To The Spirit of Nature: by P. B. Shelley - Summary & Analysis

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TO THE SPIRIT OF NATURE
Or
LIFE OF LIFE! THY LIPS ENKINDLE

Text
Life of Life! thy lips enkindle
With their love the breath between them;
And thy smiles before they dwindle
Make the cold air fire; then screen them
In those looks where who so gazes
Faints, entangled in their mazes.

Child of Light! thy limbs are burning
Through the vest which seems to hide them,
As the radiant lines of morning
Through the clouds, ere they divide them:
And this atmosphere divinest
Shrouds thee whereso'er thou shinest.

Fair are others: none beholds thee;
But thy voice sounds, low and tender
Like the fairest, for it folds thee
From the sight, that liquid spend our;
And all feel, yet see thee never,—
As I feel now, lost for ever!

Lamp of Earth! where'er thou movest
Its dim shapes are clad with brightness.
And the souls of whom thou lovest
Walk upon the winds with lightness
Till they fail, as I am failing,
Dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing.!

SUMMARY & ANALYSIS

INTRODUCTION

      This poem is from Act II, Scene V, of Shelley's poetic play Prometheus Unbound, written during 1818 and 1819, and published in 1820. Asia, Panthea and the Spirit of the Hour are, in this scene, represented as journeying in Hour's chariot through time towards the moment of the liberation of Prometheus and the regeneration of the world. As the Chariot, during this journey, reaches a cloud-capped peak, a light emanating from Asia fills the cloud and increases her beauty. Asia is a personification of nature, and her transfiguration is the result of the reign of Love and Liberty which is beginning, and the end of the reign of tyranny during which period, she has been an exile. The "Life of Life" lyric, sung by a voice in the air, is in reality Prometheus who loves her, celebrates the miraculous transfiguration of Asia.

SUMMARY

      Asia is the Life of Life. Her lips illuminate the breath passing between them with their love. Her smiles, before they disappear, make the cold air warm. Her enchanting smiles lend a unique glory to her face and she is therefore asked to hide her face from men, who might get lost in these labyrinthine smiling eyes. (Stanza 1)

      Asia is the child of light. Light radiates from her and she is pure revelation. The bright luster of her body seems to burn through her clothes just as the brightness of the morning shines through the clouds before they are parted by the sun. As a heavenly body, Asia is surrounded by a heavenly atmosphere. (Stanza 2)

      Asia is the fairest of all fair spirits. Her beauty is so dazzling and unbearable to the eyes that nobody can see her. Her voice is soft, sweet and sonorous. The glory of her melodious voice screens her from the sight of others. The presence of her liquid splendor is felt but nobody can see her. (Stanza 3)

      Finally Asia (Spirit of Love) is addressed as Lamp of Earth, for it is she who illumines the whole earth with her divine light. Wherever she moves, her brightness is spread and the objects are brightened. The souls of those whom Asia loves can walk upon the winds till they fail as Prometheus is now failing. In spite of his confusion at the dazzling beauty of Asia, he does not feel any regret. (Stanza 4)

CRITICAL APPRECIATION & ANALYSIS

      Shelley's concept of Love: Love has rarely been celebrated with more fiery fervor than it has been in this poem. To Shelley, love is the supreme principle governing the universe, and it is subject to nothing but itself. Love is the central, creating, inspiring principle which sustains all life and without which even goodness is not enough. Asia represents the ideal love of Plato; she is an expression of supreme beauty; she embodies the inner spirit of love in Nature. Her imminent union with Prometheus who represents the spirit of Man signifies the final triumph of love as the principle binding Nature and Man into an inseparable and complementary relationship. Love is "Life of Life"; its impact is always illuminating and inspiring as well as bewildering. Love is a "Child of Light" that, by its brightness, can lend a divinity to its surrounding atmosphere. Love is "Like the fairest"; it remains unseen and yet gives one near it a feeling of being "lost for ever". Love is again called the "Lamp of Earth" to suggest that it is the guiding principle governing the world. This glorious concept of love surpasses even Plato's idea of love. It is so intense that when the time comes to celebrate it through this "Life of Life" hymn, Shelley is carried away and as such finds it hard to express in precise words the meaning it held for him. Shelley's far too emotional involvement with love accounts for the obscurities in the diction and imagery of the poem.

