A literary analysis of Shelley’s “Love’s Poetry.”
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?
— Percy Bysshe Shelley
1. The poet
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) was one of the major (Latter-day) English Romantic poets. It is pleasing to note that Shelley refused to add sugar to his tea. This was a political statement against slavery for in those times, sugar plantations depended upon slave labour.
Read more of and on The Romantics:
Poetry & Prose ❱ Poets ❱ S. T. Coleridge
Poetry & Prose ❱ Poets ❱ John Keats
Poetry & Prose ❱ Poets ❱ P. B. Shelley
Poetry & Prose ❱ Poets ❱ Lord Byron
2. The poem
What is love? Oh Jay. . . poem by poem, step by step we will learn what it is, what it means and how it manifests. “Love’s Philosophy” in spite of its title, has little to do with philosophy per se. ‘Philosophy’ in the context of this poem can be seen as the poet’s argument; the narrator’s point of view.
The first stanza begins with descriptions of the natural world and its interconnectedness. And from this the lovesick narrator turns to the human who occupies their thoughts. In the second stanza the narrator’s pleas intensify. The narrator places us in the position of his beloved and asks us to look around and ‘see the mountains kiss high heaven’. At poem’s end, we are none the wiser, did the narrator win the heart and body of the one they so dearly desired, or did they not? It is worth noting too that each stanza seems to conclude with something of a rhetorical question. Words aren’t required to answer such questions, but lips are.
This poem uses lots of natural imagery and simple verse forms (but very cleverly so) and is thus a good example of a Romantic Period poem. Needless to say, the poem’s theme is by no means original; countless poets before Shelley used the connections so evident in nature to justify the ‘naturalness’ of a desired romantic/love relationship. As many point out, there’s an influence from John Donne (or similar) — consider Donne’s 1615 poem, “A Lecture upon the Shadow”:
Stand still, and I will read to thee /
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.
Consider too, Donne’s poem, “The Flea,” which evokes nature in a sort of odd but somehow cute way:
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be /
Despite its focus on a well versed theme, it is the quality of the language and the brilliance of the structure that renders “Love’s Philosophy” a valid additional contribution to the thesis that is as follows: love is as natural as the birds and bees so darling, just accept my love for you and, sweetheart just accept my lining and lustful kisses for your lovely and luscious lips! As has been the way since Sappho and Catullus this theme — this insatiable subject — can be seen as part of the “nature-justifies-love nexus”:
In this poem the age-old argument is put forward by a swain (man) to a maid (lady) — but it would be equally valid for any other human to human combination, for “love,” my dear reader, is “love.”
This then’s the ancient argument with its logic and strength rooted in nature’s garden: — As all of the natural world is in intimate contact — water, wind, mountains, sun-rays moonbeams and even birds, bees and the fragrant Jasminum Sambac, Rose and Honeysuckle too. What about you? why can you not just submit to the laws of nature and submit your lips to mine? As Shelley writes, “What is all this sweet work worth / If thou kiss not me?”
I would argue in fact that the overt influence to Donne is more likely a note of acknowledgment and due deference by Shelley. We all, after all, pen verse upon the shoulders of giants (for all its goods and all its ails). “Love’s Philosophy” reiterates the ‘connection’ that exists between all things in the natural world and between the poem’s narrator and his object of desire. As there is unity in nature, there too should be unity in human relationships (both platonic and sexually intimate). As I wrote somewhere before:
Inevitably chemistry becomes physical as ultimately: everything’s biological.
The natural imagery in this poem is relatively simplistic and uncomplicated: ‘fountains’, ‘rivers’ and ‘oceans’ are all unmodified and description free. While they may be ‘simple,’ they are nonetheless perfectly and skillfully chosen. Note the words closely associated with physicality and intimacy:
mingle / mix / a sweet emotion / kiss / clasp
Repetitive uses of ‘clasp’ — how the waves hold one another & how the immaterial light of the sun seems to touch the earth — stress the interconnections between elements of the natural world . The poem certainly has sensual, if not sexual, connotations (arguably it is designed to persuade not shock. The logic is thus, if in nature things ‘clasp’ one another freely, and if nature’s elements readily ‘mix’ and bond with each other, even obeying the command of God (if, unlike Shelley, his contemporary readers still believed in God’s command to procreate), then turning down the poet’s request for a kiss would be for the object in question, like him/her disagreeing with the laws of nature ;).
Anaphora — To refresh our memories anaphora, dear reader, is the repeated use of a word or phrase to reinforce meaning. In this poem anaphora will have most likely have been used to emphasise the narrator’s quiet desperation:
And the rivers.../
And the waves.../
And the sunlight.../
And the moonbeams.
Enjambment — Enjambment is when a line of poetry carries on into the next line, without punctuation or pause but carrying sense. As critics say, enjambment helps the flow of meaning and pairs up passages of the poem. In “Love’s Philosophy,” Shelley does this between lines 3/4, 6/7 & 11/12.
Lines 11 & 12 enjambed.
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
Personification — In essence, personification means giving non-human objects human characteristics, we see this in various places in the poem:
-- Fountains mingle with the river
-- Winds of heaven mix forever with a sweet emotion
-- The mountains kiss high heaven
-- The waves clasp one another
-- Moonbeams kiss the sea
The dominant foot in this poem is the trochee, where the first syllable is stressed and second non-stressed, producing a falling rhythm (the opposite of the iambic). As there are four feet per line (except in lines 4, 8 & 16) the metre is technically termed as a: trochaic tetrameter.* However, some lines have iambic — da–DUM — and anapaestic rhythm — da–da–DUM — and this altered beat ties in with the poem’s meaning at given points.
The foun/tains min/gle with / the river,
Iambic feet start this poem. Steady and traditional da–DUM tetrameter.
And the riv/ers with the o/cean,
Two anapaests da–da–DUM da–da–DUM 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 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 — stressed stressed, to add emphasis or to break up monotonous rhythm: DUM–DUM — gives energy to the rising anapaest — a metrical foot consisting of three syllables, the first two are unstressed and the last is stressed: da–da–DUM — and iamb — an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: da–DUM.
In one / spirit / meet and / mingle -
Trochaic tetrameter again — A trochee is a reverse iamb: DA–dum (like say, ‘BRAIN-dead’.
Why not / I with / thine?
Here we might interpret it as (1) two trochees and an extra stressed beat or (2) an anapaest and iamb.
See the / mountains / kiss high / heaven,
Here we’ve a trochaic tetrameter, said to be a classic foot for the expression of poetic grief and emotional confusion. . .
And the / waves clasp / one a/nother;
Trochees plus that gripping spondee, followed by the softer pyrrhic — a metrical foot of two short or unaccented syllables.
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 this line and the previous two 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.
Know this, oh my sweetest one — breathe, feel and hear these words from two centuries ago:
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
* I rely heavily on Andrew Spacey (2019). I/m still undergraduate and my mother tongue is knot an English won; I couldn’t even distinguish between a gramophone and a homophone.