Analysis of Poem "Love's Philosophy" by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley and Love's Philosophy
Love's Philosophy is a poem that combines simple rhyme and rhythm within a formal structure to create a not very convincing argument for the speaker, based on natural laws.
The speaker feels in need of a kiss from his lover and to prove the logic behind these feelings gives numerous examples of how things come together in nature. He wants to mingle in another person's being and produces an elegant, if rather weak, plea for this to happen.
If all the speaker seeks is a kiss from a female then how come Shelley chose such a high minded title? That word philosophy implies wisdom and rational, step-by-step thinking yet there is surely a dichotomy here - we're dealing with love which as everyone knows, gives not a fig for rational thinking.
- So it seems likely that the poet purposefully created this tension between thinking and feeling, drawing on the elemental unions in nature to back up his argument. Whether or not the speaker was successful in getting his kiss we'll never know - the reader is left suspended.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote this poem in 1819 and it was first published in a magazine, The Indicator, in December of that year. Fast forward to 1822 and the poet is drowned in a storm whilst sailing in the Gulf of Spezia in Italy. The poem was subsequently published in Posthumous Poems 1824.
There are definite influences from John Donne's poem of 1615, A Lecture upon the Shadow, a poem about love between two people:
Stand still, and I will read to thee
A lecture, love, in love's philosophy.
And further inspiration from another of Donne's poems about love, The Flea:
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Shelley's idea isn't original by a long way but what makes this poem successful is the romanticism of the language, the structure and the accumulative effect of the argument from nature.
Love's Philosophy - Choose Your Summary
1. All of nature mixes and mingles, so why not you and I?
2. The natural world follows divine laws, why not us?
3. There is a binding cosmic force. No need to isolate yourself.
4. In nature things attract each other. They become intimate. I'd like for you and I to do the same.
5. I believe in the natural law of physical union. It's elemental. How about you?
6. Intimacy in nature as you can see is ruled by the divine. God, I'd love to kiss you. How about it?
7. Naturally divine, sharing a kiss.
Analysis of Love's Philosophy
Love's Philosophy is an innocent looking enough poem. It has a formal two stanza appearance, rhyming lines and simple language.
Yet, delve a little deeper and the reader will find subtle use of rhythm, ample use of poetic device and an accumulative energy as the poem progresses. At the end however there is no resolution. We don't know if the speaker successfully concludes his argument and achieves actual physical union with his intended.
- Sixteen lines build up and up, resulting not in any blissful climax but a rhetorical question, leaving the reader in mid-air, suspended, waiting for a reply from a lover still trying to work out just why it is that nature holds such sway over a romantic poet.
The paradox is clear: How can something as mind-blowing as love, with its crazy effects on the human psyche, churning up our hearts, be reduced to a rational argument?
Only a romantic poet could attempt such an exercise and successfully create a poem that retains the reader's interest by varying rhythm and using nature as a base for argument.
Shelley has the speaker parallel human intimacy with that of the elements, drawing on the unions of water and air, earth and fire to try and enlighten his lover, who presumably is a female - but who remains anonymous.
In plain terms, the speaker is trying damn hard to get a kiss from a girl he fancies. Perhaps he wants more than just a kiss because he brings numerous examples to the table, all of them suggesting physical intimacy and mingling.
Personification is used heavily, which allows the reader to picture just what is happening out there in nature So the fountains and the rivers - note the plural - all embracing - and the winds are all at it, mixing according to a God-given law.
And if everything is governed by this law, why not humans too?
Men wanting to get physical with women is an age old subject and seems to be a specialty of poets - just think of Donne's Flea and Marvell's Coy Mistress - so Shelley is in good company.
- What sets this poem apart is its simplicity and subtle changes in rhythm. With trochees prominent the danger is monotony but Shelley avoids this.
- Trochaic beats tend to best express faltering emotion, wailing and gnashing of teeth, but they only play their part very well in Love's Philosophy because they mix and mingle with iambic and anapaestic feet.
- See the metrical analysis for more details.
Religious, cosmic and familial aspects help diversify the argument as the poem moves on. It should be noted that the speaker only reveals his ego, his I, at the end of the first stanza, when he poses that rhetorical question.
