Skip to main content

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s "The Sensitive Plant"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Excerpt from "The Sensitive Plant"

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s "The Sensitive Plant" plays out in three numbered parts and a conclusion: Part 1 yields a whopping 28 stanzas: 26 quatrains and 2 cinquains); Part 2 contains 15 quatrains; Part 3 again another whopping 27 quatrains and one cinquain; the Conclusion plays out with only 6 quatrains.

The piece is a rather long 311-line poem with its 74 quatrains, each of which consists of two riming couplets, and three cinquains, each featuring a riming couplet and a riming tercet.

Shelley’s philosophical bent is on full display in this piece. While it portends to describe the mimosa plant, whose leaves will move in response to touch, it also tries to make a statement about humankind by comparison.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Excerpt from "The Sensitive Plant"

PART 1.

A Sensitive Plant in a garden grew,
And the young winds fed it with silver dew,
And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light.
And closed them beneath the kisses of Night.

And the Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth’s dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

To read the entire poem, please visit "The Sensitive Plant" at Kalliope.

Reading of "The Sensitive Plant"

Commentary

Parts 1-3 dramatize spring/summer growth in a garden and fall/winter death and decay. In the conclusion the speaker offers his philosophical musing on the meaning of it all.

Part 1: Observing a Unique Plant

Part 1 of Shelly’s long piece makes the observation that the mimosa plant is the only one that "tremble[s]" when touched. He adds the claim that when touched, the plant not only trembled it also "panted with bliss." He calls the "Sensitive Plant" companionless, likely because it is the only plant that produces that movement upon being touched.

The speaker goes through all manner of machinations to imbue the plant with favorable yet ultimately human qualities, such as in the 26th stanza when the speaker remarks that the plant actually has "consciousness"—not a new idea entirely but one seldom observed by the human mind and heart.

Part 2: The Ministering Lady

In Part 2 of Shelley’s long drama, the speaker introduces the presence of "A Lady," who tends the garden; this feminine presence is also referred to as "a Power" and an "Eve in this Eden," whose relationship with the inmates of the garden resembles that of "God ( ) to the starry scheme."

While this "Lady" functions as Mother Nature in many ways with her caring for the plants, her own nature departs markedly from Mother Nature, for as summer moves into autumn, the Lady dies.

Mother Nature does not die; she continues to minister through all seasons and all weather conditions. Indeed, Mother Nature is simply a metaphoric mother aspect of the one father God, Who is the Creator of all things.

Nevertheless, the "Lady," who ministers in Shelley’s edenic piece, remains a Mother-Nature-like presence; she is the personification of the force that maintains the plants and other garden creations during their heyday of spring and summer. Thus, in this piece, after the Lady dies, autumn brings on what that season always fetches, death and decay.

Without the presence of this nurturing Lady, a sinister force takes hold and as always happens during the cooling of the weather, the plant kingdom experiences death or dormancy until the reawakening the next spring.

Part 3: The Lady’s Death Heralds Autumn/Winter

Part 3 features the continued act of dying and decaying of the plants in the garden. After a three-day respite, the on-set of autumn becomes apparent to the "Sensitive Plant," which "Felt the sound of the funeral chant."

The speaker reports the mourning of the garden members for the late Lady; her passing has brought about great sorrow in the garden. Images of darkness and dread engulf the atmosphere as the Lady’s dead presence is laid to rest: "And the smell, cold, oppressive, and dank, / Sent through the pores of the coffin-plank."

The fourth quatrain of Part 3 exemplifies the mood heralded by the passing of the Lady: the grass is dark; the flowers yielded tears and sighs that resulted in a "mournful tone," and the pines sent out many groans.

The speaker then turns the seasonal onset into a drama with images that describe the result from death of the mother-like presence. In the final cinquain, the onset of autumn is revealed: the garden is now "cold and foul" wherein it once was "fair."

It resembles a corpse, having lost it "soul." It because so grievous as to make men tremble.

Such a change in the countenance of the garden creatures was enough to affect even the most guarded manly qualities of those men who "never weep" but yet now they "tremble" at the onslaught of the deathly season.

The remaining quatrains continue to provoke sorrow and loss with such couplets as "Swift Summer into the Autumn flowed, / And frost in the mist of the morning rode" and "Then the rain came down, and the broken stalks / Were bent and tangled across the walks."

And the "Sensitive Plant" itself suffered the changing conditions: it "wept" and the tears caused its "folded leaves" to turn into "a blight of frozen glue."

Then winter arrives: "For Winter came: the wind was his whip: / One choppy finger was on his lip." And winter continues to perform his duties of transforming all living things to brown, stiff, still models of their former selves.

The speaker describes the "weeds" as being "forms of living death" and as those forms flee from the frost, their "decay" is likened to the "vanishing of a ghost!"

Again, the speaker returns to the "Sensitive Plant" to describe how under the plant’s roots "mold and dormice died for want." And birds simply stiffen and drop from the sky, their lifeless bodies "caught in the branches naked and bare."

After a "thawing rain," whose "dull drops" immediately froze in the trees, a freezing dew "steamed up" which continued the freeze. The speaker then describes this severe winter with its "northern whirlwind" as a "wolf" that has sniffed out "a dead child." That wind shook the frozen tree limb so hard they snapped.

Then suddenly, winter is gone and spring is coming back, but the Sensitive Plant is now a "leafless wreck." However, other woodland creatures, including "the mandrakes, and toadstools, and docks, and darnels," "rose like the dead from their ruined charnels."

Thus, the speaker has ended his foray into reimagining the changes involved in seasonal moving from spring/summer with its fecund growth and beauty to fall/winter with its death and decay.

Conclusion: A Philosophical Musing

The speaker now engages in a philosophical discussion which includes his musing on this discussion and description of the natural occurrence means. He first confesses that he does not know how the "Sensitive Plant" might have felt about "this change."

Furthermore, he cannot hazard a guess as to how the "Lady" felt about the situation. He wonders if she felt sadness. And though he dares not guess how the "Sensitive Plant" and the "Lady" felt, he is now ready to offer his own thoughts on the issue of life and death.

He declares that this life is filled with "error, ignorance, and strife," and "we" (humanity) seem to be little more than the "shadows of a dream." Thus, he has determined what he calls a "modest creed" is nevertheless pleasant to consider that "death" is nothing more than a "mockery."

In fact, it is all a mockery. He then states that all of the sweetness and beauty contained within the Edenic garden, which he has so thoroughly described, remain, that is, those etheric qualities did not and do not change. He says, "’Tis we, ’tis ours, are changed; not they."

He then declares that love, beauty, and delight do not die or change. Those qualities, being ineffable, possess a power ("might") that surpasses the human ability to comprehend. Our human capacity—presented here by "our organs"—remains in darkness for those "organs" "endure / No light, being themselves obscure."

The speaker is implying that the human heart and mind are, in fact, capable of enduring light, but because of a willful blindness, many remain in a state of moribund, abject mental and spiritual poverty—where light cannot penetrate until a change of heart and mind is effected.

Grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery (Cimitero Acattolico) in Rome.

Grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery (Cimitero Acattolico) in Rome.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes