Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ode to the West Wind by P.B. Shelley

ODE TO THE WEST WIND

P.B. Shelley

The poem “Ode to the West Wind” directly conforms to Shelley’s poetic creed. Poetry, Shelley writes in “A Defence of Poetry”, “…awakens and enlarges the mind by rendering it the receptable of a thousand unapprehended combination of thought. Poetry lifts its veil from the hidden beauty of the world.” Consistent with this theory of poetc creation, Shelley’s Romanticism is filled with “vehement feelings, ecstatic, mournful, passionate, desperate or fiercely indignant”. Sometimes he makes a sudden turn of the theme and talks about himself just like the movements in Beethoven’s symphonies. It is in this that he is unique among the Romantics—looking for a better world of liberty, equality and fraternity in his idealistic project of life. For this, he is seen to be pessimistic about the present but highly optimistic about the future to come.

The Romantic poets made frequent use of the wind as a soothing symbol. But in Shelley’s treatment it is not a “correspondent breeze”; it is rather ferocious in its energy. M.H. Abrams says “because of the ferocity the wind becomes a vast impersonal force, which the poet needs as a symbol of both destruction and creation”. Herein lies the importance of the wind as the metaphor for revolutionary social change.

In the very first stanza West Wind appears with an accumulated force–a “breath of Autumn’s being”—to blow away the dead leaves. Shelley compares the West Wind to a magician because, just as a powerful magician drives away ghosts, the wind performs same kind of operation by sweeping away the dead things in autumnal nature by remaining itself invisible. The phrase “pestilence-stricken multitude” here, on the surface level, refers to the leaves, which are decomposing on the ground. But symbolically the ‘multitudes’ refers to the entire human society, which, the poet thinks, in a state of degeneration.

“…O thou

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wing’d seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave.”

The West Wind carries the seeds with wing-like devices down to the ground where those remain dormant. During spring, however, when Zephyr, the warm and gentle wind will blow across the land, the seeds, shooting forth from the ground, will grow into plants. Here Shelley seems to have a very swift vision of the spring. He sees that just as with the onset of spring shepherds go out with their flocks of sheep for tending on the green field, the gentle breeze similarly causes the buds to bloom and carry the fragrances from one place to another. The West Wind moves with a terrific force and makes massacre of all that stand in its way. But it takes care to preserve the seeds under the soil so as to ensure a resurrection in the world of nature with the advent of the spring. In this way, the West Wind becomes both a “destroyer and preserver”.

In the second stanza the wind changes its field of operation; it is set in air, in the “steep sky”. The West Wind, while operating in the sky, moves along with all its might, Shelley imagines, just as the stream of a river. In so doing it forces accumulated clouds—right from the surface of the ocean up to the sky—to disintegrate. The Wind performs this kind of function by forcing the clouds to—just as it the leaves of the trees to fall off. Shelley here may be referring to the scientific fact that clouds are created in the sky out of the evaporation of water from the surface of the water bodies on earth. But in the immediate context of the poem, he must have observed the clouds to have been accumulated right from the surface of the ocean up to the great heights of the sky. That is why he imagines the clouds as the inter-connected boughs of the ocean and the sky. Shelley compares the clouds ravaged by the power of the wind to the uplifted hair of a Maenad in order to convey the sense that the West Wind operates possessed by some supernatural force.

In the European seasonal cycle, autumn is the season which stands just before winter, at the end of which a year closes. So before the coming of winter West Wind passes over earth destroying the old degenerate things and making horrible sounds. The howling of the wind is, therefore, imagined by the poet to be the dirge or the funeral song for the closing year. Shelley here addresses the clouds, accumulated from the surface of the ocean up to the great heights of the sky, as “angels of rain and lightning” because they obviously indicate that rain and lightning are approaching soon.

By the expression “the dome of a vast sepulchre” Shelley here refers to the closing night which will serve as the dome of a vast tomb, in which the closing year will be buried. The accumulated water vapors also make the roof over the dying year and the atmosphere seems to be solid because of thick layers of dense clouds. The point is that Wind operates with the same and single point agenda: it destroys the dead and preserves the living.

In the third stanza the realm of the ruling West Wind is the sea, both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and both the surface and the vegetation beneath. Shelley here has personified the Mediterranean, which perhaps in its sleep is dreaming of destruction of the palaces. During summer the Mediterranean and the Roman palaces and, the towers which remain submerged, are all quiet as if they seem to be sleeping because no storms appear to ruffle the surface of the sea in that season. But the wind agitates the sea and the palaces seem to quiver on account of the tremendous motion of the waves. This may be easily taken for allusions to Shelley’s hope for political change in Italy, for the collapse of the kings and kingdoms. Shelley here must have tried to bring home a political philosophy. The old palaces and towers symbolize corrupt, degenerate and old power, old order and institutions. All these should be destroyed, the poet dreams along with the sea, in order to make way for new beginning.

