Lyrical Elements: Used in P. B. Shelley's Poetry

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      Shelley is the Greatest Lyrical Poet of the nineteenth century. Poetry gushes forth from his heart. Swinburne calls him ‘the perfect singing God.’ With his keen ardor of passion, eager sensitiveness, his sense of personal sorrow, and his mystical and prophetic urge, Shelley was destined to be a great lyrical poet. His lyric cry rises straight from his heart. It is so piercing that it goes straight to the heart of the reader. Moreover, his lyrics contain keen feelings, miraculous gift of melody and profusion of imagery which are nowhere to be found.

Spontaneity and Music of his Lyrics. Shelley’s lyrics are marked by great spontaneity, expression and variety of music. He was such a master of lyrical utterance that there is no kind of lyric in which he did not achieve a rare excellence. As Prof. Elton says: ‘Shelley’s genius was essentially lyrical. He is one of the supreme lyrical geniuses of English poetry. All his poetry is really lyrical, for his lyrical impulse penetrates into his even unlyrical verse, be it pictorial, epical, or dramatic; a it also does with Swinburne, and as it does much less with Wordsworth, or Byron, or Keats.”
P. B. Shelley

      (i) Emotional Ecstasy. “His lyrical power is equal to the highest to be found in any language. It is now recognized to be one of the supreme gifts in literature, like the dramatic genius of Shakespeare. This gift is shown at its best when it expresses the highest emotional ecstasy, as in the lyrics of Prometheus Unbound. It is a sign of his great genius that, in spite of the passion that pervades his lyrics, he is seldom shrill and tuneless. He can also express a mood of blessed cheerfulness, a sane and delectable joy.

      (ii) Spontaneity and Music of his Lyrics. Shelley’s lyrics are marked by great spontaneity, expression and variety of music. He was such a master of lyrical utterance that there is no kind of lyric in which he did not achieve a rare excellence. As Prof. Elton says: ‘Shelley’s genius was essentially lyrical. He is one of the supreme lyrical geniuses of English poetry. All his poetry is really lyrical, for his lyrical impulse penetrates into his even unlyrical verse, be it pictorial, epical, or dramatic; a it also does with Swinburne, and as it does much less with Wordsworth, or Byron, or Keats.”

      (iii) Rapture and Simplicity. “Almost all his lyrics possess the two characteristics of the perfect lyric that are most essential and yet more rare—rapture and simplicity. A lyric is the expression of a passionate idea, and, besides being rapturous, pure passion is always simple, whether it be the passion of love, hatred, joy or despair. Shelley’s lyrics, especially the shorter ones, have this quality in a marked degree. This quality alone, however, would not have brought Shelley to the front rank of the immortals. Wordsworth and others have realized the importance of simplicity: hundreds of lesser poets have been inspired by rapture as real, though seldom sustained as Shelley’s. But none have made Shelley’s poetry uniquely beautiful — the quality of music and the art of combining the outward rhythm of the verse with an inner rhythm of thought and imagery. In his simplest poem there is always a beauty of movement and an ardor which transforms speech into poetry, even when little is said.”

      (iv) Vagueness. Though his lyrics are spontaneous, yet Shelley wrote carelessly and without any sense of form. In other words, his lyrics are vague and abstract. As Mrs. Campbell remarks: “Shelley’s art is often mistaken for a gift of unpremeditated song. His art was rapid, it is true, but it was very far from being reckless. He usually chose the most difficult of literary forms, the Spenserian stanza, Terza Rima, the balanced Ode and lyrical meters always rich in a complicated music of rhyme and rhythm; and he always aimed at that true harmony of manner and matter which alone is really style.”

      (v) Personal and sad notes in his Lyrics. Most of Shelley’s lyrics are purely autobiographical and they are uniformly sad. Whenever Shelley thinks of himself, he finds that he has nothing to live for—

Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
Others I see whom these surround,
Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;
To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

      In his Ode to the West Wind, his personal cry becomes very piercing, we have his acute sense of isolation and his keen desire for ideal companionship. We have his typical art and ‘lyric-cry’ in the line—

lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud I
fall upon the thorns of life I bleed

      But his personal despondency changes into prophetic passion. As Herford remarks; “The greatest of these lyrics, the Ode to the West Wind, combines with the highest degree of imaginative quality the two other characteristic notes of Shelley’s lyrics—personal despondency and prophetic passion, He faints and falls like ‘a dead leaf as in the Indian Serenade; he ‘could he down like a third child’ as in the Naples Stanzas; he is ‘a frail form, a stranger among men’ as in Adonais. But these faltering accents become trumpet notes as soon as he utters, not his own sorrows, but the woes of men. The weary child becomes a prophet, and the frail form thunders invective upon Gifford, and the dead leaf lifted by the wind, becomes the lyre which, awakens in it the ‘tumult of mighty harmonies’ to quicken the sleeping world to new birth.

