The Flight of Love: Poem by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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When the lamp is shattered,
The light in the dust lies dead—
When the cloud is scattered,
The rainbow's glory is shed.
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tones are remembered not;
When lips have spoken,
Love accents are soon forgot.

As music and splendour
Survive not the lamp and the lute,
The heart's echoes render
No song when the spirit is mute—
No song but sad dirges.
Like the wind through a ruined cell,
Or the mournful surges
That ring the dead seaman's knell

When hearts have once mingled,
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled
To endure what it once possest.
O Love! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier?

Its passions will rock thee
As the storms rock the raven on high;
Bright reason will mock thee
Like the sun from a wintry sky.
From thy nest every rafter
Will rot, and thine eagle home
Leave thee naked to laughter,
When leaves fall and cold winds come.

Summary & Analysis


      The Flight of Love was written in 1822 and published in Posthumous Poems, 1824. Shelley was living at Pisa at the time of writing this poem. The poem may have some link with Mrs. Jane Williams with whom he was enjoying a very friendly relationship (See Introduction to To Jane: The Invitation.) The theme—the transience of love—is struck in the very opening Stanza of the poem.


      The poet points out in this poem that when the lamp which gives light is broken, there is no question of further light coming out of it. With the breaking of the lamp, light flits away. When the cloud spreads out, the glory of the rainbow is taken away. The rainbow appears glorious so long as there is the cloud. When the pipe that gave out fine melodious notes is broken, the sweet melodious notes that it had produced are no more recalled. Music cannot be produced when the pipe is no more there. When the lips of man are closed in death and words of love have gone out of them, the words of love are forgotten in course of time.

      Music and splendor do not live after the breaking of the lamp and the lute. Similarly, the heart of man cannot sing joyful songs when it is in a dejected and sad state. It is the cheerful heart that sings notes of cheerfulness and love. Love is born in the frail and weak heart of man. It is born and dies in the heart of man. The heart of man is weak. Love will be scorned by powerful passions, and ridiculed by reason. That heart of man will suffer due to the power of reason and then love will have to take flight from its home, the heart of man, and not leave any trace behind. The passage of time will witness the flight of love.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      The Subject: Transience of love is what the poet deals with in this poem. The theme is conventional but its treatment in the poem is unique and unconventional. The analogies given in the first Stanza have indeed offered a new angle from which the brevity of love can be viewed. Love is as brittle as the light of a lamp which disappears as soon as the lamp is shattered. It is as short-lived as a rainbow which goes away with the passing cloud. Sweet music of a lute is forgotten when the lute is broken. In the same way love ends as soon as words of love are spoken. Love to Shelley is the very source of joy and comfort. When it leaves the human heart, the heart is left sad and desolate. When love departs, a weak-hearted lover cannot endure its loss and thus he suffers. Shelley looks upon love as being cruel to human beings and warns it of its possible rejection by them. The similes in the poem have given a definite shape to the ideas just mentioned. The sad songs of a love-forsaken heart are almost given an audible form through the similes—"The wind through a ruined cell" and the waves "that ring the dead seamen's knell". The idea of passions shaking Love is beautifully expressed through the simile "as the storms rock the ravens on high". In this poem, Shelley's treatment of love shows a departure from his usual conventions. His concept of love as the sole source of existence does not change. But in order to grant man an equal right to existence, he has simply brought love down to an assailable and thereby attainable level.

      A Controversial Poem: The Flight of Love has evoked a lot of controversy regarding its literary quality. Desmond King-Hele has called it a "trite and trivial" poem. He thinks that the first three Stanzas of the poem offer little except their skilled verse technique, but admits that the fourth is better, though not without flaws. Dr. Leavis has severely criticized the poem for its "sentimental banalities" and the use of words such as "shed". Allen Tate has also offered a similar criticism of the poem. But Frederick A. Pottle, another distinguished critic, has granted, the poem respectability and has given a reply to the criticisms of Leavis and Tate: "Both have misread the basic figures of the poem. Dr. Leavis calls the first two lines a sentimental banality, an emotional cliche:

When the lamp is shattered
The light in the dust lies dead.

      The figure at least is not a cliche; it is a brilliant one that I do not remember ever having seen in any other poem. What he is saying is not something so obvious as that when the lamp is broken, the light goes out, it is that when the lamp goes out, the walls and floor of the room don't go on shining with a luminescence of their own. The point of this appears in the second Stanza, where he applies the figure. The 'light in the lamp' is the love of the spirit, the 'light in the dust' is the love of the flesh. But when the light of the spirit goes out, the 'light of the dust' does not go out; it shines on with a mournful vitality of its own; Love goes, lust remains. When we come to 'heart' in the second Stanza, we see the reason for both the 'dust' and the 'lies dead' of the first. A heart in 'dust', it could in literal fact 'lie dead'. When Shelley applies the expression figuratively to light, he is deliberately and purposefully anticipating. This is what Professor Wimsatt in his useful analysis of the nature of Romantic imagery, has called the importation of the tenor into the vehicle".

Line By Line Explanation With Critical Comments

       LI. 1-8. When the lamp.....soon forgot. The poet points out that when the lamp is broken, the light that used to be emitted by the lamp is lost. Darkness prevails when the lamp is broken. When the multicolored cloud is dissolved, the beauty of the rainbow disappears. With the breaking away of the lute, the musical sounds which it used to produce lose their effect and are soon forgotten. The words of love, that take their flight from the lips of man, are soon forgotten. No one remembers the words of love, once they have been taken out of the lips of man.