As the scene shifts to the Atlantic, “the somnolent summer yields to the ruthless autumn”. The reader is taken not only to the Atlantic, where its smooth surface has turned into a deep waves, but under it, where woods and foliage are forced to dispossess themselves of foliage upon hearing the Wind’s voice.

The fourth stanza begins, as pointed out by Michael Ferver somewhat the way Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” begins, by briefly recapitulating the themes of the first three movements. Now, the Wind is seen in the fourth stanza in relation to the poet himself:

“If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;

If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee.”

As an idealist and as an extremely sensitive soul, Shelley was in much distress to see mankind exploited and being dehumanized by the corrupt, degenerate and old political powers and institutions. He wanted to see mankind reach an ideal state of life based on fraternity, equality and democracy. And that is why he was seeking revolution, which he refers to as his “sore need”. Shelley erupts in Romantic agony,

“Oh! Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”

The poet wants to preach the words of revolution to mankind. But he knows that lacks the energy to do so. In order to acquire the strength and speed of the West Wind, he wants to be a piece of cloud, a leaf and a wave. The poet now remembers that in his boyhood he was full of energy and vigor, and as such that he would not refrain himself from competing with the cloudlets borne away in the sky by the wind. But now he lacks the energy to do so and that is why he seeks to be invaded by the fierce wind so that he may be supplied with energy and inspiration. Again, Shelley here thinks of himself as having accumulated the degenerate habits and ideas. In order to be refreshed and reinvigorated, the poet invites or rather prays to the Wind to invade his self. He wants this also with the intention of acquiring some of the fierce energy of the wind in this process. The West Wind comes into being during autumn with its predestined function of destroying the old and degenerate, thereby paving the way for the new. As it is destructive, its processes are bound to have certain sad implications. But destruction is also a necessary prelude to a new awakening, which implies sweetness.

He longs to be invaded by the fierce spirit of the Wind and cleaves with it to become,

“…through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of my prophecy!”

At last he is optimistic of the future and closes the poem with a prophecy:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

It becomes clear that the poet invokes the example of the operations of the west wind in nature because, in turn, he wants to spread his message of resurrection through this poem and other poems he plans to compose. In other words, an evidence of a natural phenomenon in nature turns out to be a poetic inspiration for him.



1. Why does Shelley compare the West Wind to a magician?

Or, Explain the expression, “Like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing".

Or, In what sense does the West Wind become an ‘enchanter’?

Ans: Shelley compares the West Wind to a magician because, just as a powerful magician drives away ghosts, the wind performs same kind of operation by sweeping away the dead things in autumnal nature by remaining itself invisible.

2. Why does Shelley address the Wind as “the breath of Autumn’s being”?

Ans: Shelley imagines the West Wind here as a restless anthropomorphising force, as a spirit, which comes to being as a result of special climactic condition during the season, autumn.

Who are referred to as “pestilence-stricken multitude”?

Ans: The phrase here, on the surface level, refers to the leaves, which are decomposing on the ground. But symbolically the ‘multitudes’ refers to the entire human society, which, the poet thinks, in a state of degeneration.

3. “Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air”—Explain the expression.

Ans: With the onset of spring shepherds go out with their flocks of sheep for tending on the green field. The gentle breeze similarly, the poet imagines, causes the buds to bloom and carry the fragrances from one place to another.

4. What is referred to here as “azure sister of the spring”? What is its significance in relation to the West Wind?

Ans: The West Wind carries the seeds with wing-like devices down to the ground where those remain dormant. During spring, however, when Zephyr, the warm and gentle wind will blow across the land, the seeds, shooting forth from the ground, will grow into plants.

Why is the West Wind called “destroyer and preserver”?

Ans: The West Wind moves with a terrific force and makes massacre of all that stand in its way. But it takes care to preserve the seeds under the soil so as to ensure a resurrection in the world of nature with the advent of the spring. In this way, the West Wind becomes both a “destroyer and preserver”.

5. Explain the expression “winged seeds”.

Ans: Certain plants and trees in nature produce seeds which are formed in such physical condition that those may be transported by the wind from one place to another. This natural device is employed by the plants and trees to perpetuate their lines over a wide area of land. Shelley suggests that the West Wind performs just this function in nature.

6. How does Shelley equate “Loose clouds” with “earth’s decaying leaves”?

Ans: The West Wind, while operating in the sky, moves along with all its might, Shelley imagines, just as the stream of a river. In so doing it forces accumulated clouds—right from the surface of the ocean up to the sky—to disintegrate. The Wind performs this kind of function by forcing the clouds to—just as it the leaves of the trees to fall off.

7. Explain the expression “...tangled boughs of heaven and ocean”.

Ans: Shelley here may be referring to the scientific fact that clouds are created in the sky out of the evaporation of water from the surface of the water bodies on earth. But in the immediate context of the poem, he must have observed the clouds to have been accumulated right from the surface of the ocean up to the great heights of the sky. That is why he imagines the clouds as the inter-connected boughs of the ocean and the sky.

