Love’s Philosophy

(( soul meets soul on lovers’ lips ))

A literary analysis of Shelley’s “Love’s Poetry.”

“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

Literary Analysis

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.

joseph_severn_-_posthumous_portrait_of_shelley_writing_prometheus_unbound_1845-1-
Joseph Severn’s 1845 portrait of Shelley.


Read more of and on The Romantics:
Poetry & ProsePoetsS. T. Coleridge
Poetry & ProsePoetsJohn Keats
Poetry & ProsePoetsP. B. Shelley
Poetry & ProsePoetsLord 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.

Language

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

Metre

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 iambicda–DUM — and anapaestic rhythm — da–da–DUM — and this altered beat ties in with the poem’s meaning at given points.

Line 1.
The foun/tains min/gle with / the river,
Iambic feet start this poem. Steady and traditional da–DUM tetrameter.

Line 2.
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.

Line 3.
The winds / of hea/ven mix / for ever
Iambic tetrameter again, like the first line.

Line 4.
With a / sweet e/motion;
This shortened line is unusual, reflecting an abrupt fall (three trochees = trochaic trimeter).

Line 5.
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.

Line 6.
All things / by a law / divine
An opening spondeestressed stressed, to add emphasis or to break up monotonous rhythm: DUM–DUM — gives energy to the rising anapaesta metrical foot consisting of three syllables, the first two are unstressed and the last is stressed: da–da–DUM — and iamban unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: da–DUM.

Line 7.
In one / spirit / meet and / mingle -
Trochaic tetrameter again — A trochee is a reverse iamb: DA–dum (like say, ‘BRAIN-dead’.

Line 8.
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.

Line 9.
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. . .

Line 10.
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.

Line 11.
No sist/er-flower / would be / forgiv/en
Nine syllables make this an iambic tetrameter with a fading extra syllable.

Line 12.
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.

Line 13.
And the / sunlight / clasps the / earth
Trochees with the extra stressed beat at the end.

Line 14.
And the / moonbeams / kiss the / sea:
Same tetrameter.

Line 15.
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?

Line 16.
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.


END NOTES

* 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.

Oscar Wilde

[Irish | 1854–1900]

I just love his full name: Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde… Anyhow, he was a poet and a writer who — because of his sexuality — faced various problems and even had to spend a period of time in prison. This is one of my favorite of his observations:

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

And this, this is what I want to convey today to you:

You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes or their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.

(The only song I hear is the one sung by you.)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Poems

This poem — originally published anonymously, written after Wilde’s two year’s hard labour in Reading prison — is the tale of a man who has been sentenced to hang for the murder of the woman he loved. The Ballad of Reading Gaol follows the inmate through his final three weeks, as he stares at the sky and silently drinks his beer ration. Heart-wrenching and eye-opening, the ballad also expresses perfectly Wilde’s belief that humanity is made up only of offenders, each of us deserving a greater charity for the severity of our crimes.

Oscar Wilde
The Ballad of Reading Gaol (and other poems)

The Canterville Ghost

A collection of stories, including two of Wilde’s most famous: “The Canterville Ghost,” in which a young American girl helps to free the tormented spirit that haunts an old English castle and “The Happy Prince,” who was not as happy as he seemed. Often whimsical and sometimes sad, they all shine with poetry and magic.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life; indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence. The novel was a succès de scandale and the book was later used as evidence against Wilde at the Old Bailey in 1895. It has lost none of its power to fascinate and disturb. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life; indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence. The novel was a succès de scandale and the book was later used as evidence against Wilde at the Old Bailey in 1895. It has lost none of its power to fascinate and disturb.”


Silentium Amoris

(The Silence of Love)

As oftentimes the too resplendent sun
Hurries the pallid and reluctant moon
Back to her sombre cave, ere she hath won
A single ballad from the nightingale,
So doth thy Beauty make my lips to fail,
And all my sweetest singing out of tune.

And as at dawn across the level mead
On wings impetuous some wind will come,
And with its too harsh kisses break the reed
Which was its only instrument of song,
So my too stormy passions work me wrong,
And for excess of Love my Love is dumb.