      LI. 9-16. As music.....knell. The poet points out that when the lamp is broken, the splendor of light that it used to give disappears. When the lute is broken, the musical notes that it used to produce no more resound in the air. Similarly when the heart of man is broken and is afflicted with grief and sorrow, the echoes of the heart cannot give out any joyful song. Only sad and mournful notes would be produced from the heart of man. Just as a mournful wind moves through a ruined building, mournful and sad notes will come out of a heart that is broken and tormented by grief. The mournful notes coming out of the heart of man will be like the sound of the mournful sea waves mourning the death of some sailors that might have been drowned in the sea. The waves of the sea sing the death of the mariners and strike the death or funeral bell. Similarly the mournful notes coming out of an afflicted heart sing the sorrowful state of the human heart.

      LI. 17-24. When hearts.....bier. The poet feels distressed to note the transitory nature of love in human life. After two hearts have mingled (joined) in love, and feel happy in their hearts, love bids adieu to the well-built home in the hearts of the lovers. Love takes its flight from the hearts of the two lovers. The weak lover is left to endure all the suffering caused by the departure of love from his heart. Love does not last for long. It is a transient passion. It takes its birth in the heart of man. There it is grows and develops, and it is in the heart of man that it eventually meets its end. The human heart is the cradle and the grave of love.

      LI. 25-28. Its passions wintry sky. Shelley concludes his poem, The Flight of Love, by pointing out that the human heart is not at all suitable to be the seat of love. He says that various other passions such as jealousy, hatred, anger and the like, that reside in the heart, side by the side with love, serve to agitate and disturb the latter. Just as violent storms toss the nest of ravens built high upon the rock, love when seen through the colored glasses of imagination, appears to be charming. But when tested by reason, it is meaningless for the simple reason that no one can give satisfactory grounds for loving. It is on account of this that people who are directed in all things by dry reason mock at the passion of love, just as the hazy atmosphere of winter which lends an air of enchantment to the raven's nest is soon dispelled by the bright rays of the sun, which in their turn seem to mock at the nest by exposing its real ugly nature. Reason, like the sun in the wintry sky, reveals what to it is the ridiculous nature of love.

      LI. 29-32. Like the sun.....winds come. At the close of his poem, Shelley describes the unhappy condition of love—the misery and destruction wrought in the human heart. Just as at the approach of winter the falling of the leaves of the tree, high upon which the nest is built, exposes the latter to the cold winds and serves to bring about the destruction of the twigs of which the nest is built, so, sooner or later, love which holds a high position in the human heart is thrown down from its eminence, all the joyous feelings of love are destroyed, and it is exposed to ridicule.


      Stanza 1. L. 1. shattered—broken. L. 2. The light...dead—with the breaking of the lamp, the light that came from the lamp vanishes. L. 3. scattered—spread out, dissolved. L. 4. shed—broken, disappears. L. 5. lute—musical pipe. L. 6. tone—musical sounds produced by the lute.
L. 7. lips have spoken—when words of love have gone out of the lips of man.

      Stanza 2. L. 8. accents—voice. L. 9. splendour—majesty and grace. survive not—do not live after. LI. 9-10. As music...lute—When the lute is broken, no good music can come out of it, and when the lamp is broken, no light can come out of it. Similarly when the heart of man is broken, no songs of joy and love can come out of it. L. 11. render—produce; song—delightful music. L. 12. spirit is mute—when the heart of man is dead and no spirit lives in it. It is only from a spirited heart that songs of love and joy come out. L. 13. dirges—mournful and sad notes. L. 14. ruined cell—ruined building. LI. 12-14. No song....cell—just as from a ruined building, a wind of sadness blows, similarly from a heart afflicted with sorrow, we cannot expect any song, except sad notes and mournful rhymes. L. 15. surges—waves. L. 16. knell— deathbell. The mournful waves of the sea strike the death bell of the sailors who may have been drowned in the sea.

      Stanza 3. L. 17. hearts—two lovers, whose hearts are united in love; have once mingled—when two hearts are united in love; Mingled— joined and united. L. 18. well-built nest—the hearts of the two lovers where the nest of love has been made. L. '19. the weak one—the weak heart of the lover; singled—chosen or selected. L. 20. to endure—to suffer the pain of the disappearance of love; it—love, once possessed—at one time love had possessed, the hearts of the lovers, but now it has taken flight. L. 21. bewailest—feels sorry. L. 22. frailty—weakness. here—in this world. L. 23. the frailest—the weak, human heart. L. 24. cradle—birth; home—growth, bier—death; funeral.

      Stanza 4. L. 25. its—heart's; passions—powerful feelings; rock— storm. L. 26. ravens—rows. L. 2. bright—illumining; mock—ridicule. thee—love. L. 29. thy nest—from the heart of which is the nest of love. rafter—an inclined beam supporting the roof of a house; rot—decay and decline. L. 30. eagle home—the heart of man which had been the strong nest of love; eagle—a powerful bird; thee—love. L. 31. naked— unprotected. L. 32. leaves fall—when the last leaves of love will be shed away; cold winds—the winds of disaffection and decay which will bring about the decline of love.

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