The Poet's Dream: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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On a poet's lips I slept
Dreaming like a love adept
In the sound his breathing kept;
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
But feeds on the aerial kisses
Of shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses.
He will watch from dawn to gloom
The lake reflected sun illume
The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
Nor heed nor see what things they be;
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality!



      The Poet's Dream is an extract from Shelley's poetic drama, Prometheus Unbound, began in the autumn of 1818 and finished at the close of 1819. The drama was published in the summer of 1820 along with some of Shelley's finest short poems. At the opening of the drama, Prometheus, the good Titan standing for human wisdom and heroism, is found captivated and chained by of Jupiter, who represents tyranny and superstition. Mercury asks Prometheus to reveal a secret known only to him the fear of which is troubling Jupiter. Prometheus refuses and then is tortured by the Furies. When the Furies have departed, the Earth, out of pity for the suffering Prometheus sends some "fair and subtle spirits" to comfort him. These good spirits who inspire the noblest of human activities sing lyrics to cheer Prometheus up. The first of these spirits seems to be the patron of heroism, the second of altruism, the third of wisdom and the fourth of poetry. The song of the fourth one, the lyric under discussion, is an important statement of Shelley's view of the nature of aesthetic creation.


      The conception of Shelley as regards the function of poetry as embodied in the poetical language of the song of the spirit finds its prose counterpart in the words of the poet himself;—"Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful and it adds beauty to that which is deformed It transmutes all that it touches, and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes". Shelley realized in song, so far as it was possible, the impalpable dreams of the poetic temperament, those which when they rise in happiness, in the little poem, "On a Poet's lips I slept."

      This poem explains the process of poetic inspiration and poetic creation. The poet does not stop at the actual and the mundane. He pierces through things to their spiritual essence. For he not only beholds intensely the present, as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flowers and fruits of the latest time.


      The Spirit who sings this lyric is intended by Shelley to be an embodiment of the poetic spirit and a spokesman of his own concept of poetry. To Shelley love and poetic inspiration are inseparable. Only one who is initiated in the mysteries of love is capable of writing poetry. Love produces a world of dream and fancies in which the poet can find an atmosphere of melody, necessary for poetic creation. A poet does not seek earthly pleasures or beauties,—"mortal blisses"— but he finds all his joys by trying to reach superior beauty and love in his world of imagination. The poet observes Nature and other objects around him, but is not excited by them. Instead, from these objects he, by using his faculty of imagination, creates such forms and shapes which take on greater significance than their originals and become immortal. This theory of poetic creation is further explained by Mrs. Shelley in her note on Prometheus Unbound: "More popular poets clothe the ideal with familiar and sensible imagery. Shelley loved to idealize the real—to gift the mechanism of the material universe with a soul and a voice, and to bestow such also on the most delicate and abstract emotions and thoughts of the mind. Sophocles was his great master in this species of imagery." Shelley's concept of poetry is, therefore, based on vision and has not much to do with the actual world. In this sense his poetry, though entertaining, has little educative value. The greatness of Shelley lies not so much in his themes but in his presentation of them in vivid, minute details. On Prometheus Unbound, J.A. Symonds observes: "Shelley pierced through things to their spiritual essence. The actual world was less for him than that which lies within it and beyond it. "I seek" he says himself, "in what I see, the manifestation of something beyond the present and tangible object." For him, as for the poet described by one of the Spirit voices in Prometheus Unbound, the bees in the ivy bloom are scarcely heeded. He transforms them with his imagination:

Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality.

      And yet who could have brought the bees, the lake, the sun, the bloom, more perfectly before us than that picture does? Shelley's concept of poetry is undoubtedly the product of a genuine urge for beauty: In The Poet's Dream, Shelley speaks for himself and out of his own experience showing how beautiful things were, indeed to him prophetic of a nobler life because of their beauty, and how he could transform that beauty into the music of his verse, so that nothing of what he had seen remained in it except beauty.


      LI. 1-13. On a poet's lips.....Nurslings of immortality. The Spirit whose dwelling-place is the dim cave of human thought, slept in the cradle of the lips of a poet. The poet's respiration, sweet and fragrant as it was, acted as a lullaby to the spirit. There he dreamt sweet dreams as one who is versed in the lore of love might dream. The poet does not find, nor does he care to have, the joys of this world of realities, because they fail to give delight to his mind; but he finds his joy in his world of imagination, which he peoples with aerial beings in whose company and in whose caresses lies all his delight. The poet will gaze from early morning to sunset on the reflection of the sunlight on the bosom of the lake shedding its luster on the golden bees that feed on the flowers of the ivy; but because his business is not to copy nature, he looks even at such beautiful objects of nature in a heedless manner. He need not perceive the actual sights and sounds of nature; for out of his half-heeded, vague impressions, he is able to create an ideal world of beauty, full of things that are less unsubstantial than human beings and not liable to decay and death. These immortal creations, the airy nothings to which he gives a local habitation and a name, are bequeathed to posterity and are cherished for ever. Hence, they are more real than the earthly things, and they are immortal.


      L. 1. On a poet's lips—The home of this Spirit, which sings this song to soothe the heart of the tired Prometheus, is the dim cave of human thought. Symbolically the Spirit is the embodiment of poetic inspiration. L. 2. Dreaming like a love adept—A poet, who is well-versed in the secret of Love, lives constantly in the world of dreams and fancies. (Love-adept—one skilled in loving; i.e., a lover). L. 3. In the sound...kept—The poet breathes in an atmosphere of sweet rhythm and melody. L. 4. Nor seeks nor finds—The poet does not seek nor find his joys in the ordinary and mundane pleasures and delights of life. L. 5. Feeds on aerial kisses—But the poet finds his enjoyment in a visionary world, in the midst of his beloved phantoms and caressed by them. (Aerial—visionary i.e., the kisses of imaginary beings, like the lady in Dream of the Unknown). L. 6. Of shapes.....wildernesses—Of phantoms with which his imagination is peopled. The mind is compared to a wilderness of intricate paths, wide as the universe. L. 7. He will watch.....gloom—The poet will gaze at nature from morning to evening but not with a view to imitate it. L. 8-9. The lake reflected sun....ivy-bloom—The reflection of the sun's light on the surface of the lake casting its gleam on the bees which feed on the blooms of the ivy. The poet draws his inspiration from the world of Nature. The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom—Honey-bees sucking honey from the bloomed flowers of the ivy. L. 10. Nor heed nor see—The poet looks at nature in a halfheedless manner, so that nature cannot influence his feelings, but his feelings color the aspect of nature for him. These lines precisely indicate the difference between Wordsworth's manner of observing nature and Shelley's. L. 11. But from....he can—Out of this derived inspiration, the poet will be able to create beings less unsubstantial than the human beings who are mortal; but his creations are immortal. L. 12. Forms more real—They are more real means, they are immortal, and what is immortal and eternal is more real than what is mortal and transient. L. 13. Nurslings of immortality—i.e., immortal creations. The things of the physical world are transient and fleeting; but the poetic ideas and ideals are immortal and last for ever. Hence they are "Nurslings of Immortality."

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