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GCSE Poem analysis: Love's Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley
April 04, 2017
What is it about?
Love's Philosophy poem is a romantic lover's playful argument, putting forward his case for the union of love. Natural imagery and strong rhyme appeal to the reader's senses, presenting this relationship as something innocent, simple and inevitable.'Philosophy' here means an argument or a way-of-thinking.
Love's Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In another's being 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?
The first stanza begins with descriptions of the natural world 'mixing' with itself and pushes this as a good example for the poet and their beloved. This is addressed by the tender and slightly archaic 'thee'. What is then painted is a picture of an airy, nature-loving poet describing the scene in front of him and his fellow walker. He then draws a lesson from it, turning to speak to his silent beloved.
In the second stanza of Love's Philosophy this address is intensified. The poet instructs the reader, in the position of the beloved, to look around and 'see the mountains kiss high heaven'.The genial, playful invitation of a 'kiss' is an easier finish that the hope to 'mingle' in each other's being.A rhetorical question at the end of each stanza begs a response of some sort - surely, the poet hopes, a wordless one!
'Romantic' and Romantic poetry
Our modern use of the word 'romantic' relates to an idealised sort of love. More specifically, to the state of 'being in love', characterised by powerful, irresistible emotions, gift-giving, the idealisation of a beloved and the prioritisation of the relationship above everything else.
However, the poetry of the Romantic poets was not just restricted to describing love. William Wordsworth defined poetry as the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads.
One common theme is that experiences were understood by Romantic poets through their effects on personal emotions. This is partly where our modern 'romantic' love idea comes from. However, poetry by Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge often shared other hallmark characteristics. For example, the use of natural imagery and simple verse forms. As this poem by Shelley includes all of these, it is a good example of a Romantic romantic poem.
Form and structure
Love's Philosophy has a trochaic metre - a pattern of stressed, then unstressed syllables, with four beats in the first three lines of each quatrain and three in the fourth. The two stanzas are each a pair of alternately-rhymed quatrains, rhyming ababcdcd. There is a strong relationship with the archetypal ballad metre used by many romantic poets. The trochaic metre also gives the poem a slightly heavy, dreamy feel when read aloud, particularly since ten of the sixteen lines are full trochaic, disyllabic rhymes (like ocean/emotion or heaven/forgiven).
Several lines begin with an extra 'upbeat' (properly called an 'analectic' syllable as it extends the normal length of a line). This slight irregularity helps the poem feel spontaneous, despite the cleverness of its composition.
The natural imagery in this poem is relatively simplistic and uncomplicated: 'fountains', 'rivers' and 'oceans' are all unmodified and free from descriptive clutter. The 'winds of heaven' and 'high heaven' can scarcely be called richly descriptive. 'moonbeams', 'mountains' and the 'sea' are also unmodified. I think there is an innocence about this sort of language, fitting the scene of two lovers on a hilltop. He needn't describe what we can see with our own eyes, after all.
This innocence continues in the description of a 'sister-flower' and its 'brother'. The relationship the poet imagines between flowers is fraternal and childish, so the word 'disdain' feels out of place as the idea of aloofness between siblings. Perhaps the use of 'thine' and 'thou' rather than 'your' and 'you' also reinforces this. In Shelley's day, thee and thou were still in use, but less so among people of higher status.
Repetitive uses of 'clasp' describing how the waves hold one another, and how the immaterial light of the sun seems to touch the earth, bring this very physical world to the fore. It certainly has a sensual, if not sexual, connotation, but its effect is rather more repetition to persuade, rather than shock.
After all, if everything in nature 'clasps' freely, and if the elements around 'mix' with one another so readily, even obeying the command of God (if, unlike Shelley, his reader still believes in God's command to procreate), then turning down the poet's request for a kiss is like disagreeing with the laws of nature and God, isn't it?
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For More GCSE poem analyses similar to Love's Philosophy: The Farmer's Bride, Neutral Tones, Nettles, The Yellow Palm, My Last Duchess, and Medusa, Praise Song for My Mother