Music, When Soft Voice Die: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved's bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Summary & Analysis


      Music, When Soft Voice Die a beautiful love lyric was composed in 1821, a year which produced some of the most significant works by Shelley. Three of his longer poems, Epipsychidion, Adonais, and Hellas, were written in this year. The shorter poems of this time were more unpremeditated and more diverse than the longer ones. The poetry of this year was indeed a product of genuine poetic inspiration. The gay poems thereof indicate that Shelley was spending probably his happiest summer then. The sad poems, like the present one, were written mostly when Shelley would reflect on the past and they indicate that the memory of Emilia Viviani, though fading, was still remaining in his mind. When Shelley wrote this lyric, Emilia might have been in his mind. (For an acquaintance with Emilia, see Introduction to One Word is too often Profaned.)


      When soft voices making the music end, the "memory of the same" floats like perfume; when sweet violets wither, their fragrance still bums in the senses animated by them; when the rose is dead (i.e., withers away), its petals are gathered for the bed of the beloved. Likewise, when the poet's beloved is gone, the sweet memory of her love shall linger like "footsteps of a wind over the sea". The poet emphasizes the fact that true love does not die at physical separation. The memories remain and continue to slumber in the bosom.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      As a Love Lyric: Shelley is essentially a poet of Love. This poem, like his other love poems, is inspired by an intense and genuine feeling. The subject of this poem is the immortality of love. Lovers may die but the impact of love continues. The poet puts forth this idea of love by establishing a similarity between love on the one hand, and music, perfume and color on the Other. A song may cease, but the music lingers on; a flower withers, but the perfume stays on; a rose dies, but the color lives on, lovers die, but "Love itself shall slumber on". The simplicity of thought and diction, the sweetness and melody of its lines have, however, given this poem a truly lyric quality for which the poem has become popular.

      Form and Diction: Though the poem lacks profundity of thought it has been praised by a few critics for its sound form and diction. Desmond King-Hele writes: "How have such innocent-looking verses become so famous? The first Stanza is finely balanced: 'When sweet violets' answers 'when soft voices' like an echo, and the after-lives of sound and odour are exactly parallel. There is also some quiet play on consonants: all four lines have v and n; every line except the second has ic (k) s (twice) and w; while g, j, p and h (except in th) are missing. By the end of the first Stanza, we feel we know the scheme. Soft and sweet lull us into expecting a comfortable adjective in alternate lines, and the surprise of finding no adjectives in the second Stanza is like slumping back into a deep armchair and finding it hard. As a result, the second Stanza, despite its obvious sentiment, seems mildly astringent. By the time we near the end, the pattern seems to have settled down again, and we might expect the last line to be 'in my mind shall slumber on'. Instead the pattern is violated again, by a grammatical inversion, which makes thoughts the object of slumber on. The second slight shock of surprise is enough to hold the attention till the end, and by then we see that the second couplet has the same pattern as the first; Love slumbers on thoughts, as the beloved slumbers on rose leaves. Thus, although the poem is hardly profound, its form is flawless and its wording careful; there are none of the meretricious words which sometimes slip into Shelley's more trivial poems. Soft and sweet are needed to establish the mood and the only other words suspiciously like a makeweight, itself in the last line, gives necessary extra force to the fresh idea introduced."

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