But surely unto Thee mine eyes did show
Why I am silent, and my lute unstrung;
Else it were better we should part, and go,
Thou to some lips of sweeter melody,
And I to nurse the barren memory
Of unkissed kisses, and songs never sung.

— Oscar Wilde

Oscar_Wilde_Signature
“Sign your name, across my heart”

Love me little, love me long

[Robert Herrick | 1591–1674]

YOU say, to me-wards your affection’s strong;
Pray love me little, so you love me long.
Slowly goes far: the mean is best: desire,
Grown violent, does either die or tire.

||

Love me little, love me long,
Is the burden of my song:
Love that is too hot and strong
Burneth soon to waste.
I am with little well content,
And a little from thee sent
Is enough, with true intent,
To be steadfast friend.
Love me little, love me long,
Is the burden of my song.

Say thou lov’st me while thou live,
I to thee my love will give,
Never dreaming to deceive
While that life endures:
Nay, and after death in sooth,
I to thee will keep my truth,
As now when in my May of youth,
This my love assures.
Love me little, love me long,
Is the burden of my song.

Constant love is moderate ever,
And it will through life persever,
Give to me that with true endeavor.
I will it restore:
A suit of durance let it be,
For all weathers, that for me,
For the land or for the sea,
Lasting evermore.

Love me little, love me long,
Is the burden of my song.

Of Love: A Sonnet

How love came in I do not know,
Whether by the eye, or ear, or no;
Or whether with the soul it came
(At first) infused with the same;
Whether in part ’tis here or there,
Or, like the soul, whole everywhere,
This troubles me: but I as well
As any other this can tell:
That when from hence she does depart
The outlet then is from the heart.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was an English poet best known for Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine (1648), a book of poems. This includes the carpe diem poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

^ In the genre of carpe diem

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse
‘Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May’ by British Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse (1909).

D H Lawrence

[English | 1885–1930]

D H Lawrence is amongst the greatest figures of 20th c. English literature. Taken as a whole his work represents an extended reflection upon the dehumanising effects of modernity and industrialisation.

Poet & a Painter (& a writer of Prose too)
Poet & a Painter (& a writer of Prose too)

In his poetry, prose and paintings, Lawrence confronts issues relating to emotional health and vitality as well as human sexuality and instinct. At the time of his death in 1928 it was said that his public reputation was that of a pornographer and a wasted talent. Yet, as stated on the Portry Foundation’s website, E.M. Forster–think: Room with a View–begged to differ. In an obituary notice he went so far as to declare that Lawrence was, “the greatest imaginative novelist of [that] generation.”

One must learn to love, and go through a good deal of suffering to get to it, and the journey is always towards the other soul.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

“Lady Constance Chatterley is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who is impotent. Oppressed by her dreary life, she is drawn to Mellors the gamekeeper. Breaking out against the constraints of society she yields to her instinctive desire for him and discovers the transforming power of physical love which leads them both towards fulfilment.”

‘Connie was aware, however, of a growing restlessness…It thrilled inside her body, in her womb, somewhere, till she felt she must jump into water and swim to get away from it; a mad restlessness. It made her heart beat violently for no reason…’

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (📙 read the book, pdf format) was first published privately in 1928 in Italy, and in 1929 in France–it was banned (forbidden/prohibited) in the U.K. Indeed, it wasn’t properly published in uncensored format in the U.K. until 1960. As Wikipedia say, the book’s publication only happened after an obscenity trial against the publisher Penguin Books was won by Penguin. After winning, in short order, Penguin sold 3 million copies. The book was/is notorious for its story of the physical (and emotional) relationship between a working class man and an upper class woman, its explicit descriptions of sex, and its use of then-unprintable (four-letter) words.

We fucked a flame into being.

― D H Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Women in Love

Women in Love begins one blossoming spring day in England and ends with a terrible catastrophe in the snow of the Alps. Ursula and Gudrun are very different sisters who become entangled with two friends, Rupert and Gerald, who live in their hometown. The bonds between the couples quickly become intense and passionate but whether this passion is creative or destructive is unclear.

