The Sensitive Plant: by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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      The Sensitive Plant was composed at Pisa early in 1820 and was published with Prometheus Unbound in the same year. It is a nature lyric, dealing with a common story. To Shelley, natural things seemed to enjoy the emancipation for which his own spirit craved. The whole poem is shadowed with thoughts of death and defeat which always lay upon Shelley in his latter years.

SUMMARY

      This poem is unquestionably a parable of the idealist, or as Mrs. Shelley calls it, 'immaterial' philosophy which dominated Shelley's mind more and more in the last two years of his life. We could rather say, it is an imaginative and allegorical elaboration of a thought expressed in Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty:

Spirit of Beauty, that does consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form,—where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state?
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?

      The Sensitive Plant describes a garden which depends for its life and beauty on a lady; fair in body and mind. When she dies, the garden also decays. But there is one plant which lacks the loveliness and scent of the other flowers, and represents a love more intense than that of the rest.

      The lady of the poem (of whom Shelley said that Janes Williams was "the exact antitype"), may be taken as standing for the human self or soul and the garden for the world. The death of the lady and the ruin of the garden presumably typify the destiny of death and change that must overtake all material things. The essence of the poem's doctrine is found in the last three stanzas of the poem which express the belief that death and change, like other things in life, are illusions, and that goodness and beauty also never truly pass away because they are part of eternal beauty which is not subject to time: "Tis we, 'tis ours, are changed; not they." Bradley too had rightly commented upon Shelley's opinion of death: "Death may be an overmastering impression, but it is certainly no necessary truth, and the poet (Shelley) was perhaps not wrong when he called it a mockery."

CRITICAL APPRECIATION AND ANALYSIS

      Theme of The Poem: The Sensitive Plant is a nature-parable in which several related themes are developed; the failure of vision which prevents the human imagination from fulfilling its appointed task of apprehending ideas of love and beauty; the fate of gentle poetic nature in a loveless world; and the survival powers of tough, insensitive minds, which are able both to exist and to establish precedence over more finely organized intellects because they require nothing more than the material world provides. One might conceivably regard the poem as a very simple allegory, with the Sensitive Plant as a defenseless innocent, with the flowers of the garden as damsels in distress, and with the unlovely forms, which usurp the garden as the villains of the piece.

      Shelley's Treatment of an Ordinary Theme: Shelley's treatment of an ordinary theme is striking. His attempt to develop his fable in terms of natural phenomena involved him in several logical fallacies. In trying to be true to the requirements of his vision, he is occasionally false to nature. With Shelley, however, the vision is usually more important than the natural fact. The garden of Part I is evidently the realm of beauty and love when the sensitive mind is fully awake to these ideas. The flowers themselves are the perfect forms with which sensitive minds have established contact, and their mutual 'interpenetration' signifies the essential unity and interdependence of such ideas, a common neo-Platonic notion. The Sensitive Plant does not itself contribute to these perfections, but its aspiring character makes it deeply receptive to their influences.

      The death of the lady signifies the withdrawal of the spirit of love from the apprehensive powers of the sensitive mind, and is the symbolic representation of a failure of vision quite as much as it is a way of suggesting the departure of love from the mind of man. The ensuing autumn and winter represent the long dark period which is the natural consequence of such a failure, and of such a withdrawal. During the second spring, the triumphant re-emergence of the unskilled weeds and fungi, the "monstrous undergrowth' suggests the survival power of the insensitive minds in a world where the idea of love is no longer either widely understood or cherished. The destruction of the Sensitive Plant appears to mean that the apprehensive powers of even the most finely organized human beings may fall short of perfection in a world from which the ideas of love and beauty are absent, but also, and more particularly, that actual destruction of such sensitive beings may occur.

      Shelley's Philosophy in The Sensitive Plant: Shelley's 'Conclusion' shows that he has in mind a failure of the human apprehensive powers, but at the same time a Keatsian faith in the immortality of beauty and love. Shelley is not sure whether the animating spirit of the Sensitive Plant and the Lady's 'gentle mind' were destroyed along with outward forms. But he believes that 'the beauty can never fade into nothingness. It is an idea in the mind and, as such, is impervious to the laws of dissolution and decay which govern the material universe. The destruction of love and beauty is, therefore always apparent rather than real. What is destroyed, or at any rate limited, is the human capacity for apprehending supernal beauty and love. In the gloom of error, ignorance, and strife which enwraps mankind, the very organs of perception are obscured; they cannot endure the white radiance of that eternity in which the sublime ideas exist.

      When Intellectual Beauty passes away, life will be a vale of tears, vacant and desolate. But in this concluding part of the poem, Shelley reasserts his faith in the "Life of Life." According to him, Love and Beauty; though veiled from human sight for a time are eternal verities and it is natural for a poet to yearn, like the Sensitive Plant, for 'what it has not, the beautiful'. Shelley does not moralize from his sad tale but states his belief in the Platonic philosophy, viz., that our real world is only the shadow of true reality. The lady in the second part of the poem really stands for Love or Intellectual Beauty, and Shelley himself stands for the Sensitive Plant.

      Shelley's Pantheistic Trend of Thought: The Sensitive Plant, "the companionless flower", is Shelley, oppressed by a sense of his own spiritual solitude. The tone of the poem is intensely personal, and natural objects, as also in The Skylark, are made the medium of purely human sentiments. This power of endowing natural objects with the attributes of conscious life is one aspect of Shelley's pantheistic trend of thought. If other poems develop this mood more fully, none is more suffused with it than The Sensitive Plant. Under its influence, we feel all nature alive with the keenest powers of feeling, close to man in its feelings, and yet divided from man and shut off for ever in speechless isolation. The peculiar quality of this poem is to be found in the way distinctions are thus obliterated and different realms of nature thus fused; while, at the same time, the personal and particular, rather than the universal view of passion and emotions, is the poet's actual theme.

      Language of The Sensitive Plant: The Sensitive Plant is a poem of pure fancy and description and is full of beautiful verses, but with a theme too slight for its length. It is written in anapaests (or triple rhyme), and Shelley's mastery of the meter is uncertain. Indeed, no English poet had managed triple rhyme perfectly, at least in serious verse, before William Morris and Swinburne. Shelley often falls into the mechanical see-saw of the eighteenth century, as in the opening lines:

A sensitive plant in a garden grew,
And the light winds fed it with silver dew.

      This versification is most beautiful when the meter comes nearest to being iambic:

Broad water-lillies lay tremulously;
And starry river-buds glimmered by.

      These two lines might be followed by pure iambics without incongruity Many of the most anapaestic verses cannot be read without gabbling. Shelley seems to subside into iambics with relief: "I use the terms iambic and anapaestic without intending to commit myself to any theory of English meter, and only because they are the best I can find for my purpose."

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