches Love falter on the winds:

From thy nest every rafter

Will rot, and thine eagle home

Leave thee naked to laughter

When leaves fall and cold winds come.

For the first time in the poem, the meter and rhythm stagger: “will rot” lands as a heavy spondee (stress-stress). And I struggle to resolve the final line the meter of the final line, since the penultimate syllable “winds” demands a stress that sits uneasily between two other stressed words (“cold” and “comes”), and that no corresponding syllable in the final line of earlier stanzas receives: “Loved accents are soon forgot,” “That ring the dead seaman’s knell,” “For your cradle, your home, and your bier.” Finally, there is the off-rhyme, precluding, as does the final line’s uncertain meter, closure to the poem: “come” and “home.” But it is an appropriate off-rhyme, since the heart bemoans that Love cannot come home to its nest.

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