Epipsychidion: Poem by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      Epipsychidion was composed at Pisa during the first two months of 1821, and published without the author's name, in the following summer, by C. & J. Ollier, London. The full title of the poem when published was Epipsychidion, Verses addressed to the noble and unfortunate lady, Emilia V, now imprisoned in the convent of—. Shelley had his own ideas on the poem and he wrote in a letter that he would ask the reader to consider the poem as the "production of a portion of me already dead." The Title: The title, Epipsychidion, a coinage by Shelley, is cryptic, vague and many-coloured. We have Shelley's rendering of it in the line: "Whether it was fled this soul out of my soul". It might be taken, as Stopford Brooke suggests, as a diminutive of endearment from Epipsyche; only; there is no such Greek word as epi-psyche. 'Epipsyche, would mean a soul upon a soul, just as Epicycle, in the Ptolemic A stronomy, meant a circle upon a circle; as such, ’a soul on a sou? might be paraphrased as 'a soul which is the complement of, or responsive to, another soul', i.e., to the soul of the poet, so that each soul seeks to be united with that other to be in harmony wherewith it has been created. This idea, many suggestions of which may be found in Plato, seems most clearly expressed in the lines near the end of the poem beginning—'One passion in two hearts'.

SUMMARY

      The poem Epipsychidion falls into three parts, which are held together loosely. In the first part, the poet presents before us the seraph, Emilia. She is a poor captive bird, fluttering her wings vainly against prison bars. The poet then soars into a sphere of sparkling flattery. In this way, Shelley goes on to describe the goddess he fancies and sees in Emilia. The poet protests against convention and then talks about 'true love' i.e., intellectual companionship. When his goddess has gone, the poet despairingly questions every tongueless wind that flew over his tower of mourning, if it knew whether it fled this soul out of his soul.

      The first part leads naturally to the second part of the poem which is concerned with Shelley's search for the lost spirit. He meets many symbolic figures—his lady-love; viz., Harriet Grove, Mary; Emilia, and Clara. There is plenty of Platonism here. Shelley's Epipsychidion corresponds to Plato's immortal soul. Plato's higher mortal soul can be equated with Shelley's moon-symbol and concept of reason. Plato's appetitive soul corresponds to Shelley's comet and idea of unruly emotion or desire. Thus the symbols begun as autobiography, have a Platonic theory grafted on to them and finally take on a life of their own as astronomical objects. This is by far the weakest part of the theme.

      In the final part of the poem, Shelley wishes Emilia off to a dream-island in the Aegean—a favored place full of romantic forests, rivulets and air heavy with the scent of flowers. Here the pastoral people lead a 'life of idyllic simplicity Shelley and Emilia repair to a solitary house on the mountain-side, with a view; over the woods, of the sea. After a few lines, the poem ends rather suddenly. This third part of the poem is the most original. It makes a permanent addition to the stock of romantic fiction.

CRITICAL APPRECIATION AND ANALYSIS

      One of the most Characteristic of Shelley's Works: Epipsychidion celebrates Platonic love. The charm which characterizes, Shelley and the delight which a great poem kindles in the heart of man, have made Emilia Viviani, to whom the Epipsychidon was written, one of the interesting women in the world. In this piece of work, Shelley speaks of Emily as a woman towards whom he feels love, and sometimes only of his Epipsychidion—the divine image of his soul, whom he feels through her and who is veiled in her. Epipsychidion is the final shape into which his idealism of love was thrown. The greatness of the failure following on the greatness of the effort, made him put this kind of thing away for ever. When he spoke afterward of the poem, he said: "it is a part of me which is already dead." And all his love poems which follow Epipsychidion, are somehow different from this poem.

      As regards the poetical quality of the poem, it is a personal poem. It demonstrates Shelley's weaknesses and strong points more than any other poem does, And both those at their height, because writing and writing passionately about his own inward life, he was under no restraint in subject. Here nothing that he thought seemed irrelevant, for the subject was his own thought. He sings of human love and how it shapes human life. He succeeds in presenting a lovely portrait of the girl. He sings out in attractive, melodious lines, the praise of her heavenly nature, hailing her as a 'Seraph of Heaven, too gentle to be human'. He apostrophizes Emilia as the incarnation of ideal beauty; the universal loveliness made visible in mortal flesh.