8. Who is a Maenad? Why does Shelley compare the clouds to the uplifted hair of a Maenad?

Ans: Maenad is a frenzied woman-worshipper of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. Shelley compares the clouds ravaged by the power of the wind to the uplifted hair of a Maenad in order to convey the sense that the West Wind operates possessed by some supernatural force.

9. Why does Shelley call the West Wind, “dirge of the dying year”?

Ans: In the European seasonal cycle, autumn is the season which stands just before winter, at the end of which a year closes. So before the coming of winter West Wind passes over earth destroying the old degenerate things and making horrible sounds. The howling of the wind is, therefore, imagined by the poet to be the dirge or the funeral song for the closing year.

10. Whom does Shelley address as “angels of rain and lightning” and why?

Ans: Shelley here addresses the clouds, accumulated from the surface of the ocean up to the great heights of the sky, as “angels of rain and lightning” because they obviously indicate that rain and lightning are approaching soon.

11. What does Shelley refer to as “the dome of a vast sepulchre”?

Ans: By the expression Shelley here refers to the closing night which will serve as the dome of a vast tomb, in which the closing year will be buried. The accumulated water vapours also make the roof over the dying year and the atmosphere seems to be solid because of thick layers of dense clouds.

12. How does Shelley personify “the Mediterranean”?

Ans: During summer the Mediterranean and the Roman palaces and, the towers which remain submerged, are all quiet as if they seem to be sleeping because no storms appear to ruffle the surface of the sea in that season. But the wind agitates the sea and the palaces seem to quiver on account of the tremendous motion of the waves.

13. Explain the line: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”.

Ans: At the very end of the fourth stanza of the poem “Ode to the West Wind” Shelley refers to the troubles, sorrows and the bitter disappointment of life which are inevitable to every human being. Shelley was no exception to it. More importantly, as he was an idealistic and Romantic, he was deeply hurt by the bitter experiences of life.

14. Where is Baiae’s Bay?

Ans: The Baiae’s Bay is situated on the western coast of Italy near Naples. Vesuvius stands close to the Bay. The Bay is famous for islands formed from the deposit of lava.

15. What is the significance of the phrase “old palaces and towers quivering”?

Ans: Shelley here must have tried to bring home a political philosophy. The old palaces and towers symbolise corrupt, degenerate and old power, old order and institutions. All these should be destroyed, the poet dreams along with the sea, in order to make way for new beginning.

16. What does the poet refer to as “sore need”

Or, What is the “sore need” the poet refers to?

Ans: As an idealist and as an extremely sensitive soul, Shelley was in much distress to see mankind exploited and being dehumanised by the corrupt, degenerate and old political powers and institutions. He wanted to see mankind reach an ideal state of life based on fraternity, equality and democracy. And that is why he was seeking revolution, which he refers to as his “sore need”.

17. “If even I were in my boyhood...seemed a vision”—Explain.

Ans: The poet now remembers that in his boyhood he was full of energy and vigour, and as such that he would not refrain himself from competing with the cloudlets borne away in the sky by the wind. But now he lacks the energy to do so and that is why he seeks to be invaded by the fierce wind so that he may be supplied with energy and inspiration. (The expression “scare seemed a vision” means it did not seem impossible in his boyhood.)

18. Why does the poet wish to be “a dead leaf”, “a swift cloud” and “a wave”?

Or, Why does the poet wish to “share the impulse of thy strength”?

Ans: The poet wants to preach the words of revolution to mankind. But he knows that lacks the energy to do so. In order to acquire the strength and speed of the West Wind, he wants to be a piece of cloud, a leaf and a wave.

19. “Make me thy lyre”—Explain.

Ans: Shelley here in the poem Ode to the West Wind thinks of himself as having accumulated the degenerate habits and ideas. In order to be refreshed and reinvigorated, the poet invites or rather prays to the Wind to invade his self. He wants this also with the intention of acquiring some of the fierce energy of the wind in this process.

20. “The tumult of thy mighty harmonies/

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone

Sweet though in sadness—”

Why does Shelley say this? How can sweetness remain side by side sadness?

Ans: The West Wind, the poet thinks, comes into being during autumn with its predestined function of destroying the old and degenerate, thereby paving the way for the new. As it is destructive, its processes are bound to have certain sad implications. But destruction is also a necessary prelude to a new awakening, which implies sweetness.

21. What does Shelley want to mean by “Thy mighty harmonies”?

Ans: The West Wind, as it blows across the world, produces horrible sounds. The poet takes it for granted that the wind possesses a pattern of its operation like musical composition. But since it is destructive in nature, its sounds are horrible.

22. “Drive my dead thoughts...my words among mankind”—Explain.