      Abstract Thoughts: The poem illustrates the abstract or ethereal quality of Shelley's poetry. Shelley has a tendency to be emotionally involved with any theme that he takes up for poetry. The intensity of emotion very often carries him away from this ordinary world to dizzy heights of imagination. His poetry, written so far away from the world, is, therefore, inevitably unreal and obscure. The "Life of Life" lyric is obscure because it is meant to celebrate the victory of Love, Shelley's primary passion, and written when Shelley's emotional temperature had crossed all bounds of reason. The poem, therefore, bears no logical or clear-cut thought. Yet it is regarded by most critics, for its transcendental impact as one of the best lyrics by Shelley. J.A. Symond remarks: "If a critic is so dull as to ask what 'Life of Life! thy lips enkindle' means, or to whom it is addressed, none can help him any more than one can help a man whose sense of hearing is too gross for the tenuity of a bat's cry".

      Imagery: The lyric is appealing particularly for its wonderful imagery, similes and metaphors. The pictures of lips brightening Asia's breath, smiles making "the cold air fire", the "burning" limbs of Asia, her brightness illuminating the "dim shapes" on the earth, are unique and beautiful. The captivating beauty of Asia's eyes is described through the novel idea that whoever gazes at them faints and gets "entangled in their mazes". Shelley employs a magnificent simile when he describes the radiance emanating from Asia's body:

Child of Light! thy limbs are burning
Through the vest which seems to hide them;
As the radiant lines of morning
Through the clouds ere they divide them,

      The metaphors Shelley uses—"Liquid splendor" and "Lamp of Earth"—to describe Asia's voice and her brightness respectively are really refreshing and contributory to the total appeal of the poem.

EXPLANATIONS WITH CRITICAL COMMENT LINE BY LINE

      LI. 1-6. Life of Life.....mazes. Zeus (Jove) has been defeated and Prometheus has been unbound from his rock. The reign of Tyranny is over. The age of Love, Justice and Freedom has begun. Asia, the spirit of Nature, has been transformed into the Spirit of Love and is united to Prometheus, the benefactor of mankind, who stole fire from sun's chariot, to benefit humanity. In the hour of transformation, a Spirit in the Air sings this song.

      A Spirit lives in Nature and that Spirit is Love. She is the Life of Life. She is the soul of everything. What is the power, which makes the sun shine and flower blossom and man move? We call it the power of God. Shelley substituted Love for God, and says that Love is the Soul of Life and the real power in every object.

      Her lips change her breathing into fire. Her smiles changes cold air into fire, before they stop. Her lips and her smiles produce fire in the heart. Love creates enthusiasm and unbounded energy. A lover's heart is one fire. Love creates the warmth of June, even in the cold air of November:

When all thy love and beauty they remember
Cold earth shall quicken and the tired trees sigh
A touch of June shall trouble old November
As though you had passed by.

      The Spirit who is singing this song, wants to turn her gaze on the eyes of Asia, the Spirit of Nature, and away from her lips, on which plays the fiery smile. Smiles on and breath between the lips are fire. One cannot look at this dazzling light. So it is possible to look at her calm eyes.

      LI. 7-12. Child of light....."thou shinest. This Spirit of Love and Nature is the child of Light. It is all light, shining everywhere. God or divine spirit are addressed as Light. Milton's "Hail, Holy Light" and Newman's "Lead Kindly Light" are famous examples.

      Her limbs are all fire. The light shines out of her underclothes, just as the rays of the morning sun, shine through the clouds. At sunrise and sunset, there are clouds of variegated colors near the sun. When the sun is high, these clouds break and vanish. She, the great Spirit of Love, is surrounded by a halo of light. Wherever she goes, this most divine (holy) atmosphere envelopes her.

