Style & Diction Used in P. B. Shelley's Poetry

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      Among the Romantic poets, Shelley is marveled for his inimitable abstract ideas, but he is less of an artist. He was aiming not at the poetry of art, but at the poetry of rapture. Keats advised him to be "more of an artist" and to "load every rift with ore", but Shelley was aiming at a different effect from that of Keats's richly decorated and highly finished poetry.

      Imagination: It is the imagination which makes Shelley's poetry the best. His mind was abstract and imaginative, that he sometimes wondered if he were fitter for metaphysics or poetry. His natural mode of thinking was too abstract to isolate some element in Nature, of man, and then being a poet, to body it forth in imagery. He gives life to every object in Nature through his imagination in current words, in a new and striking manner and forms new compounds, always a fresh shoot in every living language.

      Ordinary things are lifted to the higher plane by his imagination. The Cloud is a wonderful example of Shelley's imagination. He imagines the cloud as the fairy child that runs about everywhere and laughs at all things. He speaks of its immortality in these lines:

I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
He imagines the wind in Ode to The West
Wind as the destroyer destroying useless and evil creeds:

      Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing...

      Also, the wind blowing through the forest and producing noise is a common thing, but Shelley imagines the forest as a lyre on which the West Wind plays different tunes:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is.

      Imagery: Shelley fuses intellectual ideas with the images, and the result is that the idea has a new appeal. Shelley thought that the abstract ideas which meant so much to him could be presented only in symbols and images. In his Preface, he says,

      "The imagery which I have employed will be found in many instances to have been drawn from the operations of human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed"

      Even in a philosophical poem he pours out all imagination and daring speculations. In Prometheus Unbound, in Act IV where Ione and Panthea see bewildering forms in a forest, Shelley describes it as having white face, white feathers, a white body and white hair—

Yet its two eyes are heavens
Of liquid darkness, which the Deity
Within seems pouring.

      Shelley's style and diction abounds in personification and metaphor and other of those natural figures which we all use, as best we may; to describe vividly what we see and feel, or to express what passionately moves us. The metaphors he uses for the Skylark, "Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun", combine both the abstract and the concrete qualities, which is a characteristic of Shelley's manner.

      His act of comparing flowers to stars sounds ethereal—

Like a star of heaven
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen

      Though Keats is prominent for the use of synaesthetic imagery; Shelley has used it in different combinations. In Triumph of Life, he portrays sound as—

A silver music on the mossy lawn.

      Symbolism: R.H. Fogle says: "Shelley's imagery is symbolic to an unsual degree". Most of his characters are symbolical. Alastor is a psychological allegory of the pursuit of the ideal, and is concerned mainly with the conflict of body and spirit, dealing with the romantic conflict's inner aspect. He often uses eagle and serpent as symbols of good and evil respectively. We come across this eagle-serpent conflict in The Revolt of Islam and the symbol of veil too is often repeated. Veil represents the veil of Eternity in his former poetry, followed by the veil of time in his later works. The symbol of veil denotes the concealment of good.

      In The Revolt of Islam, this symbol of veil is used to conceal truth and beauty from man. Cythna says:

For with strong speech I tore the veil that hid
Nature, and Truth, and Liberty; and Love.

      In Epipsychidion, too, he uses the same image:

I knew it was the vision veiled from me
So many years—that it was Emily.

      In Prometheus Unbound, he uses the same image as 'a symbol of life':

The painted veil, by those who were, called life
Which mimicked, as with colors idly spread,
All meh believed or hoped, is torn aside
The loathsome mask has fallen.

       Boat as the symbol of the human soul and stream as the symbol of universal stream of thought are also handled by Shelley in his various poems. In Adonais, the boat is described as human soul:

The breath whose might I have invoked in song,
Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Where sails were never to the tempests given.

      Even in The Song of India and The Revolt of Islam, the same image is repeated.

      Moon symbol is also used as a planet of magic calm and hope. Shelley's language is pure and transparent and free from archaism and Latinism. Far-fetched images and contrived phrases and expressions are not part of his style. Most of his thoughts are colored by imagination and are expressed in figured speeches.

      He is the master of using blank verse too. For the blank verse of Alastor substituted the Spenserian Stanza which Shelley masters at once in his own more lyrical fashion. The music of the verse and the poetic imageries are the chief and whole interests of this poem:

the visions of a dream
Which hid in one deep gulf the troubled stream of mind

      In Rosalind and Helen, he blends self-pity eroticism, anticipation of death, the protest against cruelties of society; all in the meter of Scott, Coleridge, and Byron's tales.

      In Jillian and Maddalo, Byron's influence on Shelley is revealed. It shows how well Shelley could write, as in the translations. He curbed his genius and wrote as one who can talk as well as think. The first part of the poem where he describes the day with Byron, is admirable in diction, and management of the couplet with overflow and varying pause. This poem is notable for its conversational and descriptive manner.

      His skill in using undulating verse is well seen in his Epipsychidion, in the description of the ideal poetry and aspects of the Italian scenery with which Shelley had become familiar—all blended in the poet's liquid and undulating verse.

      In the love songs, the tone of a singer blends with that of one who talks in gentle winning accents:

One word is too often profaned
For me to profane it.

      The Masque of Anarchy is fraught with hard thought, deep feeling, and a sense of purpose. Its street-ballad form and chipped un-Shelleyan rhythm help in compressing and condensing.

      As Shelley's poetic style has its merits, it also has its own demerits. He was aiming not at the poetry of art, but at the poetry of rapture, and he achieved it as no other poet has ever done. Macaulay too comments:

"The words 'bard' and 'inspiration' which seem so cold and affected when applied to other modern writers, have a perfect propriety when applied to him. He was not an author; but a bard. His poetry seems not to have been art, but an inspiration."

      This is the main reason for the defects and weaknesses of his poems. His sentences often trail and his meaning is not infrequently obscure, but such faults can be forgiven in the effect of the whole. Unlike Wordsworth and Byron, he never writes versified prose. His voice is always the singing voice, never that of the talker or speaker. Hence, minute criticism, as of faulty rhymes or as occasional vagueness of meaning is of no avail when applied to the poems of unique beauty spiritual and formal and of entire originality.


Q. 1. Give a brief account of Shelley's style and diction.
Q. 2. "Shelley was aiming not at the poetry of art but at the poetry of rapture". Say how far it is true.
Q. 3. Keats advised' Shelley to be "more of an artist" and to "load every rift with ore". Was Shelley successful as an artist?

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