      Epipsychidion is more a homage to ideal womanhood than a poem addressed to an individual woman. Shelley describes Epipsychidion in a letter to John Gisborne as "an idealized history of my life and feelings", It is strongly influenced by the Symposium of Plato and the Vita Nuova of Dante. It is an enunciation of the principle that the nature of the spiritual embodies in some respects, exactly opposite to the nature of material things. "Pleasure, love and thought", increase when they are divided among many persons, instead of diminishing like "gold and clay". It is a good example of what the Greeks called gnomic poetry, or poetry expressing profound thought in a terse condensed form. Shelley uses various traditions and utilizes the trend towards equality and intellectual communion between men and women, which accounts for the." books and music.'

      Love in Epipsychidion: Shelley's concept of love is essentially Platonic, distilled and extended in the alembic of his own intuition and also his readings of Dante, Calderon, Shakespeare and the neo-Platonists. Shelley's pursuit of love is on two planes—the mortal and the immortal at once. This work is the poetic monument of a fusion of earthly love with the very idea of Love. It is a successful delineation of the fino amove of the ancient love poets. The mortal woman that Emilia Viviani is, becomes in this poem the epipsyche or that spiritual complement of the poet's soul which, united with that of the poet under the influence of love, elevates the true to an ethereal and cosmic state of bliss:

Two overshadowing minds, one life, one death
One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality........

      It is the state in which the poet's imagination becomes ready to waft him to Love's rare universe, imaged through the Elysian island of the poem where everything is beautiful and eternal. It is thus that Shelley poetically creates a land where Plato's concept of Love, which is the desire of generation in the Beautiful, is fully realized.

      Epipsychidion is Shelley's monument to Eternity which he usually calls by the twin names of Love and Beauty. As a matter of fact, in this poem, as Kurtz says "the aesthetic trinity of Love, Death and Eternity is faithfully and mystically set up and worshipped." Emilia becomes the symbol of Eternity and love cements the two hearts, that of the poet and Emilia, in an unbreakable bond. To quote Kurtz: "Ideal beauty and sex coalesce in love". As a disciple of Plato, Shelley's love is free love which, like understanding and imagination, feeds and grows upon that which it contemplates. He with great self-control, assured magnanimity of mind and high idealism rolled into one, and an attitude of mind, in which the emotions and the imagination have been purified of the petty and the ignoble by reason, reaches that exalted level from where he has an objective and correct view of the mortal world of egoistical, and hence narrow; hope and fear. It is in this context that we can understand Shelley's views on free love as expressed in the poem. The poet's condemnation of the opponents of free love is complete and uncompromising:

Narrow
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity

      Shelley; to quote Carl Grabo, "avows a philosophy of no narrowing monogamy such as would seem prescribed to the completed soul, but declares that on earth love must be expansive, must not confine itself to one friend or lover".

      Shelley's Metaphysics in Epipsychidion: Epipsychidion is a Platonic mystery It is a mystery indeed, for apparently though it might appear as the most sensuous of love poems, it is in reality inspired with the most transcendental thoughts of an idealist and pantheist and the beautiful vision of a profound mystic. Shelley's metaphysics is essentially Platonic. It has its origin in an intuitive idealism, and yearning for Beauty and Love. In all other poems written before Epipsychidion, Plato's ideas are repeated in one form or the other, and in this poem the Platonic influence reaches its apex. In the Platonic fable, the human soul on the earth is described as a thing incomplete by itself but which attains completion when it is able to create an abstract affinity or complement to itself and to merge in it. It is in this state that the soul can return to its heavenly and complete state. That this conception made an indelible impression on Shelley is apparent in a succession of poems in which a woman personifies this unrealized completeness, whether narrowly personal as in Epipsychidion, or the ideal of intellectual beauty as in The Sensitive Plant, or man's division from nature as personified in Asia of Prometheus. In Shelley these ideals of completion in beauty and in sexual love are united, and the persistence of his employment of them suggests both his yearning for the Platonic ideal of beauty; and the incompleteness of his earthly love.

