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Analysis of 'The Cold Earth Slept Below' by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)

Glenis studied for a B.A (Hons) in English Literature after retirement. She was awarded a degree at the age of 67.

The frozen Serpentine in London's Hyde Park, 2010

The frozen Serpentine in London's Hyde Park, 2010

'The Cold Earth Slept Below' Context

Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, had committed suicide by drowning in the Serpentine. Her body was recovered on the 10th December 1816 and there is a view that 'The Cold Earth Slept Below' refers to her death.

But there is some controversy about the date that Shelley wrote the poem. He died in a boating accident in Italy in 1822 and 'The Cold Earth Slept Below' was not published until after his death.

The poem first appeared in Hunt's Literary Pocket-Book [1823], where it is headed 'November 1815'.

It was reprinted in an edition compiled by Shelley's widow, Mary, in a volume with the title Posthumous Poems [1824]. Theories have been advanced that Mary Shelley changed the date written on the manuscript of the poem to 5th November 1815 so that it would seem to have been written prior to Harriet's death and therefore could not have been about her.

What is clear is that Mary Shelley edited out the publicly unacceptable aspects of her husband's life from the first comprehensive collection of his work, published in 1839 (Allen &Spencer, 2012). So it is not beyond the bounds of belief that the second Mrs. Shelley changed the date on which 'The Cold Earth Slept Below' was written.

...a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine River and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missing for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger...

— London Times, December 12, 1816

The Poem

The cold earth slept below;

Above the cold sky shone;

And all around,

With a chilling sound,

From caves of ice and fields of snow

The breath of night like death did flow

Beneath the sinking moon.

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The wintry hedge was black;

The green grass was not seen;

The birds did rest

On the bare thorn’s breast,

Whose roots, beside the pathway track,

Had bound their folds o’er many a crack

Which the frost had made between.

Thine eyes glow’d in the glare

Of the moon’s dying light;

As a fen-fire’s beam

On a sluggish stream

Gleams dimly—so the moon shone there,

And it yellow’d the strings of thy tangled hair,

That shook in the wind of night.

The moon made thy lips pale, beloved;

The wind made thy bosom chill;

The night did shed

On thy dear head

Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie

Where the bitter breath of the naked sky

Might visit thee at will

Summary of 'The Cold Earth Slept Below'

'The Cold Earth Slept Below' is about how a beloved woman, who has been out of doors on a bitterly cold winter night, has died of exposure, perhaps, as the allusion to a fen-fire suggests, drowning as a consequence of being drawn to an inexplicable, possibly paranormal, phenomenon flickering over water.

Gothic and Sublime Aspects of the Poem

The tone of this poem might be described as in the style of Gothic horror, in which death and fear are predominant themes. The pace and stressed words in the poem add to the uncanny impression that the poem elicits from the reader.

In an age when the concept of the sublime was an important aspect of the imaginative work of many writers, Shelley, one of the foremost Romantic poets, developed a reputation as a poet of extreme landscapes.

The sublime features prominently in 'The Cold Earth Slept Below'.

  • The first stanza describes extreme cold (note the repetition of the word cold in the first two lines) in terms of caves of ice, fields of snow, chilling sound and death. In this desolate landscape, even the moon is sinking
  • The second stanza expands the description of a bleak landscape - the hedge is black, a colour connected with mourning—it is nighttime and because it is winter the hedge is stripped of its foliage exposing the bare branches, which are devoid of life—the birds did not rest. Not only are the branches of the hedge bare, but the roots are too. The frost had caused numerous cracks in the pathway and the roots of the thorn hedge had crept over and into them - further imagery of life sinking into the ground.
  • The third stanza moves on from the description of the landscape in the previous two stanzas to a direct address by the voice in the poem to a creature - it is not revealed at this point if the creature is human or an animal. But the creature has eyes that glow in the dying light of the moon. Shelley presents a metaphor of the glowing eyes resembling a fen-fire (will o' the wisp)—an unexplained ghostly light seen by travellers, usually over bogland or fens, at night. Such phenomena were reputed to draw travellers towards certain death in the water.
  • The fourth stanza continues the direct address to the object of the poem. It is now clear that this is a dead woman - her lips pale, her bosom chill, lying on the ground under a bitterly cold sky. It is evident that this is not an impersonal description - the voice addresses the deceased as beloved.