So he's in the background somewhat, letting nature do all the talking in an effort to strengthen his argument and get his point over. He's trying to show that human beings are part of this great divine drama being played out and to keep separate and isolated would be a foolish thing.
There's no mention specifically of time, or its running out, so the speaker is being rather patient. All he wants is a kiss and he's hoping that with his vast knowledge of the natural environment he'll impress whoever is in his sights.
Nature has meaning for this speaker. It's his be all and end all. He's on a mission for love, to express the sweet work that needs to be done.
Within a neat structure, his argument is secure and quietly powerful. Each line is measured, but there are exceptions which stir up interest. Nature can be wild and unpredictable, as can love. But humans can learn a lot from the natural world, can't they?
How Does Language Influence Meaning in Love's Philosophy?
Being a romantic, Shelley uses simple yet engaging language to reinforce meaning. For example, note the words closely associated with physicality and intimacy:
Some of these words are repeated throughout the poem which further underlines the importance of togetherness and physical being.
And there are also cosmic and religious aspects to consider. For example:
The winds of heaven mix for ever suggests timelessness.
All things by a law divine implies that everything obeys deific rule.
See the mountains kiss high heaven also relates to the religious side of human nature.
What Poetical Devices are used in Love's Philosophy?
Alliteration and Assonance
Alliteration and assonance add texture and interest for the reader as the sounds unfold:
Anaphora is repeated use of a word or phrase to reinforce meaning. In this poem repeats reflect a quiet desperation on behalf of the speaker:
And the rivers.../And the waves.../And the sunlight.../And the moonbeams.
If it.../If thou
When a line carries on into the next, without punctuation or pause but carrying sense, the line is enjambed. This helps the flow of meaning and pairs up certain lines. Look for it in lines 3/4 and6/7 and also 11/12.
Rhyme and Metre in Love's Philosophy
Love's Philosophy has a set rhyme scheme ababcdcd and all are full end rhymes except for lines 1 and 3 and 9 and 11 which are slant rhymes.
This formal rhyming pattern reflects the simplicity of the message and the ideal union of the speaker and his lover.
Metre (meter in American English)
The dominant foot in this poem is the trochee, where the first syllable is stressed and second non-stressed, producing a falling rhythm which is the opposite of the iambic. As there are four feet per line (except in lines 4, 8 and 16) the metre is trochaic tetrameter.
However there are variations on this theme of trochee. Some lines have iambic and anapaestic rhythm and this altered beat allies with meaning:
The foun / tains min / gle with / the river,
Iambic feet start this poem. Steady and traditional daDUM tetrameter.
And the riv / ers with the o / cean,
Two anapaests dadaDUM dadaDUM with an extra beat - this line rises and falls.
The winds / of hea / ven mix / for ever
Iambic tetrameter again, like the first line.
With a / sweet e / motion;
This shortened line is unusual, reflecting an abrupt fall. Three trochees=trochaic trimeter.
Nothing / in the / world is / single;
This fourth line is the first true trochaic tetrameter, that first stressed beat stamping its authority on what is a definitive statement.
All things / by a law / divine
An opening spondee gives energy to the rising anapaest and iamb.
In one / spirit / meet and / mingle -
Trochaic tetrameter again.
Why not / I with / thine?
Two trochees and an extra stressed beat or an anapaest and iamb? This short line is tricky to scan.
See the / mountains / kiss high / heaven,
Trochaic tetrameter, classic foot for expression of grief and emotional uncertainty.
And the / waves clasp / one a / nother;
Trochees plus that gripping spondee, followed by the softer pyrrhic.
No sist / er-flower / would be / forgiv / en
Nine syllables make this an iambic tetrameter with a fading extra syllable.
If it / disdained / its broth / er;
Note the tripping rhythm as the opening trochee moves into the iambic finish and the natural pause with fading extra syllable.
And the / sunlight / clasps the / earth
Trochees with the extra stressed beat at the end.
And the / moonbeams / kiss the / sea:
What is / all this / sweet work / worth
Note the last three lines end with a strong masculine beat, reflecting a little more enthusiasm?
If thou / kiss not / me?
And the final shortened line, again two trochees and the stressed beat, me, all by itself.
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
Why Write Poetry? Jeannine Johnson, Rosemont, 2007
© 2018 Andrew Spacey