Arethusa: Poem by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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Arethusa arose
From her couch of snows
In the Acroceraunian mountains,—
From cloud and from crag,
With many a jag,
Shepherding her bright fountains.
She leapt down the rocks
With her rainbow locks
Streaming among the streams,—
Her steps paved with green
The downward ravine
Which slopes to the western gleams:—
And gliding and springing
She went, ever singing,
In murmurs as soft as sleep;
The Earth seemed to love her,
And Heaven smiled above her,
As she lingered towards the deep.

II
Then Alpheus bold,
On his glacier cold,
With his trident the mountains strook;
And opened a chasm
In the rocks;—with the spasm
All Erymanthus shook.
And the black south wind
It unsealed behind
The urns of the silent snow,
And earthquake and thunder
Did rend in sunder
The bars of the springs below:—
And the beard and the hair
Of the river god were
Seen through the torrent's sweep,
As he followed the light
Of the fleet nymph's flight
To the brink of the Dorian deep.

III
'Oh, save me! Oh, guide me!
And bid the deep hide me,
For he grasps me now by the hair!'
The loud Ocean heard;
To its blue depth stirred,
And divided at her prayer;
And under the water
The earth's white daughter
Fled like a sunny beam;
Behind her descended
Her billows, unblended
With the brackish Dorian stream:—
Like a gloomy stain
On the emerald main
Alpheus rushed behind,—
As an eagle pursuing
A dove to its ruin
Down the streams of the cloudy wind.

IV
Under the bowers
Where the Ocean Powers
Sit on their pearled thrones;
Through the coral woods
Of the weltering floods,
Over heaps of unvalued stones;
Through the dim beams
Which amid the streams
Weave a network of coloured light;
And under the caves,
Where the shadowy waves
Are as green as the forest's night:—
Outspeeding the shark.
And the swordfish dark,
Under the ocean foam,
And up through the rifts
Of the mountain clifts
They passed to their Dorian home.

V
And now from their fountains
In Enna's mountains,
Down one vale where the morning basks
Like friends once parted
Grown single-hearted,
They ply their watery tasks.
At sunrise they leap
From their cradles steep
In the cave of the shelving hill,—
At noontide they flow
Through the woods below:
And the meadows of asphodel,—
And at night they sleep
In the rocking deep
Beneath the Ortygian shore;—
Like spirits that lie
In the azure sky,
When they love but live no more.

Summary

      Arethusa was written in 1820, and was published in Posthumous Poems. It is a delightful string of twinkling verses.

      Arediusa sprang from the snows of Acroceraunian mountains and she flew through crags and jagged edges of the mountain. Her waters formed rainbows and as she flew, she was singing in a soft voice, all of which presented a picture of joy and happiness. As she made her way to the ocean, heaven smiled upon her and she was loved by the earth.

      Her happy movement was disturbed and shattered by the chase of Alpheus. He caused charms to open up the mountains and created earthquakes. Springs came up and they followed very close behind Arethusa to the brink of the Dorian sea. Arethusa sought the help of the ocean to protect her from the grasping hands of Alpheus. Arethusa mingled with the ocean. Still Alpheus pursued her like an eagle pursues a dove to its ruin.

      Alpheus chased Arethusa inside the ocean, outspending the shark and the sword-fish till they reached their home near the Dorian Sea. Both were changed into two springs in the mountain of Enna in Sicily and like friends who had once parted, but were united once again, did their work together happily. They slept together, flew down together and lived like spirits that lay in the blue sky and loved each other.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      Arethusa is a beautiful lyrical narrative, in which Shelley narrates the mythological story of the nymph, Arethusa who was the beloved of the river-god Alpheus in Arcadia, She was changed into a fountain by Diana and passed under the sea from Greece to Sicily, where she appeared as the fountain, Arethusa in the island of Ortygia. Alpheus is supposed to have followed her, and to have mingled his waters with hers. The story is referred to by Virgil at the beginning of his Tenth Eclogue, and is told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Keats's Endymion, in his wanderings through the caverns of the earth, met the two streams, of which

One
Ever pursued, the other strove to shun.
(Endymion, II, 916.)

      Shelley deals very freely with the legend and its geography. Shelley describes the flow of the beautiful stream, Arethusa through mountains and ravines, singing joyfully. The stream, Arethusa is chased by Alpheus, the river god with great ferocity, producing a thundering sound. Arethusa is caught by Alpheus and Arethusa cries for help. Her prayers are heard by the blue ocean, who sees Alpheus chasing Arethusa like an eagle pursuing a dove and comes to her rescue. Though Arethusa seeks the protection of the ocean, Alpheus pursues her through the ocean and mingles with her. Ultimately, both are changed into springs and they retain their friendship.

      The Stanza form of Arethusa is the same as that of The Cloud, but in this poem Shelley has divided the long first and third lines of the quatrain, and writes each as two short lines, instead of one long line. Extra unaccented syllables are introduced at will before the chief stresses in lines, so, as to turn the sing-song march of the old eight and six into a rushing music that is entirely in keeping with the subject. The tune is one which seems to have haunted Shelley's mind from boyhood, and which appears again and again in different forms from the Verses on a Cat, written when he was a child, to some of the choruses in the Fourth Act of Prometheus Unbound, The Cloud, and Arethusa.

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