A brief overview of Shelley’s famous lyric
‘Music, when soft voices die, / Vibrates in the memory’: of all the lines Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, these are among the most famous, even though they don’t come from one of his universally admired ‘great’ poems, such as ‘Ozymandias’ or ‘To a Skylark’.
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
In his 1920 essay on Algernon Charles Swinburne, T. S. Eliot – a poet who elsewhere had little time for much of Romanticism – praised ‘Music, when soft voices die’ for its lyrical qualities, pointing out that it possessed ‘a beauty of music and a beauty of content’. Such lyrical beauty, or ‘beauty of music’, is especially apt in a poem which opens by talking about music itself.
This short poem – it is perhaps more accurate to describe it as a poetic fragment, since we don’t know if Shelley intended to rework it or add to it – was written in 1821, but not published until 1824, two years after Shelley’s sudden death from drowning. His widow Mary, author of Frankenstein, described in the preface to the 1824 volume the process behind editing her husband’s poems for posthumous publication:
Many of the Miscellaneous Poems, written on the spur of the occasion, and never retouched, I found among his manuscript books, and have carefully copied: I have subjoined, whenever I have been able, the date of their composition.
But why does this poem have such an enduring appeal among Shelley’s poems, when it is significantly shorter, and seemingly slighter, than many of his other longer, more ambitious and ‘great’ poems, such as The Mask of Anarchy or ‘Mont Blanc’? Partly it may be its directness: like a curious little fragment by Shelley’s contemporary and fellow Romantic poet, John Keats, ‘Music, when soft voices die’ gets to the heart of the matter and offers vivid, memorable instances of the power of human memory. Music lives on in our memories after it has ceased to be played; when the sweet violets decay and die, their pleasant scent lives on because we can recall it (a more contentious example, this; for who can remember smells without some external stimulus?); and when the rose dies, its leaves are used to adorn the bed of a loved one. And when one’s beloved is absent, love can ‘slumber’ on top of the thoughts or recollections of love: in other words, we can lie on the bed we share with our beloved and enjoy remembering the times when we shared that bed with our loved one.
Continue to explore Shelley’s poetry with our analysis of his short fragment ‘To the Moon’ and his carpe diem poem ‘The Flower That Smiles Today’. For more Romantic poetry, see our summary of Coleridge’s bewitching fragment, ‘Kubla Khan’.