Ans: Towards the end of the poem “Ode to the West Wind”, it becomes clear that the poet invokes the example of the operations of the west wind in nature because, in turn, he wants to spread his message of resurrection through this poem and other poems he plans to compose. In other words, an evidence of a natural phenomenon in nature turns out to be a poetic inspiration for him.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dream Children: A Reverie by Chales Lamb

The E-Text of Dream Children: A Reverie

Children love to listen to stories about their elders, when they were children; to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great-uncle, or grandame, whom they never saw. It was in this spirit that my little ones crept about, me the other evening to hear about their great-grandmother Field, who lived in a great house in Norfolk (a hundred times bigger than that in which they and papa lived) which had been the scene— so at least it was generally believed in that part of the country— of the tragic incidents which they had lately become familiar with from the ballad of the Children in the Wood. Certain it is that the whole story of the children and their cruel uncle was to be seen fairly carved out in wood upon the chimney-piece of the great hall, the whole story down to the Robin Redbreasts, till a foolish rich Person pulled it down to set up a marble one of modern invention in its stead, with no story upon it. Here Alice put out one of her dear mother's looks, too tender to be called upbraiding. Then I went on to say, how religious and how good their great. grandmother Field was, how beloved and respected by every body, though she was not indeed the mistress of this great house, but had only the charge of it (and yet in some respects she might be said to be the mistress of it too) committed to her by the owner, who preferred living in a newer and more fashionable mansion which he had purchased somewhere in the adjoining county; but still she lived in it in a manner as if it had been her own, and kept up the dignity of the great house in a sort while she lived, which afterwards came to decay, and was nearly pulled down, and all its old ornaments stripped and carried away to the owner's other house, where they were set up, and looked as awkward as if some one were to carry away the old tombs they had seen lately at the Abbey, and stick them up in Lady C.'s tawdry gilt drawing-room. Here John smiled, as much as to say, "that would be foolish indeed." And then I told how, when she came to die, her funeral was attended by a concourse of all the poor, and some of the gentry too, of the neighbourhood for many miles round, to show their respect for her memory, because she had been such a good and religious woman; so good indeed that she knew all the Psaltery by heart, ay, and a great part of the Testament besides. Here little Alice spread her hands. Then I told what a tall, upright, graceful person their great-grandmother Field once was; and how in her youth she was esteemed the best dancer— here Alice's little right foot played an involuntary movement, till, upon my looking grave, it desisted— the best dancer, I was saying, in the county, till a cruel disease, called a cancer, came, and bowed her down with pain; but it could never bend her good spirits, or make them stoop, but they were still upright, because she was so good and religious. Then I told how she was used to sleep by herself in a lone chamber of the great lone house; and how she believed that an apparition of two infants was to be seen at midnight gliding up and down the great staircase near where she slept, but she said "those innocents would do her no harm;" and how frightened I used to be, though in those days I had my maid to sleep with me, because I was never half so good or religious as she— and yet I never saw the infants. Here John expanded all his eye-brows and tried to look courageous. Then I told how good she was to all her grand-children, having us to the great-house in the holydays, where I in particular used to spend many hours by myself, in gazing upon the old busts of the Twelve Caesars, that had been Emperors of Rome, till the old marble heads would seem to live again, or I to be turned into marble with them; how I never could be tired with roaming about that huge mansion, with its vast empty rooms, with their worn-out hangings, fluttering tapestry, and carved oaken pannels, with the gilding almost rubbed out— sometimes in the spacious old-fashioned gardens, which I had almost to myself, unless when now and then a solitary gardening man would cross me— and how the nectarines and peaches hung upon the walls, without my ever offering to pluck them, because they were forbidden fruit, unless now and then, and because I had more pleasure in strolling about among the old melancholy-looking yew trees, or the firs, and picking up the red berries, and the fir apples, which were good for nothing but to look at— or in lying a out upon the fresh grass, with all the fine garden smells around me— or basking in the orangery, till I could almost fancy myself ripening too along with the oranges and the limes in that grateful warmth— or in watching the dace that darted to and fro in the fish-pond, at the bottom of the garden, with here and there a great sulky pike hanging midway down the water in silent state, as if it mocked at their impertinent frisking, — I had more pleasure in these busy-idle diversions than in all the sweet flavours of peaches, nectarines, oranges, and such like common baits of children. Here John slyly deposited back upon the plate a bunch of grapes, which, not unobserved by Alice, he had meditated dividing with her, and both seemed willing to relinquish them for the present as irrelevant. Then in somewhat a more heightened tone, I told how, though their great-grandmother Field loved all her grand-children, yet in an especial manner she might be said to love their uncle, John L—, because he was so handsome and spirited a youth, and a king to the rest of us; and, instead of moping about in solitary corners, like some of us, he would mount the most mettlesome horse he could get, when but an imp no bigger than themselves, and make it carry him half over the county in a morning, and join the hunters when there were any out— and yet he loved the old great house and gardens too, but had too much spirit to be always pent up within their boundaries -- and how their uncle grew up to man's estate as brave as he was handsome, to the admiration of every body, but of their great-grandmother Field most especially; and how he used to carry me upon his back when I was a lame- footed boy — for he was a good bit older than me — many a mile when I could not walk pain; -- and how in after life he became lame-footed too, and I did not always (I fear) make allowances enough for him when he was impatient, and in pain, nor remember sufficiently how considerate he had been to me when I was lame- footed; and how when he died, though he had not been dead an hour, it seemed as if he had died a great while ago, such a distance there is betwixt life and death; and how I bore his death as I thought pretty well at first, but afterwards it haunted and haunted me; and though I did not cry or take it to heart as some do, and as I think he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him all day long, and knew not till then how much I had loved him. I missed his kindness, and I missed his crossness, and wished him to be alive again, to be quarrelling with him (for we quarrelled sometimes), rather than not have him again, and was as uneasy without him, as he their poor uncle must have been when the doctor took off his limb. Here the children fell a crying, and asked if their little mourning which they had on was not for uncle John, and they looked up, and prayed me not to go on about their uncle, but to tell them, some stories about their pretty dead mother. Then I told how for seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice W—n; and, as much as children could understand, I explained to them what coyness, and difficulty, and denial meant in maidens — when suddenly, turning to Alice, the soul of the first Alice looked out at her eyes with such a reality of re-presentment, that I became in doubt which of them stood there before me, or whose that bright hair was; and while I stood gazing, both the children gradually grew fainter to my view, receding, and still receding till nothing at last but two mournful features were seen in the uttermost distance, which, without speech, strangely impressed upon me the effects of speech: "We are not of Alice, nor of thee, nor are we children at all. The children of Alice called Bartrum father. We are nothing; less than nothing, and dreams. We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name" — and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor arm-chair, where I had fallen asleep, with the faithful Bridget unchanged by my side— but John L. (or James Elia) was gone for ever.

