A Lament: (O World! O Life! O Time!) Summary & Analysis

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A Lament
Or
O World! O Life! O Time!

Text
O World! O Life! O Time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before;
When will return the glory of your, prime?
No more—O, never more!

Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight:
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more—O, never more!

Summary & Analysis

Introduction

      The poem, A Lament: (O World! O Life! O Time!) written in 1821, was published by Mrs. Shelley in Posthumous Poems, 1824. It is perhaps the most poignant and intensely personal of Shelley's short poems. The short poems written by Shelley during this period were rich and varied. It was perhaps the happiest time in Shelley's life. He had no pressing worries, enjoyed good health, and found a good friend in Williams, who steered him towards an outdoor life. The sad poems of this period were perhaps written during his moments of reflection on the past and indicate that the memory of Emilia Viviani was still haunting him. The predominant note of these short lyrics is that of a piercing, yet a more resigned and controlled, sorrow.

Summary

      The poet imagines himself to be standing upon the very last step of Life, Time and the World; he feels that his past life is gone from him, and he fears to contemplate this irreparable loss. In despair, he asks whether the grandeur and the glory of the youthful past will ever come back to him: and he feels that it has gone never to return. This makes him realize that a certain joy and hope has gone out of his life; and that whenever he sees the seasons of the year, such as spring and summer, they only bring regret and sorrow to him, but never any feeling of joy.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      Pessimism: The underlying tone of this poem is that of real despair. The poet is disgusted with life. The world of Nature and his hours give him no joy. The changing seasons move his heart with grief, no longer with joy. His twice-repeated assertion on the question of joy returning to him—"No more—O, never more!"—reveals a deep seated mood of dejection and despondency. Yet, compared to the pessimism of other poets, Shelley's pessimism is controlled and less depressing. To Shelley, sorrow is an inevitable and beautiful part of life and is, therefore, not to be detested. A.C. Bradley's words on Shelley's melancholy apply very well to this poem: "And so also, though Shelley is profoundly melancholy, even his saddest poems do not make me feel sad, and hardly make me pity him. In this sorrow, however forlorn and deep, there is no bitterness; and in the soul that feels it and can so utter it that sorrow becomes more beautiful than beauty's self, there is something above sorrow and beyond its reach."

      Lyrical quality: Spontaneity of expression, simplicity of language and the use of appropriate metre have given the poem a rare lyrical and musical quality. Desmond King-Hele has described the poem as "near perfect apart from a clumsy third line". Shelley's daring experiment of suppressing one unaccented syllable in the third line of the second Stanza:

      Fresh Spring/and sum/mer, and/win/ter hoar... evoked glowing admiration in Swinburne. Swinburne writes: "The music of this line I should have thought was a thing to thrill the veins and draw tears to the eyes"

Line By Line Explanation With Critical Comments

      LI. 1-5. O World! O Life! O Time!.....Oh, never, more! The poet looks at the world. He thinks of life in this world and of the passage of time. He has reached the last part of life and trembles with fear when he thinks of the early part of his life in which he was young and full of strength and vigor. He asks himself when the glory and strength of his youthful days will come back to him again. Then he realizes that his youth is left behind. It is never going to return. However strongly, he may wish for its return, he feels that once it is over it will never come back to him. This thought makes the poet sad.

      LI. 6-10. Out of.....O, never, more. When the poet was young, newly arrived spring season, summer and frosty winter had filled his heart with a thrill of joy. But now that delight cannot be traced in the seasons and he will never find it now. As a matter of fact, the days and nights of his life have all lost their joy. His life is full of pain, sorrow and suffering. He longs for the happy days of his early life which will not return to him now.

Annotations

      L. 1. O World! O Life! O Time!—'O' is exclamation of surprise fear, pain etc. L. 2. On whose last steps I climb—i.e. I climb the last steps to the world, life or time. The poet means to say that he is becoming old. L. 3. last steps—i.e. near death. Trembling at that—feeling nervous and worried at the disappearance of youth, where I had stood before—the period of my youth which is no more. L. 4. your prime—the first or the earliest part of life, the period of strength and vigor, the period of youth. The poet addresses the world, life and time and asks them when the period of youth, vigor and strength will return to him. L. 5. No more—O, never more—i.e. that period will never return to him: his youth, strength and vigor will never return to him. L. 6. Out of the day and night—i.e, the normal life of the poet. L. 7. A joy has taken flight— happiness has disappeared from his life. L. 8. Fresh spring—newly arrived season of spring, hoar—frost. L. 9. move—stir, faint heart—weak heart, delight—joy.

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