In this groundbreaking work–widely considered to be one of Lawrence’s best–he explores what it means to be human in an age of conflict and confusion.

The Rainbow

Like above, The Rainbow was considered controversial in its time due to its portrayal of how sexual desire, especially in women, can affect relationships. Not only was is banned in the U.K. for 11 years but 1,000 copies were ceremoniously burned.

The novel is set between the 1840s and the early years of the twentieth century and tells the story of three generations of the Brangwen family; by way of, “courting, pregnancy, marriage and defiance Lawrence explores love and the conflicts it brings.”

Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 and–surprise, surprise–was initially considered to be obscenity. Today though it is regarded as a masterpiece by many critics and amongst Lawrence’s finest achievements.

In the novel, protagonist Paul Morel is the focus of his disappointed and fiercely protective mother’s life. Their tender, devoted and intense bond comes under strain when Paul falls in love with Miriam Leivers, a local girl his mother disapproves of. The arrival of the provocatively modern Clara Dawes causes further tension and Paul is torn between his individual desires and family allegiances.


📙 Love Poems and Others

Love is never a fulfillment. Life is never a thing of continuous bliss. There is no paradise. Fight and laugh and feel bitter and feel bliss: and fight again. Fight, fight. That is life.

Kahlil Gibran

[Lebanese | 1883–1931]

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.

Although Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon, he spent the last twenty years of his life in New York where, among other things, he ran a book club. By far his most famous work is The Prophet which has long been viewed as an inspirational and allegorical guide to living. First published in the 1920s, it speaks of many things central to daily life like beauty, passion love, marriage and death. It also covers the more mundane activities such as eating and working.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

^ Now, ain’t that so fucking true, you, my Secret Sharer, were indeed my most delectable of delights. Turning to another of Gibran’s sublime quotes, ain’t it so that true love can be a truly wicked game to have to play:

If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.

Good god, I do Thank Nature for what we had but I do pray hard to Mother En that what we had was real. Wasn’t it? Was it all a figment of my godforsaken and troubled mind? Was it, ‘was it’ a case of the unloved captain and his imagined stowaway? Am I he and, were you all a creation of my delusion daydreaming?

Edmund Spenser

[English | 1553–1599]

And all for love, and nothing for reward.

It's love that inspires
It’s love that inspires.

And he that strives to touch the stars, Oft stumbles at a straw.

Edmund Spenser was an English poet who is recognisef as one of the premier craftsmen of early Modern English verse. In fact, he is often considered one of the greatest poets in the English language.

I hate the day, because it lendeth light To see all things, but not my love to see

The Faerie Queene was the first epic in English and one of the most influential poems in the language for later poets from Milton to Tennyson. Dedicating his work to Elizabeth I, Spenser brilliantly united medieval romance and renaissance epic to expound the glory of the Virgin Queen. The poem recounts the quests of knights including Sir Guyon, Knight of Constance, who resists temptation, and Artegall, Knight of Justice, whose story alludes to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. Composed as an overt moral and political allegory, The Faerie Queene, with its dramatic episodes of chivalry, pageantry and courtly love, is also a supreme work of atmosphere, colour and sensuous description.

Her angel’s face, As the great eye of heaven shined bright, And made a sunshine in the shady place.

Robert Frost

(American | 1874–1963)

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

I had that gold, I held it and I possessed it. I erroneously took it for granted and now it’s gone. It’s gone but it can never be forgotten.

Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.

What once was, no longer is. But I’ll dig ’til I die. I live for one more kiss; one more seismic shift.

Poetry is what gets lost in translation.

Robert Frost was an American poet and winner of four Pulitzer Prizes.
Arguably he is one of the greatest American poet of the 20th c. His 1916 poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is often read at graduation ceremonies across the United States.

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This may be one of the first poems we ever worked on together:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

Did we conclude it was a dream, a morbid dream about mortality? Oh J, what have I done, what possessed me to be so cavalier with the open book?