The Witch of Atlas: by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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      The Witch of Atlas, a carefree extravaganza, written at the rate of over 200 lines a day in August 1820, resembles the Hymn to Mercury in its theme and in its playful octava rima. As Mary Shelley remarked in her Note, The Witch of Atlas is 'peculiarly characteristic' of Shelley's tastes, 'wildly fanciful, full of brilliant imagery'; in it he discarded 'human interest and passion, to revel in the fantastic ideas that his imagination suggested'.

      Conception of the Poet: Shelley conceived the idea of the Witch of Atlas when climbing alone to the top of Monte San Pellegrino. Mary wished that he would increase his popularity by adopting subjects that would suit the popular taste rather than write a poem conceived in the abstract and dreamy spirit of The Witch of Atlas. She believed that "he would obtain a greater mastery over his own powers, and greater happiness in his mind if public applause crowned his endeavors". There can be no doubt of Mary's hopes, for when Shelley wrote The Witch of Atlas, he was rather spending his powers than training them like a young painter of great facility who makes pictures out of his own head instead of studying nature.

      Summary: The Witch of Atlas is full of beautiful verses that would seem twice as beautiful if they were related to any main theme, but the Witch herself is a faint abstraction, and does nothing except spin mist and store magic treasures in her cave—visions and odors and liquors that would give glorious dreams—and scrolls that would teach men to live "harmonious as the sacred stars above." The nymphs and oreads and naiads wish to live for ever in the light of her presence; but she will not have this, for she is immortal and they are mortal.

      Shelley's capricious Witch is a female version of Hermes. She has no human frailties and can roam wherever her skittish fancy leads her. Shelley's use of the word 'witch' is one of his habitual idiosyncrasies: his witches are pleasant enchantresses, e.g. the 'quiet witch Memory' and 'the witch Poesy'. He begins the poem by introducing the Witch's mother; one of the Atlantides, whose beauty captivated the Sun and made him change her into a vapor; then a cloud, then a meteor, and finally into:

One of those mysterious stars
Which hide themselves between the Earth and Mars.

      The daughters of Atlas gave their names to the stars of the Pleiades and Hyades groups, and Shelley is modernizing this legend to account for the minor planets or asteroids. The poem is full of such inventions, and the Witch herself is often lost amid the distractions.

      The Witch lives in a cave among the Atlas mountains. She is portrayed as so gentle, lovely and powerful that beasts of every kind, from the 'sly serpent' to the 'brinded liones', as well as men, come to her to be cured of their vicious habits:

The magic circle of her voice and eyes
All savage natures did imparadise.

      Gods too come marveling at her powers. She sails in her boat wherever she likes and heals the wounded hearts and warns about the faults of mortal men for she can see the naked beauty of human souls. The poem is indeed an escape from reality. Here Shelley writes as Correggio painted To and Antiope and Danae; and indeed many great artists have delighted to represent youthful passion freed by different devices from all the restraints of circumstance.

      Shelley's Myth-making Power in the Witch of Atlas: The Witch is a remarkable lady whose title is quite justly derogatory She is a dream-projection and, partly; an incarnation of poetry itself. Shelley's own poetic experience is clearly built into her, and we watch, even more clearly than in Prometheus, the myth-making faculty at work; that queer business of using one's imaginative experience to create something surprising to oneself. Self-objectification may prove uncanny and revelatory. Mental confusion alone cannot study the human mind: the myth-making faculty can. Shelley here very subtly, personifies his own poetry to serve as an exploitation of magic.

      Symbolism in The Witch of Atlas: We have various poetic expeditions in this piece of work. The dim brain whirls dizzy with delight, picturing the Witch's form. It is Shelley's most airy and wayward phantasy; a narrative in which he gives his imagination free play and produces poetry that seems to be woven of the very texture of dreams. The poem's lady becomes a personification of magic. She negates death-instincts, as does the conclusion to Prometheus, and animals are by her regenerated. She is often associated with Poetic consciousness. Her cave has carvings of ancient lore, like that in Prometheus, concerning the proper path from man's fallen state back to a golden age matching in harmony the "sacred". The cave's carvings are things of ancient art and learning: the subconscious and superconscious meet. The Witch symbolizes a potentiality wherein all dangerous forces of the elements, time and man's will are mastered, again, a reminder of Prometheus.

