P. B. Shelley (1792-1822) as a Lyricist. It can be said without any reserve that the genius of English poetry is best manifested in the great Romantic Lyricism of the 18th Century. The Lyricism became spectacular in the Odes, Sonnets, and elegies of Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Keats. The Lyricism of these great Romantic poets is generally deemed unsurpassable either by their illustrious predecessors or by their subsequent meritorious successors.
Romantic poetry is basically Lyrical even when its theme is philosophic, didactic or secular love. A Lyric is a short poem, usually divided into stanzas and directly expressing in melodious language the thoughts, emotions and feelings of the poet himself… It is the crowning glory of the subjective poetry. In modern times the range of the Lyric poetry has expanded so far that it is now identified with the subjective poetry. Originally, however, the Lyric meant a song which was sung in accompaniment with a Lyre or Harp.
This original sense of the lyric being a song is preserved in its melodious (musical) language and in the intensity of emotion or feeling expressed. But whereas , in ancient times the Lyric ,like music , was inspired by something external to the poet by such public events as war, triumph in war, and religious ceremonies, and as such possessed the objective character , the modern Lyric , however, is inspired by something within the poet and possesses purely personal character.
A Lyric proper is actually the product of a swift, momentary and passionate impulse. It implies impulsiveness or subjectivity. Secondly, it turns on to some single thought, feeling or situation. Thirdly, it is unique in its spontaneity and sincerity. Fourthly, a Lyric possesses the element of reflection and last but not the least feature of the Lyric is its music or melody. Shelley is considered as the greatest Lyricist till date. Though he wrote poems of all sorts, yet to the readers he is the consummate artist of Lyric harmonies. In none of Shelley’s greatest contemporaries was the Lyrical faculty so paramount and—he was the loftiest and most spontaneous singer in our language” writes Symons. Earnest Rays in his book Lyric Poetry endorses the opinion of Symons. “Shelley is the Lyric Lord of England’s Lordliest singers” said Swinburne while Rabindranath Thakur Held him as ‘a heavenly creature both as a poet and as a Man‘ . And , according to Francis Thompson , “He is gold-dusty with tumbling amidst the stars”. His view of a poet in “A Defence of Poetry”– ‘A oet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds’ suits best for him as poet. He is really “A phantom among men; companionless. (Adonais) Robert Browning called him “Sun treader”( SURYA-TOPA) in noticing his Nightingale like desire to fly high into the unknown. English Lyric poetry has been developed partly out of indigenous folk-song and partly under the influence of Greek and Greco-Roman models. Folk-songs were the utterances of a single person where as Classical Lyrics were choral or even orchestra.
Shelley’s Lyrics, however, contains the spirit of the both. The following lines from Prometheus Unbound describes the unpremeditated, effortless and spontaneous quality of Shelley’s Lyrics and of course, this is his first Lyric poem which heralded the emergence of one of the greatest Lyric poets in English: From unremembered ages we Gentle guides and guardians be Of heaven —-oppressed mortality; And we breathe, and sicken not, The atmosphere of human thought:
The Classical influence to Shelley came straight from the Classics, and he used it with a Greek lucidity and sonority, and yet with all the native music of the language, to express general ideas that had never before been expressed in Lyric poetry: Swift as the radiant shapes of sleep From one whose dreams are Paradise Fly, when the fond wretch wakes to weep, And Day peers forth with her blank eyes So fleet, so faint, so fair. There is more symmetry and simplicity of form as well as theme in the closing Chorus.
But the music has the same clearness, the same swift yet stately movement: A Loftier Argo cleaves the main Fraught with a richer prize Another Orpheus sings again And loves, and weeps and dies. A new Ulysses Leaves once more Calypso for his native shore. Almost all the modes of songs, from the simplest to the most intricate, are to be found in this poetic epic. This Lyrical strain is present in almost all his longer poems—Prince Athanase, The Witch of Atlas, Rosalind and Helen, Adonais, Alastar, Epipsychidion, and the Triumph of Life—-but it is in his smaller poems where his greatest virtue as a Lyricist lies.
The following poems may be referred in this regard : The Constantia Singing, Ozymandias of Egypt, The Lines written among the Eugene Hills, Stanzas written in Dejection, Ode to the west wind, The Cloud, The Skylark ,Arethusa , World’s Wonderers, Music when soft voices die, The Flowers that smiles to-day; Rarely, Rarely, comes thou; The Lament, One word is too often profaned, The Indian Air, The Second Lament; O world! O Life! O time; Invitation; Recollection etc. Between 1819 and 1820 he wrote Lyrics like Ode to the West wind, The Cloud, The Skylark , The Sensitive plant and Ode to Liberty.
At that time he wrote ‘I take great delight in watching the changes in atmosphere’. The play between Cloud and Lightening on the Sky of Orno in Florence in an evening gave him the impulse of writing Ode to the West wind. Subjective elements abounds in the poem. His anguished mind finds expression in the following lines: O wind ! lift me as a wave , a leaf, a cloud ! I fall upon the thorns of life I bleed. His To a Skylark turns on the single idea which is the contrast between the life of the skylark, an object of Nature and Human life.
This keen sense of contrast runs through the whole poem like a thread and lends a pathos to the otherwise joyful lyric. The poem was inspired by the song of a real skylark heard by Shelley and his wife (Mary) near Leghorn in Italy in 1820. Here Shelley’s imagination soars skyward like the skylark but he does not ignore the palpable facts of human life— We look before and after And pine for what is not, Our sincerest laughter With some pain is fraught. The poet wants to know the secret of the bird’s melodious rupture, so he requests– Fetch me half the gladness
That thy brain must know, Such harmonious madness From my lips would flow. The World should listen– As I am listening now. In this poem the sadly sweet emotion stirred in him by the heavenward flight of the bird comes out in his heart like the spontaneous flow of a river. Again, the following lines from The Cloud : And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams Build up the dome of air, I silently laugh at my own Cenotaph And out of the caverns of rain Like a child from the womb, Like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and un build again– reveal the height of musical pitch seems to have been reached . The very words echo the sense. And we are simply charmed by the music produced by them. His ‘Stanzas written in Dejection Near Naples’ ,which is the spontaneous and effortless expression of the poet’s mood of despondency contains the pathetic reflection on the wretched state of mind and body, culminating in his longing for death. It describes Shelley as a man who has been doomed to a life of sorrow and suffering and who wants to cease upon the midnight with no pain–
A forlorn and stranded man on the wilder island of life— Alas ! I have nor hope nor health Nor peace within, nor calm around ————————- Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure. These are not only what is personal to Shelley but also what is Universal. We find in Shelley’s sad and tragic experiences an echo of our own sad experiences. Like Shelley’s our life ,too, is a long vale of tears. The repeated rebuffs and buffets of the world make our life so miserable and unbearable that we want that ‘Death, Death like sleep might steal on’ us.
Thus Shelley can be viewed as the mouthpiece of the oppressed and miserable humanity. But the Romantic poet is not a defeatist. He is a bold optimist. He hopes for a happy and bright morning after the darkness of night; a happy and luminous new beginning after a perilous and catastrophic end. So he consoles himself in the lines— O Wind! If Winter comes, can Spring be far Behind . And finally we can conclude with the fundamental Truth of Life as contemplated by the poet : Our sweetest songs are those, that tell of saddest thoughts.