A literary analysis of Shelley’s “Love’s Poetry.”
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.
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”:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Personification — In essence, personification means giving non-human objects human characteristics, we see this in various places in the poem:
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.
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.