  1. Why is the essay entitled “Dream Children”?

Ans: Charles Lamb entitled the essay “Dream Children” because he never married and naturally never became the father of any children. The children he speaks of in the essay were actually the creations of his imagination or fancy.

2. Who was Field? How does Lamb present her before his dream children?

Ans: Field, pseudonym for the actual person, was Lamb’s grandmother. Lamb presents her as an ideal grandmother in an imaginary and inflated way before his “dream children”—she was extremely pious, fearless and compassionate person besides being the best dancer of the area in her youth.

3. Why is the essay entitled “A Reverie”?

Ans: The essay is subtitled as a ‘reverie’ because Lamb never married and so he never had children. In the essay he created an imaginary picture of a happy conjugal life—a picture which finally dissolves into nothing as he comes back to reality.

4. How does Lamb present his brother John L—?

Ans: Lamb’s elder brother, John L—in his youth was a handsome, high-spirited, strong and fearless person. He loved Lamb very much. But subsequently in his old age he became lame-footed and spent the rest of his life in utter hopelessness, irritation and pain.

5. Whom does Lamb refer to as “faithful Bridget” by side?

Ans: Lamb had a sister, Mary Lamb, who did not marry since she had attacks of insanity. She has been referred to here as “faithful Bridget” because she never married and was Lamb’s only companion in his life. At the sudden breakdown of his reverie, he finds her seated by his side.

6. What, according to you, is the most striking feature of the essay and why?

Ans: The chief characteristic feature of the essay is the author’s mingling of pathos and humour. Lamb begins the essay in somewhat deceptive fashion, describing the incidents, full of humour. But gradually he reduces the tone towards the end describing the tragedies of his personal life.

7. How does Lamb present the autobiographical elements in the essay?

Or, Why is the essay called a personal essay?

Or, What type of essay is Dream Children?

Ans: Dream Children is a personal essay. Lamb presents the characters and incidents from his own life—the sketches of his grandmother, Field, his brother—John Lamb, his sister—Mary Lamb, his tragic love-affairs with Ann Simmons. But Lamb is always playing with facts and fictions and transforms the real into the literary.

8. How does Lamb show his knowledge of child psychology?

Ans: It is surprising that without ever having children Lamb had acute sense of how children react to the happenings in the world of the adults. By deceptively referring to the meticulous reactions of his dream children, he succeeds in catching the reader immediately. The aesthetic impact of the essay becomes more effective for this reason.

9. “...till the old marble heads would seem to be live again...to be turned into marble with them”—Where does the expression occur? Explain the context.

Ans: Lamb told his “dream children” that in his boyhood he would enjoy rambling in and around the great country house in Norfolk. He would gaze at the twelve marble busts of Caesars in such an intensely meditative way that it seemed to him after some time that those were coming back to life again, or that he would be himself transformed into marble with them.

10. Where does the expression “busy-idle diversion” occur? What does the author mean by this?

Ans: Lamb told his “dream children” that in his boyhood he would enjoy rambling in and around the great country house in Norfolk more than the sweet fruits of the orchard. He would remain busy with this though he had no work to do.

11. “When he died though he had not been...died great while ago”.

