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A Short Analysis of Shelley’s ‘To the Moon’

A summary of Shelley’s short moon poem

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was one of the greatest second-generation Romantic poets, along with John Keats and Lord Byron. Shelley’s poem ‘To the Moon’ is a short lyric in which the poet, addressing the moon in the night sky, poses several questions to it. ‘To the Moon’ is worth analysing because it displays many hallmarks of Romantic poetry, not least the observation of and identification with the world around us (or, in the case of the moon, the world beyond our world), and pathetic fallacy, or the attributing of human emotions to non-human objects. Here is ‘To the Moon’.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

We think this little poem is a homage to, or recasting of, a sonnet by the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), who wrote a famous poem addressed to the moon. In Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, Sidney addresses that heavenly body: ‘With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies’. But the similarities don’t end
Sir Philip Sidney Moonthere. Sidney and Shelley both observe the pallor of the moon – as you might expect – but they both also remark on the sad or weary way the moon climbs the night sky. They both point out that the moon is solitary, and they both ask questions of the moon, the chief of which concerns constancy and hopeless love. (Shelley’s moon cannot find a companion that will be true to it.) Is Shelley consciously and deliberately engaging with Sidney’s poem here, and recasting it in a more Romantic light? If so, he had his work cut out, for Sidney’s original sonnet is proto-Romantic in all sorts of ways, by containing those features already mentioned.

The six-line poem reproduced above is how Shelley’s ‘To the Moon’ is often anthologised. But there are various versions of the poem in existence. There is also, for instance, this two-stanza poem, also called ‘To the Moon’, where the stanza above is preceded by another:

To The Moon

And, like a dying lady lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapp’d in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky east,
A white and shapeless mass.

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

It seems that ‘To the Moon’ can be either the single-stanza fragment we started with, or the fuller two-stanza poem quoted above. Take your pick. We think the second stanza better than the first, and Shelley’s depiction of the moon well worth closer analysis.

Image: Evening Scene with Full Moon and Persons by Abraham Pether, 1801; via Wikimedia Commons.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 6, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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