      Symbolism and Imagery: Epipsychidion is a great allegory of the poet's artistic-cum-spiritual experience, in which the facts of life are imaginatively transfigured into what is to the poet the most significant in life. The metaphysical and mystical faith in a deeper reality and in the ability of the the mortal man to exalt himself to its elevated and rarefied level through love and imagination form the pith and substance of the poem. Emilia thus becomes the symbol of Eternity and love cements the two hearts, that of the poet and Emilia in an unbreakable bond. The figure of the moon symbolizes the higher mortal soul of a beauty-worshipper which is as essential as the immortal soul. The human soul, Shelley says' is liable to err in its quest for beauty. Man s unruly desires and emotions, his passions and appetite, may be extremely powerful and may drag him down to the material world. If these are not controlled, man will lose his urge for heavenly beauty and be intoxicated by its shadows in the material world. Shelley does not altogether write off these emotions as impediments in the path of the mystic-seeker. Within the proper control exercised by the higher mortal soul, these have their utility in as much as they accelerate the passage of the seeker from particular beauties to Beauty itself. So when he images these emotions through the figure of the comet, he says that what he envisages is a union and harmony of the triple powers—the sun, the moon and the comet—as the perlude to a permeation, in the eternal bliss. Shelley's Epipsychidion is a poem inspired by the charm which Emilia Viviani exercised upon the poet. In certain important portions of it, the poem abounds in the most sensuous and erotic imagery The poem may be thus interpreted as one on earthly love with Shelley's defense of free love and tragic retrospect of love's failure.

      The Structure of the Poem: Epipsychidion is a long poem of 604 lines, divided into a number of verse-paragraphs. Each verse-paragraph is an inalienable link in the chain of Shelley's thought and imaginative rhapsodies on ideal womanhood vis-a-vis his own spiritual responses to it. The poem like many another Shelleyan masterpieces unfolds like a superb symphony It harmonizes many notes and tunes, all breathed by an inspired soul in the midst of the most profound of visions. The result is an almost unsurpassable rich diapason of music which makes this poem a unique Shelley-poem. The form of the poem is an adaptation of Dante's technique in some of his longer poems, especially his Converto,—the Invocation, the Conflict and the Tornada, coming in that order. The Invocation which forms the opening of the poem is Shelley's address to the Ideal Woman and in that way a burning praise of love as the most vivid and beautiful experience in this dark world of doubt, Chance and mutability, as an echo of a divine harmony. In Shelley, however, the Invocation is, as a matter of fact, a series of invocations in which Love and Ideal womanhood are described through a rich assortment of varied and colourful symbols. The conflict, or the emotional conflict, which forms the body of the poem comes in the midst of a most animated and autobiographical of the poet's spiritual experiences in the past in search of Love and Beauty and the ebb and flow of emotions corresponding to his depression and jubilation, make the recital an absorbingly dramatic piece. The Tornada is the concluding part, in which Shelley in a calm mood indicates his complete dedication to Love and his idea about the poem being a herald and messenger of the poet to the supreme sovereign, Love.

      The Prosodic Pattern in Epipsychidion: The prosodic side of the poem is, however, more interesting than its form and structure. In spite of the poem being shot through and through with inspired imagination which even the rich poetic symbols employed in the poem are unable to fully express, the poem is composed in heroic couplets of Dryden's style. These are stopped couplets which normally suit, in an admirable manner, verse of the satiric type and which are ill-suited for highly imaginative and lyrical verse that by its nature requires imaginative sweep and surge. In the Romantic Age, Keats used the couplet in some of his poems but with great freedom and license. Byron, on the other hand, failed with it when he used the regular couplet in the manner of Alexander Pope in his The Corsair. Shelley's use of the couplet in the manner of Dryden is an extremely bold device in a poem of the type of Epipsychidion in which the fusion of the spiritual and the carnal passion is expressed with great lyrical energy and intensity T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis condemn it as a false mode, though the latter condescendingly qualifies his statement by saying that the couplet mars, but not completely, the beauty of the poem, adding that in the poem there is an "internal, perhaps unconscious, control which arises amidst the very intensity of the experience and tightens up the metrical form."

      As against this there is unqualified appreciation from Saintsbury: "But that ’going from strength to strength', which is so noteworthy in Shelley's last years, and which makes one lose himself in wonder as to what he might have done, is as noticeable in his mere prosodic aspects as in his general poetic quality. The enjambed couplets of Epipsychidion show an immense advance on Julian and Madalo, entirely avoiding that limpness which...is the curse of the species, and attaining a rhymed verse-paragraph which, quite unlike Lycidas in particular effect, resembles it in belonging to the general class of 'rhymed blank verse'—rhymed verse that acquires the power of blank, and blank verse that borrows the attraction of rhyme."

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