      Byron had longed to be ‘a patron of the storm/buy only in order to share its ‘fierce and far delight,’ to be the comrade of its ruinous splendor. Shelley calls upon it as the far-sweeping preserver of the future, the herald of spring “when winter comes, spring cannot be far behind.”

      (vi) His lyrics dealing with the Regeneration of Mankind. His lyrics deal with the emancipation of Mankind. He was champion of liberty, equality and fraternity. He had great hatred for Kings, priests and other tyrants or against the tyrant God created by custom and fear. His well-known Ode to the West Wind is quoted to illustrate his faith on the Restoration of Mankind. As Stop ford Brooke remarks: “Ode to the West Wind alone is enough to place Shelley apart from the other lyrical poets of England. In it all his powers and his poetic subjects are wrought into a whole. The emotion awakened by the approaching storm sets on fire other sleeping emotions in his heart, and the whole of his being burst into flame around the first emotion. He passes from magnificent union of himself with Nature and magnificent realization of her storm and peace, to equally great self-description, and he mingles all Nature all himself together, that he may sing of the restoration of mankind. There is no song in the whole of English literature more passionate, more penetrative, more full of the force by which the idea and its form are united into one creation.”

      (vii) Intensity. He is not only spontaneous but he is also intense. His lyrical poems are fierce and penetrating which adds great charm to his poems. In his mood of rapture and deep intensity, he totally forgets himself. “There is in this ode (Ode to the West Wind) a union of lyrical breadth with lyrical intensity unsurpassed in English song. The poem is the clarion cry of hope in the presence of tumultuous ruin and inevitable decay. Shelley dares to welcome autumnal sadness and wintry barrenness, finding in the wild wind, which sweeps the forest leaves away, an exultant harbinger of the awakening year.”

      (viii) Various Types of Lyrics. “Some of the lyrics are purely personal; some, as in the very finest, the Ode to the West Wind mingle together personal feeling and prophetic hope for mankind. Some are lyrics of pure nature; some are dedicated to the rebuke of tyranny and the cause of liberty (e.g., Ode to Liberty) others belong to the indefinite passion he called Love and others written on visions on those ‘shapes that haunt Thought’s wildernesses.’ They form together the most sensitive, the most imaginative, and the most musical, but the least tangible lyrical poetry we possess.”

      The Above Mentioned Points prove that “Shelley’s Lyricism is Incomparable, never was the soul of poet so spontaneously lyrical. Everything with Shelley is the occasion for a musical stir Shelley has the gift of lending it the sweetest and most liquid harmonies. A delicious sadness emanates from this blending of the notes, now high and now low and the song they compose is the very utterance of the wounded sensibility.

      To quote Principal Sharp: “Other lyric poets, it has been said, sing of what they feel, Shelley in his lyrics sing of what he wants to feel. The thrills of desire, the gushes of emotion are all straining after something distant or future; or they are wails of passionate despair - utter despondency for something hopelessly gone. Yet it must be owned that those bursts of passionate desire after ideal beauty set our pulses a throbbing with a strange Vibration, even when we do not really share it. Such is the charm of his impassioned eloquence, and the witchery of his music.”

      Shelley's lyrics flow in strains of overflowing ecstasy and are instinct with an airy grace, a remarkable ease, an entrancing lightness, and a glorious melody. In ardor of passion and mystical imagination, and in the witchery of music, he has no equal. The ‘lyric-cry’ rises straight from his heart and goes straight to the heart of the reader. That is why Swinburne lias called him ‘the perfect singing God.’

      Shelley's Position among Lyric Poets: Shelley has been universally accepted as one of the supreme lyrical geniuses in English poetry. He, according to Swinburne, "stands alone among singers, and he is the prefect singing god". According to Cazamian, "Shelley's lyricism is incomparable. In no other poet do, we find the perfect sureness, the triumphant rapidity of his upward flight, the soaring height, the super-terrestrial quality as well as the poignant intensity of the sounds which fall from these aerial regions". Ernest Rys in his Lyric Poetry has paid a similar tribute to Shelley's lyrical genius: "Among the lyric poets, Shelley; who was a lyric poet before everything, needs no longer to have his claim reaffirmed. We judge him by the verdict of those English poets who, coming after him, have famously sustained his ideals." Even the narrative poems of Shelley are stamped by his lyricism. Shelley combines his passion and simplicity with other remarkable qualities, namely the quality of music and the art of combining the outward rhythm of the verse with an inner rhythm of thought and imagery; No other English poet has so well succeeded in blending music with thought, in harmonizing rhythm with emotion."