The Form and Poetic Features

  • Four six-line stanzas known as sextains
  • The rhyme scheme is not consistent throughout the poem but there is a discernable pattern, providing cohesion.
  • Lines 3 and 4 in each stanza are the shortest lines in the poem and in each of the verses the two lines rhyme—around, sound, rest, breast, beam, stream, shed, head.
  • The rhyme of stanzas 1 and 2—reading each stanza as a unit independent of the other in terms of rhyme—is ABCCDDE and ABCCDDB
  • The rhyme scheme of stanzas 2 and 3 is ABCCBBA and ABCCBBA
  • Note the alliteration that abounds throughout the poem (alliteration is a stylistic device in which a number of words, having the same first consonant sound, occur close together in a series. e.g. line 9 The green grass was not seen contains both alliteration and internal rhyme)
  • Imagery is a significant feature of this poem, which is a poetic device used to defamiliarise the familiar. Here it is achieved by the personification of the weather conditions—the earth is sleeping and the wind is breathing. Note the simile used to make a connection between the nature of the wind and death. The wind is as inescapable and as cold as death.
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

A Brief Timeline of Events in the Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley

This timeline has been extracted from a comprehensive chronology on the Romantic Circles website, ' A refereed scholarly Website devoted to the study of Romantic-period literature and culture'.


Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS) born at Field Place, Warnham, West Sussex to Timothy Shelley, M.P., and Elizabeth Pilfold Shelley


Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley) born to William Godwin and his wife Mary Wollstonecraft


PBS a boarding student at Eton College


Shelley's grandfather, the elder Percy Bysshe Shelley, created at baronet - taking the title Sir Bysshe Shelley

Spring 1810

PBS's Gothic novel 'Zatrozzi' published


PBS begins studies at University College, Oxford, where he meets Thomas Jefferson Hogg

December 1810

PSB's second Gothic novel, 'St. Irvyne' published

January 1811

PBS meets Harriet Westbrook

February 1811

PBS and Hogg write 'The Necessity of Atheism'


PBS and Hogg expelled from University College for refusing to answer questions about the authorship of 'The Necessity of Atheism


PBS elopes with the sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook and they are married in Edinburgh on the 29th August


PBS meets William Godwin in London


Ianthe Shelley born


PBS and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin elope to France, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Mary Jane (later Claire) Claimont,from where the quickly move on to Switzerland


PBS and MWG return to England


PBS's first son, Charles, born to Harriet


Sir Bysshe Shelley dies. During the following 18 months, PBS is involved in negotiations with his father over the the will, eventually receiving money to pay his debts and an annual income of £1000, of which £200 is earmarked for Harriet (later £120 for her children)

Jan–April 1815

PBS, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Claire Clairmont and Hogg engage in a free-love experiment

February 1815

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's first child, a daughter born prematurely and dies on the 6th March

August 1815

Shelley and Mary settle near Bishopsgate


A son, William, is born to Mary and Shelley

June 1816

Shelley and Mary, accompanied by Claire Claimont, leave England for Geneva They tour extensively, returning to England in September


Shelley and Mary arrive in Portsmouth, after which they settle in Bath


The body of Harriet Shelley, who has drowned herself, is found in the Serpentine


Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin marry


The Chancery Court denies Shelley custody of Ianthe and Charles, his children by Harriet


Clara Shelley born


PBS and MWS leave for the Continent, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, three children and two female servants. They travel extensively in Italy, returning briefly to England during 1820


Little Clara Shelley dies


William Shelley dies


The Shelleys move to San Terenzo on the Bay of Lerici


PBS, in the company of his friend Williams, starts out on the return voyage of a sailing trip to Leghorn.


The bodies of two people, one near Via Reggio and the other three miles down the shore, are identified as those of PBS and Williams


Allen, R. & Spencer, C.2012, A life' edited by Mrs Shelley' In Watson, N.J. & Towhead, S. Romantics and Victorians. Bloomsbury Academic, London, p. 41-45 accessed 8th March 2018

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Glen Rix

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