Symbolism: Used in P. B. Shelley's Poetry

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      Abundance of Symbols in Shelley's Poetry: A symbol in a broad sense denotes an image used to signify an idea. Shelley; endowed with tremendous imagination and a deep insight into natural objects, finds symbols to express his ideas almost at will. That is why his poetry abounds in symbols and requires from the reader quite an amount of insight to be able to appreciate it. R.H. Fogle observes: "Shelley’s poetic world is not a literal transcription of his perceptions of the natural world but a conscious arrangement and composition of these perceptions. Shelley is also abstract in his consistent use of symbolism". This abstract nature of his symbolism has added to the difficulty in understanding his poems. Yet it has to be admitted that despite their vagueness, most of his symbols have a charm of their own and are generally accepted as evidence of Shelley's great imaginative genius.

      The Boat and the Stream Symbol: The theme of the frail boat adrift on stormy seas or streams appears again and again in Shelley's poems. Boating appears as Shelley's favorite pastime. He seems to relish the alternate senses of danger and domination as the boat survives the pull of the waves which seem to overwhelm it. In the boat, he finds his own personality summed up while he proceeds along the stream of his life challenging bravely the hurdles it sets up for him. That is why he goes on to use a boat's progress, across the ocean or down a river, as a symbol for a soul's journey through life. Rough waters for him signify emotional crises faced by the souls. Shelley makes good use of this boat symbol in Alastor where the Poet is seen setting sail in a shallop that survives a furious storm and a hazardous journey along an underground stream into the bowels of the earth via an enormous whirlpool. It is also used in Prometheus Unbound, where Asia sings:

My soul is an enchanted boat.'
Which, like a sweeping swan, doth float'
Upon the silver waves of thy sweet singing.

      Shelley uses the symbol with even greater significance in Adonais where, ensconced in his soul-boat, he zooms out of sight on his way to join Adonais:

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 Whose sails were never to the tempest given.

      With such symbols Shelley obviously follows in the track of Coleridge who liked to represent the soul's progress through life by a voyage in a boat, a device used on the grand scale in The Ancient Mariner.

      The Eagle and the Serpent: Eagle-serpent battles are quite frequent in literature. Shelley may have come across such battles in Hiad, Aeneid, Metamorphoses, or Faerie Queene. Of the use of this symbol of an eagle-snake encounter in The Revolt of Islam, Desmond King-hele writes: "The life-long fight of Laon and Cythna against tyranny corresponds to the day-long aerial battle between eagle and serpent. The theme of romantic love comes in when the serpent, defeated, falls into the sea: for in myth, serpents and water often have sexual implications. And the name 'Cythna' with its hissing sound and its hint of a swan, serpent-necked, afloat on a still lake, again links serpents and water. Byron called Shelley 'the snake' because of the way he walked, but the nickname really went deeper, for Shelley was always fascinated by snakes, perhaps because as a child he had heard the legends of dragons and serpents terrorizing the vastness of St. Leonard's Forest, near Horsham. He was equally fascinated by eagles, but since it was his habit to stress their nobility and to use them to personify young nations throwing off the yoke of tyranny, it is odd that he should here choose the eagle to symbolize evil. Presumably he wished on this occasion to emphasize its cruelty strength and apparent arrogance, which contrast with the serpent's unassuming air.

      Poison Symbol: The word 'poison' often recurs in Shelley's poetry to signify evil and corruption. In Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills, the 'poison' symbol has been used to imply evil and exploitation:

And the sickle to the sword
Lies unchanged, though many a lord,
Like a weed whose shade is poison
Overgrows this region's foison.

      The symbol is used in The Revolt of Islam where the poet says that in the good time to come:

Avenging poison shall have ceased
To feed disease and fear and madness.

      The frequency with which the symbol of poison has been employed in Shelley's poetry is a glaring evidence of the poet's deep concern about the evils in this world.

      Symbolism in Prometheus Unbound: The poetic drama, Prometheus Unbound, abounds in symbolism. The persons in the play are not real; they only represent some ideas. Prometheus stands for something which Shelley himself describes in the preface as "the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and truest motives to the best and noblest ends". His companions—Panthea, Ione, and Asia—are in effect Faith, Hope, and Love. Pitted against them is Jupiter, who represents the brutal forces in human nature. Jupiter's ultimate defeat symbolizes the defeat of evil by the spirit of life. The union of Prometheus and Asia similarly signifies the union of human mind with the spirit of love that pervades the universe, and marks the beginning of the much awaited reign of love. Thus in the play Shelley has symbolically represented a whole Greek legend to express his favorite idea of the imminent regeneration of mankind.

      Symbolism in the Sky-Lyrics: Shelley's sky-lyrics—Ode to the West Wind, The Cloud and To A Skylark—have all been interpreted as having symbolic significance. The West Wind drives away the old, pale, hectic-red leaves and scatters fresh seeds over the ground. Shelley thus looks upon the Wind as a destroyer of the old order and the usherer of a new one i.e. as a symbol of the forces that will end all evil and bring about the golden millennium in which there will be nothing but peace and happiness for mankind. In the poem, The Cloud, the brief life of a Cloud has been interpreted by many critics as Shelley's intended symbol of man's brief span of life. The Cloud's rebirth after death has also been construed by such critics as a symbol of the immortality of the soul. However, there is no doubt that his concept of the Skylark is entirely symbolic. To Shelley the bird stands for the perfection that ever remains unattainable and unknown to man. So he tells the bird, "What thou art we know not" and then asks, "What is most like thee"? The bird is:

Like a poet hidden
In the light hymns unbidden,
Till the word is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not...

      and in this sense, it performs functions that the poet himself wishes to do. The skylark, by its very nature, also symbolizes Shelley's own poetic spirit.

      Conclusion: Desmond King-Hele has thus summed up the symbolism in Shelley's poetry: "The main symbols can quickly be summarised. Water represents existence; streams or rivers are paths for existence. Boats floating on streams, or sometimes on the sea, are thus souls journeying through life. The water is calm if things are going smoothly, and rough if the soul is vexed. Whirlpools signify perils ....Caves stand for minds which receive impressions from the external world, either as shadows or, if the cave has water in front, as images in the water. Towers represent introspective minds, engaged in scientific or artistic creation or in philosophic thought, Veil usually refers to the veil between life and death, between the impermanent and the ideal. The statements above are dogmatic, but only for the sake of brevity: different interpretations sometimes apply; and often the words are innocent of symbolic nuance. This is to be expected, for Shelley is not producing a neat set of artificial equations. He is merely resorting to the same imagery, perhaps unconsciously; perhaps half-consciously when faced with ideas and emotions which defy direct expressions."


Q- 1. "Shelley's symbols are often daring, sweeping and drawn on a large scale". Justify.
Q- 2. "The process in much of Shelley's poetry is to find in natii- ral objects a symbol of his own emotional patterns". Discuss with illustrations.
Q- 3. Write an essay on symbolism in Shelley's poetry.

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