      Shelley is describing what may be called the Goddess of Light and Love. She is all light and is surrounded by holiness, wherever she goes. As Shelley says in his poem; 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty':

Spirit of Beauty, thou dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon.

      LI. 13-18. Fair are others..... for ever. Others are beautiful, but you are the most beautiful of them all. To Shelley, Love is the greatest Beauty. Shelley uses Love where we would use the word God. Plato also said that the Beautiful, the Good and the True are one and the same thing.

      None can see her. We cannot see any spirit living in Nature. In fact scientists find no God or Spirit living in Nature. We can only hear her soft and sweet voice. Of course, we common people can’t hear any voice either, but a poet finds "tongues in trees, and sermons in stones." The flowers and fields are speaking out their message of love to us. Only that sound or message can be heard only by those who are competent to hear the sounds of the Spirits.

      She is surrounded by a halo of light. She is hidden behind her dazzling light and can't be seen. (As we say, God is hidden behind the beauty of His creation and can't be seen.) We only feel her presence, but can never see her. For instance, we feel that God is present in everything. We feel His presence but can't see him. So Shelley feels the presence of a Spirit in Nature, but can't see that Spirit. The consciousness of that Spirit, be it God or Love, makes us feel intoxicated. We forget ourselves and are lost in the thought of that spirit.

      LI. 12-24. Lamp of Earth yet.....Unbewailing. She is a Lamp giving light to the world. Her presence illuminates dark places and adds light to dark things. We say God removes darkness and sin from the world. Shelley's God is love. According to Shelley, the world without love is dark as hell. Love converts it into a heaven. Panthea tells her sister Asia, that love, like sunshine filled the world and lighted it. Says Shelley:

Love, like the atmosphere
Of the sun's fire filling the living world,
Burst from three, and illumined earth and heaven.

      Those whom she loves ride the storms and walk upon the winds, with a great inner joy. In our terminology, we say that those whom God loves enjoy happiness and perfect bliss. Shelley says that those whom the Spirit of Love favors (who are her favorites) enjoy perfect happiness in the world. Shelley says that if man worshipped love and beauty:

Man were immortal and omnipotent.

      Ultimately they will fail, as he is failing. No one can realise the Spirit of Love in his life. They may be lost or confused, but their failure occasions no regret or grief; as Tennyson says:

It is better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

ANNOTATIONS

      Stanza 1. L. 1. Life of life—The very essence of Life. LI. 1-2. Thy lips...between them—The spirit of love in Asia's lips illuminates the breath which passes through her lips. LI. 3-4. And thy lips...cold air The warmth of her lips, before fading away, warms up the air. LI. 4-6. Then screen...in their mazes—Her (Asia's) smiles are so intricate and mazy that she should better conceal them, for by looking into her eyes, a man would get lost and feel dazed, mazes—labyrinth.

      Stanza 2. L. 7. Child of light—Asia is addressed as the Child of Light because she is so bright and shining and the Spirit of Love is the essence of Light. LI. 7-10. Thy limbs...divide them—The luster and brightness of her body is such that even her clothes cannot hide the radiance of her body, which is visible just as the brightness of morning becomes visible through clouds before they are parted by sun. LI. 11- 12. And this...thou shinest—Like a divine Spirit she is hallowed by a heavenly light.

      Stanza 3. L. 13. Fair are...thee. Asia is the fairest of all fair spirits. But none could see her because of her ethereal beauty. LI. 16-18. Liquid splendor...for ever—One can feel the presence of her ethereal beauty; but none could see her. Her divine presence is more to be felt than seen.

      Stanza 4. L. 19. Lamb of Earth—Asia is addressed as the Lamb of Earth because she illumines the whole world and radiates light to the objects of the world. L. 21-24. And the souls...unbewailing—The victims of Asia's love are fortunate because the power of her love enables them to walk lightly upon the winds, till they collapse just as the speaker (Prometheus) is about to collapse. In spite of that he has no regrets to make. The idea behind is, that though the speaker is lost in her love, he delights in it and takes pride that he loves her profoundly. Hence he has no cause to grumble over it.

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