Percy Bysshe (“Bish”, apparently) Shelley is a Romantic poet – the capital R meaning not necessarily overcome with love all the time, but part of a group of poets who took a particular attitude towards life. They used a lot of natural imagery, thought and wrote about the excesses of emotion, and were often a little melodramatic.
Shelley also has some extremely scandalous personal life-stories, which I’ve found great hooks for students! He was married to Harriet, when she was 16, and they had two children together before he abandoned her for Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – also 16 at the time – after they’d met at Mary’s father’s home, where Percy and Harriet were frequent visitors. The tragic side Especially for those students who’ve read/are studying Frankenstein, it’s great to digress into the story of her writing Frankenstein and the holiday in Geneva. For this poem, though, it also makes Shelley a little bit more dubious – who is he writing for? Can we trust his apparently romantic (small-r deliberate!) nature or is there something a little unseemly in his persuasion here?
This poem is all about persuasion – to summarise in one sentence: “If nature must be coupled up, then why won’t you be with me?”
From the start, Shelley’s focused on the intermingling of nature – fountains, rivers, oceans all as one, the mountains kiss heaven, flowers grow together. Beginning with the statement of fact implies the lack of argument that he can expect – things are simply stated, unalterable. In many of the mingled elements, the items grow in size as they join together, symbolising the increased strength and power of the joined versus the single. In the first stanza, the elements are water and wind – transitory, moving, hard to get hold of – and often the feminine elements. In the second stanza, the more solid earthy “mountain” is summoned but, perhaps surprisingly, Shelley doesn’t move to the more masculine elements entirely. Instead, he focuses on the combination of the solid with the elusive – heaven, sunlight with the earth, moonlight with the more permanent sea. Is this Shelley being persuasive and charming, hinting that his love is the slightly mysterious element of light? Or is he using the elusive nature of the embrace to make a further comment on the difficulties of holding onto love?
Despite Shelley’s dislike of religion – he was temporarily expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet titled “The necessity of atheism” – he’s still influenced by his time and there are repeated references to the divine, Heaven, spirit and so on (a different sort of atheism to the present, perhaps!) Again these further the persuasive argument, implying that their love is divine providence, or fate. Each stanza ends with a rhetorical question daring the lover to respond and argue – but we’re never permitted to hear the response.
The ideas of masculine and feminine expressed in the elements are also present in the rhyme-scheme. Masculine rhymes end on a stressed syllable (river, mingle) whereas the feminine is the unstressed ending (ocean, earth). The combination of these is another subtly underlying hint that the two should be together. Gradually, the line endings become more masculine, creating a more determined sound as the poem reaches its conclusion. The sentence structure and punctuation too creates a sense of unity with the balance of the two stanzas, each stanza using semi-colons to prevent the sentences being split apart. Throughout, the poem is gentle and soft sounding; the sibilance and gentle verbs (mingle, clasp) with the euphony of their vowel-heavy sounds all present the sweet request: be with me.
Poetry: If teaching the AQA Love and Relationships anthology for GCSE it would be interesting to pair this with “When We Two Parted” as another Romantic poet, and the two being such close companions in life. It also works well with Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 29”, expressing the nature of love and using the imagery of the tree and vine entwined together to present the couple, compelled to be together in the same way as Shelley’s.
Non-Fiction: Link this with non-fiction extracts from Shelley’s wife, Mary Shelley – the preface to her Frankenstein, maybe, or to her mother’s Vindication of the Rights of Women to explore the roles of feminine and masculine in the era. Or perhaps some letters from Shelley to give an idea of his character?
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the Ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
in one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?-
See the mountains kiss high Heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?
Like this? I’ve created a set of revision flashcards for the GCSE poetry anthology. Each one has
- language, structure and form explained
- context of the poem and why it matters
- key quotes, with analysis of language techniques
- key relevant literary terminology
- explanation of key quotations
- which poems to compare together