Who is referred to as ‘he’? Why is he spoken of?

Ans: Lamb loved his brother John L— very much. But very shortly after his death it seemed to him that death had created such an immeasurable vacuum in his life that it made impossible for him to comprehend the significance of the difference between life and death.

12. “...such a distance there is betwixt life and death”—Explain the significance of the line in light of the context.

Ans: the immediate absence of his brother John Lamb created by his death forced Lamb to feel the gulf the difference between life and death. He understood that death created a permanent absence as the dead cannot be restored to life. Again, death is unknowable and Lamb was forced to reflect on his brother’s absence in this way.

13. “...the soul of first Alice looked out at her eyes with such reality of re-presentment that I came in doubt”—Who was Alice? What does the word ‘re-presentment’ mean here?

Ans: In the course of his day-dreaming when Lamb looked at his dream-daughter, her physical resemblance reminded him of his dream-girl Alice W—n, a fictitious name for Ann Simmons who did reciprocate his love.

14. “But John L—(or James Elia) was gone forever”—Who was James Elia? Why does the author say this?

Ans: At the end of his day-dreaming Lamb coming back to reality finds his sister (Bridget) Mary Lamb by his side; but he realises and remembers that his brother James Elia or John Lamb had died and would no more be with them. So he laments his loss thus.

15. “Here Alice put out one of her dear mother’s looks, too tender to be called upbraiding”—What does the word ‘braiding’ mean here? What makes Alice react thus?

Ans: While describing the great country house in Norfolk, lamb tells his “dream children” that the chimney piece of the great hall was decorated by the curving of the story of Robin Redbreasts. At the information that a foolish person pulled it down, Alice’s countenance changed, which suggested that it should not have been done. The word ‘braiding’ here means castigation or censure.

16. How does Lamb record Alice’s reactions to his story-telling?

Ans: While listening to Lamb’s personal tale, Alice reacts firs by spreading her hands when Lamb says how good, religious and graceful person Field had been. Alice reacts to it either in great astonishment or putting up some pious gesture. She also cries out When Lamb talks about his elder brother’s pain and death.

17. How does Lamb record John’s reactions to his story-telling?

Ans: At the information of the great house being stripped off its ornaments John smiled, which suggested the foolishness of the work. He was trying to look brave and impress upon his father that he would not have been afraid of the ghosts like his father. At the end of the story, when Lamb was talking of his elder brother’s pain and death, John, like Alice, began to cry.


Exercises

1. Give a pen-picture of Field.

2. How would you comment on the style of the essay?

3. “...We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence and a name.”—Explain the context.

Or, What is the significance of the river Lethe here?

Or, Why are the shores of Lethe called ‘tedious’

Or, Why should the ‘dream’ children wait for million years for their existence and name?

[All are important]

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Shelley's To a Skylark Text, Analysis and Questions Answers

To a skylark

Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strain of unpremeditated art.

Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O'er which clouds are brightning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of heaven,
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight.

Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear,
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.

All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflow'd.

What thou art we know not:,
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see,
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.

Like a poet hidden,
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not;

Like a high-born maiden
In a palace-tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower;

Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Scattering unbeholden
Its aerial hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view;

Like a rose embower'd
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflower'd,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet these heavy-winged thieves:

Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awaken'd flowers,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine;
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine;

Chorus hymeneal,
Or triumphal chaunt,
Match'd with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt -
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be -
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest - but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.

Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound -
Better than all treasures
That in books are found -
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world should listen then, as I am listening now!

Critical Interpretation, Summary and Analysis of Shelley’s To a Skylark

In Livorno in June of 1820, according to Mary Shelley, on a beautiful evening, she and Shelley heard the carolling of a lark, and that inspired the poet to compose the poem. The attempt turns out to be one in imitation of the bird’s skill. In his Defence of Poetry, he wrote, “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician...” but the bird here is skylark, not nightingale. What the birds share, of course, is their invisibility, their reduction to pure bodiless voice. Therefore we are to take the part as a symbolic representation of bodiless audible beauty that strives, like the one in Plato’s Phaedrus, up towards perfection. What matters for the poet is not any particular bird or thing, but is the idea of beauty. The skylark can sustain a loud, merry musical note at great height while flying, and only while flying, and they sometimes fly so high that can only be heard and not seen. All these natural facts were sufficient to inspire Shelley to start the poem by calling the bird a spirit, “Hail to thee, Blithe spirit”. That Shelley calls the bird’s art “Profuse strains of unpremeditated art” often gives a clue to the critics to call Shelley’s poem itself an exercise of unpremeditated art. The next stanza provides the movement and activity of the bird, and this in turn becomes applicable to the whole poem:

“higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest,

Like a cloud of fire,

The blue deep thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.”

