Poetry Review: “The Question” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

ShelleyThe winter storm we had last weekend  was followed this weekend by a day of rain. The 10-plus inches of snow on the ground that began the week are now mostly gone. Out my window, south-facing hillocks are largely bare. The big banks of plowed snow that line the streets, greatly diminished.

Winter this year in the North Country has been a series of grey days… overcast skies and light fog that hangs over the cold earth like a bleak blanket. Not the winter of our mind and memory, but a Dickensian one.

Grey days make us long for sun. For those of us who spend our working days in un-natural places without natural light longing can easily turn to desperate daydreaming… a condition I know all too well.

Along with Thoreau this winter, I have been re-reading Shelley again. The kindle app lets me carry him, and a hundred poems, wherever my phone and I go. He is a perfect companion for such grey days.

Today’s poem, “The Question,” has long been one of my favorite Shelley poems. It embodies for me the very essence of the Romantic. Indeed, if I were to teach a class on the Romantic poets, I think I might begin with “The Question.” Simply for the fact that it so perfectly brings together all the elements of Romantic poetry together in such a pleasurable way.

On another bleak December day, I can think of no better poem.

Enjoy!

 

The Question

   I dreamed that, as I wandered by the way,
         Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring,
And gentle odours led my steps astray,
         Mixed with a sound of waters murmuring
Along a shelving bank of turf, which lay
         Under a copse, and hardly dared to fling
Its green arms round the bosom of the stream,
But kissed it and then fled, as thou mightest in dream.

 

   There grew pied wind-flowers and violets,
         Daisies, those pearled Arcturi of the earth,
The constellated flower that never sets;
         Faint oxlips; tender bluebells, at whose birth
The sod scarce heaved; and that tall flower that wets—
         Like a child, half in tenderness and mirth—
Its mother’s face with Heaven’s collected tears,
When the low wind, its playmate’s voice, it hears.

 

   And in the warm hedge grew lush eglantine,
         Green cowbind and the moonlight-coloured may,
And cherry-blossoms, and white cups, whose wine
         Was the bright dew, yet drained not by the day;
And wild roses, and ivy serpentine,
         With its dark buds and leaves, wandering astray;
And flowers azure, black, and streaked with gold,
Fairer than any wakened eyes behold.

 

   And nearer to the river’s trembling edge
         There grew broad flag-flowers, purple pranked with white,
And starry river buds among the sedge,
         And floating water-lilies, broad and bright,
Which lit the oak that overhung the hedge
         With moonlight beams of their own watery light;
And bulrushes, and reeds of such deep green
As soothed the dazzled eye with sober sheen.

 

   Methought that of these visionary flowers
         I made a nosegay, bound in such a way
That the same hues, which in their natural bowers
         Were mingled or opposed, the like array
Kept these imprisoned children of the Hours
         Within my hand,—and then, elate and gay,
I hastened to the spot whence I had come,
That I might there present it!—Oh! to whom?

 

Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

 

   And nearer to the river’s trembling edge
         There grew broad flag-flowers, purple pranked with white,
And starry river buds among the sedge,
         And floating water-lilies, broad and bright,
Which lit the oak that overhung the hedge
         With moonlight beams of their own watery light;

 

I enjoy the luminosity of these lines: the way Shelley balances rhyme with “purple  pranked” alliteration. I cannot read these lines aloud without smiling.

Poetry is meant to provide pleasure, especially on “Bare Winter” days. And a Shelley poem never lets us down.

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