A Dream of The Unknown The Question: Summary & Analysis

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I dream'd that as I wander'd by the way,
Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring,
And gentle odours led my steps astray,
Mix’d 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 kiss'd it and then fled, as thou mightest in dream.

There grew pied wind-flowers and violets,
Daisies, those pearl'd Arcturi of the earth,
The constellated flower that never sets;
Faint oxlips; tender blue-bells, 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 cow-bind and the moonlight-colour'd may,
And cherry-blossoms, and white cups, whose wine
Was the bright dew yet drain'd not by the day;
And wild roses, and ivy serpentine,
With its dark buds and leaves, wandering astray;
And flowers azure, black, and streak'd with gold,
Fairer than any waken'd eyes behold.

And nearer to the river's trembling edge
There grew broad flag-flowers, purple prank 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 imprison'd children of the Hours
Within my hand,—and then, elate and gay,
I hasten'd to the spot whence I had come,
That I might there present it—O! to whom?


      This poem was composed in 1820 and published by Leigh Hunt in his Literary Pocket Book in 1822. It was probably imitated from a fragment of a poem by Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan poet and dramatist (1564-93). Marlowe's fragment was printed in a collection called England's Helicon, in 1600. For this poem, Shelley has made use of ottava rima or the Italian octave Stanza, introduced into English poetry by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the sixteenth century. It consists of eight decasyllabic lines, the first six of which rhyme alternately on the same two rhymes, while the last two form a rhyming couplet. Byron used this meter for satiric purposes, following the Italian comic poets. Shelley generally uses it for fanciful themes, as in his Witch of Atlas.


      The poet falls into a day-dream in which he feels that winter suddenly is changed into spring. Gentle odors of flowers and the musical murmur of a rivulet that flows along a rocky bank attract him to a beautiful spot of nature and he roams around the place; there he finds spotted anemones, daisies, oxlips, bluebells, lilies, eglantines, and cowbirds and many other flowers. He dreams that of these visionary flowers he makes a nosegay, arranging them in their natural order of color. He hurries back with that bunch of fragrant flowers to the spot from where he has started his stroll with an intention to give it to somebody, but the question strikes him at once—to whom he can give it?

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      The Question is one of Shelley's most beautiful nature poems. The nature imagery employed here is vivid, precise and concrete. The poet, so far as this poem is concerned, has not soared to his usual ethereal heights and for once, he has given a detailed down-to-earth description of natural objects. Some of the images are, of course, imaginary, but they are realistic in conception and do not produce a sense of vagueness or abstraction. The vividness and the sensuous appeal of the images are indeed reminiscent of Keats's poetry. The second, third, and fourth Stanzas deal with quite a number of Visionary flowers and bring them out in their true smell and color. The flowers are not only mentioned, they are glorified too. Daisies are called "pearled Arcturi of the earth, The constellated flower that never sets.'' The ''tall flower", possibly the lily, is almost humanized through a unique description:

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.

      The other flowers mentioned in the poem—eglantine, cherry blossoms, roses, ivy, flag-flowers etc.—are all described in accurate detail which indicates Shelley's deep love and observation. Desmond King-Hele points out Shelley's treatment of flowers and other natural objects in his assessment of the poem: "In The Sensitive Plant and The Question, Shelley names thirty-six plants or flowers...Though flower-poetry is suspect as pretty-pretty today, Shelley's verses are so fluent and unassuming that criticism would be almost a lapse in taste...Nature-poems like The Question, reveal Shelley's obvious delight in detail, in the delicate tracery of flowers, leaves, foam, frost and clouds".


      L. 2. bare winter—winter devoid of plants and flowers. L. 5. shelving bank of turf—grassy sloping bank. L. 6. copse—a wood of small growth for periodical cutting. L. 9. pied varied colors. L. 11. constellated— clustered together. L. 13. the sod scarce heaved—even the grass did not move. sod—grass covered surface of the ground. L. 17. lush—rich and juicy. L. 18. may—hawthome. L. 20. yet...day—not yet sucked up by the sun. L. 21. ivy serpentine—the ivy creeper winds sinuously like a serpent. L. 22. flznre—sky-blue. L. 26. prank—adorned, flag-flowers— yellow wild Iris. L. 27. sedge—some species of weed. L. 31. bulrush—a watery plant. L. 32. As...sheen—which gave comfort by its sober light to the eye which has been dazzled, stan—subdued glitter. L. 32. nose-gay—A small sweet scented bunch of flowers. L. 35. their natural bowers—those shady places where they grow of themselves. L. 36. array—arrangement. L. 3Z these imprison 'd....Hours—the Horae ('Hours’) were the go esses o the weather and the seasons, worshipped at Athens as young widens. L. 38. elate—excited. L. 40. If—the nosegay, which can only be presented to Shelley's ideal woman.

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