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A Short Analysis of Percy Shelley’s ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’

On Shelley’s melancholic but beautiful poem

‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ is one of Shelley’s finest poems, and, in many ways, one of his most emblematic Romantic poems, given its depiction of individual feeling against the backdrop of the natural world – here, the shores of the sea at the Bay of Naples. Before we proceed to a few words of analysis, here’s a reminder of Shelley’s poem.

Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples

The sun is warm, the sky is clear,
The waves are dancing fast and bright,
Blue isles and snowy mountains wear
The purple noon’s transparent might,
The breath of the moist earth is light,
Around its unexpanded buds;
Like many a voice of one delight,
The winds, the birds, the ocean floods,
The City’s voice itself, is soft like Solitude’s.

I see the Deep’s untrampled floor
With green and purple seaweeds strown;
I see the waves upon the shore,
Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown:
I sit upon the sands alone,—
The lightning of the noontide ocean
Is flashing round me, and a tone
Arises from its measured motion,
How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion.

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,
Nor that content surpassing wealth
The sage in meditation found,
And walked with inward glory crowned—
Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
Others I see whom these surround—
Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;
To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

Yet now despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear,
Till death like sleep might steal on me,
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony.

Some might lament that I were cold,
As I, when this sweet day is gone,
Which my lost heart, too soon grown old,
Insults with this untimely moan;
They might lament—for I am one
Whom men love not,—and yet regret,
Unlike this day, which, when the sun
Shall on its stainless glory set,
Will linger, though enjoyed, like joy in memory yet.

‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ immediately tells us Shelley’s location in Italy and his state of mind: from the title onwards, we know we are reading a Romantic poem. Shelley (1792-1822) was a second-generation Romantic poet, like his fellow poet John Keats (whose ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is worth reading alongside Shelley’s). In his dejected or miserable state, Shelley reviews his life, muses about death, and thinks about what sort of poetic reputation he has carved out for himself.

The stanzas of ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ are Spenserian stanzas, following the rhyme scheme Edmund Spenser used in his unfinished epic poem The Faerie Queene (this was also the scheme used by Keats in his ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’: the Romantics liked Spenser). But Shelley gives Spenser’s custom-made verse form a makeover, employing of iambic tetrameter rather than pentameter, as if suggesting that Shelley’s idealism – and perhaps his reputation or achievement as a poet, too – have fallen short of Spenser’s.

‘Stanzas’ is a poem about alienation: Shelley’s alienation from his fellow man, as if he is on self-imposed exile through Europe. Shelley’s beliefs and outspoken radical politics had got him into hot water on numerous occasions. Even while he was a schoolboy, he had courted trouble, and once blew up a tree in his school’s grounds; on another occasion, he was accused of hiding a bulldog in his teacher’s desk. Famously, he was expelled from the University of Oxford for co-writing a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism. It’s little wonder that Shelley felt outcast from life’s feast and something of an outsider.

One is tempted to speculate that the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold had Shelley’s ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ in mind when he wrote his famous poem of mid-century religious doubt, ‘Dover Beach’. It would be frivolous to point out that both poems take place at the seaside; perhaps less so to note that both poems are about a ‘dejection’ that is at once the poet’s and not exclusively the poet’s, and that the night-time vision of the shore is imbued with a deeper philosophical significance, implying a kind of imprecise boundary between two worlds or two states of mind. And Shelley’s third stanza, with its ‘Alas!’ and succession of ‘Nor’ clauses, seems to anticipate Arnold’s lines about the retreating ‘Sea of Faith’:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The openings to the two poems seem a little too similar for this to be coincidence. Shelley’s influence cast a long shadow down the nineteenth century, as Thomas Hardy’s debt to him shows. Arnold, one supposes, was such another. The rhymes of ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection’ are also worthy of closer analysis:

The lightning of the noontide ocean
Is flashing round me, and a tone
Arises from its measured motion,
How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion.

– where ‘ocean’ enlarges into ‘motion’, only to expand again into ‘emotion’. If Romantic poetry is often about the way the poet’s surroundings influence or reflect his or her mood, then we could scarcely seek a more concise example of this principle enacted in verse.

The sea – the ‘Deep’ – that Shelley describes so evocatively in ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection’ would claim the poet only a few years after he wrote the poem. When he drowned in 1822, he was sailing in a boat named after Byron’s Don Juan and had a copy of Keats’s poems in his pocket.

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

Posted on March 3, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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