As Shelley saw the bird singing in evening time he ignored the literary fact that larks are morning birds, which Shakespeare relied upon for his famous debate between Romeo and Juliet over whether the bird they have heard is the nightingale or the lark. For, above all, Shelley is concerned here with “an unbodied joy whose race has just begun”. The point of reference takes the safe propagandas between the visible and the invisible which may have the philosophical dimension of the dialectics of the material and the spiritual:

“Like a star of heaven

In the broad day-light.”

It even elicits the sense of existence in bodiless beauty, beauty, as the idealist philosophers would believe, is essentially bodiless. As a poet Shelley enjoys the lark’s outpourings as it can give him aesthetic pleasure.

In the eighth stanza Shelley likens the bird to “a poet hidden/In the light of thought”, and here we come to understand something of his intention. But the bird is not hidden in “the light of thought”. It is surrounded by its own happy outpourings. In the subsequent four stanzas, the bird’s song is likened to a high-born maiden’s song, to s glow worm’s aerial hue, to a rose’s fragrance, to the “sound of vernal shower” and the different types of simile establish the one fact that “All that ever was/Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.”

Now the bird’s perfection of arts is seen in contrast to the imperfection of human life and arts as well. Here the bird comes nearer the one Plato’s Phaedrus, which is an example of how and why human beings should try to achieve the ideal. In an agonising gesture Shelley questions the bird what philosophy of life enables it to live in the realm of perfection. The archetype of fountain as a symbol of poetic inspiration comes in Shelley’s mind along with the beautiful forms of nature, ‘fields’, ‘waves’, ‘mountains’ and so on. In the next stanza the lark’s joyfulness is seen in contrast to the inevitable short life of the highest human emotion, love:

“Thou lovest but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.”

So in Shelley art and life become inter-related and this is evident in the question—“What ignorance of pain”. The poet has confronted with the paradoxes of life:

“We look before and after,

And pine for what is not”.

Shakespeare in Hamlet makes his Prince utter similar words:

“Sure he that made us with such large discourse

Looking before and after gave us not

That capability and Godlike reason.”

The crux of the matter is that like a great poet Shelley has also come to understand the great divide in the human psyche,

“Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

The reason he traces is human adherence to “the ground” or the material world opposed to the spiritual world as Plato taught. The lark can achieve perfection because it is “scorner of the ground”. This is where we come to the difference of attitude of the two Romantic poets, Shelley and Wordsworth. Shelley’s skylark is an inhabitant of purely ethereal arena and is a symbol of perfection. On the other hand, Wordsworth’s skylark in his poem To a Skylark is an inhabitant of both earth and ether:

“Type of the wise who soar, but never roam;
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!

In the last stanza Shelley has stated his intention clearly. He longs to follow or imitate the eudemonic being and learn the “harmonious madness”. This Platonic concept of divine frenzy clearly indicates Shelley’s desire for artistic creation which will be perfect products, and he perhaps thinks that this is possible only in art or imagination, not in real life. To conclude, it is perhaps natural for the great souls to feel what Goethe’s Faust tells his student:

“It is inborn in each of us

That our feelings thrust upward and forward

While over us, lost in blue space

The lark sings its thrilling songs.”

Towards the end of the poem the skylark is transfigured into a sort of poetic inspiration for the poet as he desperately craves for the possession of the artistic qualities essential for the creation of his own poetry.

  1. *Why does the poet address the skylark, a bird as a spirit/”a blithe spirit”?

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” Shelley is listening to the song of a bird, which is itself invisible. It seems to the poet that the bird, while singing, soaring high above the ground, has lost its physical existence and has become a spirit. Shelley is here trying to represent the bird as an abstract quality of pure joy, a quality so poignantly missing in the humans.

2. Explain the expression “profuse strains of unpremeditated art ”.

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” the birds are ‘unpremeditated’, that is, natural or spontaneous in the sense that those are not preconceived or pre-planned, unlike the human art, generally, or more specifically, the poet’s art, which is preconceived. Shelley is here trying to represent the bird as an abstract quality of pure joy, a quality so poignantly missing in the humans.

3. *Explain the simile “Like a cloud of fire”.

Or, Why does Shelley introduce the image of fire in the poem?

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” the bird in its venture up in the sky is compared to a cloud lit up by the rays of the setting sun at twilight. Thus Shelley links the bird to the image of fire in order to emphasise the bird’s abstract existence as a quality having the power to purify the human mind.

4. ***“Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun”—Explain.

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” Shelley seeks to convey the idea that in its flight for singing, the bird, as if, has found a new life, a life of abstract delight which is possible only by transcending the body and becoming a spirit.

5. **“Keen as the arrows...we feel that it is there”. Explain the lines.

AnsAns: The skylark is imagined here to be venturing up in the sky at dawn when Venus, the morning star shines brightly before its disappearance. The comparison, implicit here, is that the bird is seen momentarily before its swift arrow-like disappearance in the sky. However, its presence can be felt from its song.

6. 6. **“When the night is bare...heaven is overflow’d”—Explain the situation imagined by the poet.