      Intensity of Feeling: "The lyric proper" says Stopford Brooke, "is the product of a swift, momentary and passionate impulse coming from without for the most part, suddenly awaking the poet into a vivid life, seizing upon him and setting him on fire. The duration of this fire is short in all poets, but it burns with different intensity in different poets." In Shelley; it burns slowly for a time, then flares to heaven in a rush of flame, then sinks and dies as swiftly as it flamed. It is as momentary as a meteor in him, and its substance is vapourised by its own heat. A pure lyric arising out of such circumstances has to be simple both in theme and form. Because the lyric fire is short-lived, the lyric gives forth only one emotion or one thought. In the creation of such a lyric there is no time for ornamentation. Shelley is the master of this swift, fiery and simple form of lyric. The Flight of Love can be quoted to illustrate this form:

When the lamp is shattered
The light in the dust lies dead.
When the cloud is scattered,
The rainbow's glory is shed.

      Spontaneity of Expression: Spontaneity is the most striking quality of Shelley's lyrics. His lyrics move so flowingly because they come straight from his heart. His lyrics, as Stopford Brooke remarks, "have the rush and impetuosity of the south". According to Compton Rickett, "Shelley exhaled verse as a flower exhales fragrance. The essential point is that there was no effort or laborious artistry about it any time." Shelley is swept forward by a rush of poetic energy and goes on producing image after image, all inspired by the original thought. The imagery in these lyrics, therefore, give the impression of being the product of no laborious thought but of a spontaneous growth of poetic impulse. The imagery in the West Wind, for example, gives an instant impression of a spontaneous flow of thought. We pass in turn over earth, sky and sea, the music growing fuller and more majestic as the poet moves on.

      Music: Shelley's lyrics are surpassingly musical and sweet. Swinburne was ecstatic in his tribute to this aspect of Shelley's lyricism. Shelley outsang all poets on record, but some two or three throughout all time; his, depths and heights of inner and outer music are as diverse as nature's and not sooner exhaustible. He was alone the perfect singing God; his thoughts, words and deeds all sang together. Arnold, one of the worst critics of Shelley; admired his music and remarked: "The right sphere of Shelley's genius was the sphere of music." Shelley's careful handling of diction fitting into the sense of his lines enhances the musical quality keeping with the swift, of his lyrics. The rhythm of Ode to the West Wind is thus exactly in gusty march of the wind itself:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being.

      Similar artistry can be traced in To A Skylark which is not simply a poem but the bird's song itself translated into Stanzas. The Stanza used in the poem indeed corresponds, in its first four lines, to the crescendo of the bird's song, and, in the prolonged last line, to the 'rain of melody' which is its climax. The rhythm of the poem,' The Cloud, beautifully suggests the hurrying movement of the Clouds before a tempestuous wind. Such blending of sense and versification is wonderful and unique, and it is this quality in particular which has made Shelley's lyrics so musical. On his lyric poetry Charles Morgan remarks: "His instrument was unique. There is no poet, not even Shakespeare in his lyrics, who has Shelley's effect of bird-song pouring and pouring out. His lyrics are not written; they burst from the hedgerow, the sunshine, the air; they give to the hearer the life of the heart, that sense of penetrating rapture which is given by Nature and by love."

      Note of Melancholy: Melancholy is found to be the dominant note in most of Shelley's lyrics. He becomes sad and often despondent whenever he thinks of the evils of the present, or of personal sufferings. Some of his lyrics are entirely pessimistic in tone. His Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples, reflects a mood of utter despondency. He feels that he is one "whom men love not" and then proceeds to narrate a profound sense of helplessness:

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around.

      The Indian Serenade is another of his lyrics written in a similar mood. Here he gives expression to his sufferings and frustration with genuine passion:

O lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!

      This note of melancholy that pervades his poetry has added to the lyrical quality of his poems. Looking at them we cannot but agree with the famous poetic truth: "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought". But Shelley's melancholy is never depressing. Shelley never allows morbidity to overcome the enjoyment in his lyrics. Self-pity is no doubt his favorite theme. But in his lyrics, he presents this self-pity not as something to be feared, but as an essential part of life. Shelley's readers are never depressed because they are constantly reminded that sufferings lie only in the present and that in future all suffering will be replaced by pure happiness. In Ode to the West Wind, the poet shows a mood of despondency:

Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed.

      His despondency is soon replaced by an ecstatic rapture of joy when he comes to think of the future happiness of mankind, of the millennium to come:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

      This co-existence of pessimism and optimism—the swift replacement of one by the other—is a major attractive feature of Shelley's lyric poetry.


Q. 1. "The sublimity of Shelley's poetry lies in its wonderful lyrical intensity". Discuss.
Q. 2. "Shelley stands alone among the singers of his age". Bring out the lyrical quality in Shelley's poetry in the light of this statement.
Q- 3. Write an essay on the greatness of Shelley as a lyric poet.

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