      She has a boat, which Apollo "bought"—strange term in such a poem—from Venus for whom it was first intended as a "Chariot", though proving too weak. It was made from a love-plant, and perhaps also symbolizes poetry: Wordsworth too has used such a symbol in introducing Peter Bell. The boat of poetry voyages through Shelleyan scenery sometimes reminiscent of Kubla Khan and Alastor. It flies on the wind or lingers by "pools" of "content". It descends on cataracts that either "shiver" into golden air" (i.e. paradisal vision) or "sepulcher" themselves in "unfathomable chasms" (i.e. more tragic vision), but remains always guarded and upborne by "circling sun-bows".

      Treatment of Love: The well of mingled water and fire, in which the witch hibernates, is described as very active and ebullient and it appears to be the equivalent of the burning fountain of love mentioned in Adonais. Perhaps Shelley thinks of love in terms of an inextinguishable fountain of fire and water. The passion of love dominates the whole poem. Even the witch's boat, moored upon the glowing surface of the fountain, has been fabricated among the deities of love. The boat grew like a guard upon some sensitive plant, tended by "the firstborn love", until it had attained a sufficient size to be scooped out. The witch's trance—like immersion in the well of love—has equipped her so well that she with the harmonizing power manufactures Hermaphrodite. To assuage her loveliness, she creates a being more beautiful than Pygmalion's image. Shelley not only imagines that love is capable of blending opposite sexes, but also fancifully supposes that the witchery of love can affect a combination of fire and snow.

      Echoes of Different Tones of Different Authors: This poem has echoes of different tones— of Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Shakespeare. In Shelley's treatment of ’dream’ and 'sleep', the Egyptian tonings are kept up throughout his poem, since the mystic lore of ancient Egypt may be supposed to have possessed a more authoritative insight into sleep and dream than Western science can approach. The use resembles Yeats's use of Byzantine civilization. In Shelley magic and moonlight, or dawn-awakening are, of course, continually given Eastern associations. In The Witch of Atlas, we tread the borders of a consciousness wherein sleep, not waking, which is the truer life, which points toward Keats.

      The Form of the Poem: The poem is very compact. Its phrases like Panthea's, compress the intangible into concrete forms:

She took her spindle
And twined three threads of fleecy mist, and three Long lines of light...

      There are "intertangled lines of light''. The poem is remarkable for carefully formed and concretely projected fire-variations:

Their spirits shook within them, as a flame
Stirred by air under a cavern gaunt.

      These reach the poem's core, a close realization of the magical and unearthly which is yet earth-twined and concretely imagined. No poetic idiom houses a more vital and unearthly magic. The phrases are "atoms of inextinguishable thought," or vision. Each Stanza makes a compact, terse, usually complete statement, and in no poem does Shelley so clearly obey Keats's advice to "load every rift with ore". Finally; the poetic rhythms often approach, but no more, a keen, almost Byronic humor; a pith and pregnancy of wit just left undeveloped, thereby contributing to, without despoiling, the gossamer charm.

      Conclusion: The Witch of Atlas marks an attempt to create a composite figure of supernature from all Shelley's intuitions of sleep and dream, poetic creation and especially poetic symbolism, his own psychic conflicts and insight, and, at the start, that even more final mystery than death, the darkly magic quality of birth. There is a steady progress from the mainly feminine "seraph" child in The Revolt of Islam, through the pivotal and half-metaphysical child in Prometheus, to the supersexual Hermaphrodite and alligator-boys in The Witch of Atlas. Shelley attempts to penetrate both the womb and purpose of creation through fine use of his mythopoeic art to force that art to reveal the ultimate mystery.

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