Ans: In the poem “To a Skylark” the bird’s pouring out of numbers is compared to a full moon’s shining from above on the ground. Its song has moved the poet so immensely that it seems to him that it has filled the air under the earth with its melodies.

7. ***“Like a poet hidden/In the light of thought.”—Explain the simile used by the poet.

Or, Why does the poet compare the bird to a poet?

Ans: In a poem the presence of the poet can be felt in the radiance of the thoughts and ideas s/he intends to convey to the reader. As a poet remains physically absent yet spiritually present in a poem, the skylark remains hidden in the sky while singing.

8. ***“Till the world is wrought...it heeded not”.

What does poet mean by “hopes and fears”?

Or, What is Shelley’s view of the world’s reaction to the bird’s song?

Ans: In these lines from the poem “To a Skylark” Shelley speaks of the idealistic projects of the bird. Like a poet the bird, it seems to the poet, is concerned with those activities, which worldly men cannot aspire to do. But they are led to sympathise with the bird for such idealistic activities with the mixed emotions of hopes and fears.

9. **“Like a high-born maiden...in secret hour”—Bring out the justification of the simile.

Ans: Shelley here stretches out his imagination further to compare the skylark to a maiden confined in her secret chamber. Just as an aristocratic maiden sings in her secret chamber at midnight to soothe her love-sick mind from high above the ground, the bird, it seems to the poet, is similarly pouring out music.

10. **“Teach us, spirit or bird...a flood of rapture so divine”—Why does the poet say so?

Ans: The poet is very much pained to find his own world filled with sorrows and anxieties whereas the skylark remains untouched and unaffected by all these things. To him the bird is a bodiless embodiment of joy, and that is why he seeks inspiration of “sweet thoughts” in its song.

11. ***“Chorus hymeneal ...But an empty vaunt”—Explain.

Ans: Shelley thinks that, compared to the skylark’s song the marriage songs or songs of victory would be nothing but empty hollow boasting; for, he feels that in those songs joy cannot be fully expressed.

12. ***“What objects are the fountains...What ignorance pain”—Explain.

Ans: The poet is here desperate to find out the inspiration of those things which remain behind the Skylark’s production of pure joy. This becomes necessary for Shelley since he finds his own world, the human world with pain, sorrow and anxiety that do not allow him to sing in pure joy.

13. ***“Waking or asleep...we mortals dream”—Why does Shelley refer to death here in the context of the skylark’s song?

Ans: What Shelley wants to convey here is that human understanding and experience of joy always remain affected or limited by an unseen overhanging presence of death. On the contrary, the skylark, Shelley presupposes, must have remained unconscious of or oblivious to death. Otherwise, it would not have been possible for it to sing so purely.

14. ***“We look before and after...Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts”—Explain.

Ans: What Shelley wants to convey here is that, because of the dominance of sorrows in life—arising out of our mundane attachment to things—the songs, which refer to our sorrows, appeal to us most. This view is, however, psychologically justified as we find echoes of our own sorrows experienced in real life in sad songs. This happens, Shelley tells us, because we go by mundane calculations. [We find here some of the Shakespearean echoes from Macbeth.]

15. **“If we were things born...Not to shed a tear”

What does Shelley want to mean by the unfulfilled wishes?

Ans: Shelley acknowledges that there are human limitations to experiencing pure as opposed to the skylark. That is why the poet laments that, had human beings been born without those limitations, it would have been possible for them to reach the realm of perfection the bird lives in.

16. ***“...the scorner of the ground”—Why is the skylark called so?

Ans: The skylark sings soaring high above the ground. The ground here symbolically stands for the harsh mundane realities, which affect human appreciation and experience of joy and beauty greatly. The bird can sing so perfectly, the poet thinks, because it hates the mundane world and flies high above it.

17. **“Teach me half the gladness...as I am listening now”—Explain.

Ans: At the final stanza of the poem, Shelley seeks inspiration in the bird’s song for his own purpose, that is, creating poetry. Following the classical Greek tradition he longs for “harmonious madness” or the poetic frenzy, which was considered essential for poetic creativity.

18. **How does Shelley turn the bird’s song into a source of poetic inspiration?

Ans: Towards the end of the poem the skylark is transfigured into a sort of poetic inspiration for the poet as he desperately craves for the possession of the artistic qualities essential for the creation of his own poetry.

19. *What is Shelley’s philosophy implicit in the flight of the bird?

Ans: Shelley, following flight of the soul described by Plato in his ‘Phaedrus’, preaches his idealistic philosophy that, if human beings want at all to reach at the level of perfect happiness and joy, they must rise above the mundane existence.

20. **What is the difference between Shelley’s skylark and that of Wordsworth?

Ans: Wordsworth’s skylark in his poem “To the Skylark” is a creature of flesh and blood, while Shelley’s skylark is a philosophical abstraction. It despises the cares and anxieties of the world while Wordsworth’s has its eyes fixed on its nest on the ground.