Ah, my favourite love poem of all… A lot to do with watching Twin Peaks as a 17 year old, I think, and less to do with poetry as such. Still, thanks to David Lynch, I became a big fan of Percy Bysshe Shelley. He is in fact the writer of my favourite poem, Ozymandias, and his poetry is dense but divine. Forget Byron with his wishy-washy damaged ego in When We Two Parted. Forget the delightful Mrs Barrett Browning’s lovely sonnets. Forget Shakespeare with his wordplay and his rule-breaking and his clever twists. The simplicity of this poem is what makes it just so very beautiful, if you ask me. Was ever a kiss asked for in a more wonderful way?
The poem itself picks up on a pastoral tradition, from Christopher Marlowe’s A Passionate Shepherd To His Love
Those uninhibited country people! From Shakespeare through to Shelley, nature seemed like the perfect setting for a view of love that was somehow purer and more perfect than that of the city. Rustic country living is always a contrast with the artificiality and corruption of city life, and one that even the Greeks picked up on over two thousand years ago. Small wonder so many pastoral poems have a deeply sexy feel about them – the birds do it, the bees do it… even educated fleas do it. Ella Fitzgerald was singing about “falling in love” there, but, well, that’s not quite what happens, is it?
As you can see from Marlowe’s poem, where the shepherd invites a young girl to “live with” him and be his “love”, but he also starts with some images that Shelley is going to play with some 250 years later.
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
They’re just going to sit around and appreciate nature. He’ll make her clothes, a bed of rose petals. And then he finishes with
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.
You can see which tradition Shelley’s picking up on.
In between Marlowe and Shelley, there’s a good degree of frustration from some poets who are also trying out the same lines. Let’s look at nature. Isn’t nature lovely? Why don’t you and me get busy? It’s only natural…
Robert Herrick wrote a similar kind of poem in the Seventeenth Century, To The Virgins, Make Much Of Time
whose basic premise is that all those lovely pretty flowers in nature fade, just as your beauty and your life will, and once you’re past your prime, well, nobody will want you. Nice. Get busy whilst you’re still pretty. One day you’ll be old and ugly and nobody will want you. I exaggerate a little, of course, but that’s the essence of his view.
John Donne tries it in The Flea
as well. He takes the idea that people used to think your blood mixed with the other person’s when you had sex and he uses the idea that a flea whose bitten both his love and himself, well, both of their bloods are mingled in that so they might as well get busy.
Another one to try it is Andrew Marvell in To His Coy Mistress.
Not putting out is okay. It’s great if we’re immortal. But we’re not immortal. You’ll soon be ugly, and then you’ll be dead, and your virginity won’t mean much to the worms in your grave. So let’s get busy while we’re still young and beautiful.
Seductive, these poets. Not particularly smooth, but full marks for trying. Shelley’s a bit more subtle than Herrick, Donne or Marvell, which is why I like it. Cheesy, perhaps, but all he wants is a kiss. None of this ‘tick, tick, tick, love… your beauty isn’t going to last forever’ stuff. But he still picks up on the divineness of nature and all that is natural. He focuses on the partnerships and kissings in nature.
Let’s start with the form. He has an eight-line stanza, just as Byron does in When We Two Parted. It’s not particularly meaningful or important. It’s just a vehicle for his content. The rhyme scheme is neat, if not exactly perfect, with “river” and “ever” forming an imperfect echo. Some of the rhymes are feminine (where the word has two or syllables and the last is unstressed, like RIVer and EVer, Ocean and eMOtion, SINgle) In fact, in the first stanza, only diVINE and THINE are masculine rhymes, finishing with a stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme gets progressively more masculine with EARTH – SEA – WORTH – ME towards the end. It seems a little softer and a little more playful to me, becoming more determined towards the end.
In terms of syllables and metre, those lines which become more masculine in rhyme also become more even, syllabically. The final four lines are very even, although the last line is only five syllables to finish. The other three have seven syllables. The all finish on a stressed syllable, they fall in to iambic metre “AND the SUNlight CLASPS the EARTH / AND the MOONbeams KISS the SEA / WHAT is ALL this SWEET work WORTH/”
But I’m still undecided about where the stresses should go in the final line.
IF thou KISS not ME?
if THOU kiss not ME?
if thou KISS not ME?
if THOU KISS not ME?
I think I like the third version with the stress on ‘kiss’ and ‘me’. It goes best with line 8 which finishes the first verse: why not I with THINE? That said, it seems to work best with the stress on ‘thou’ and ‘me’. Either way, the monosyllables in the final line also give it a more fervent pace, alongside the increasing masculine rhyme, the regularity of the seven-seven-seven syllables and iambic rhythm. It becomes driven and more determined by the end of the poem.
Like other poems in the anthology, this poem is a one-sided monologue where the reader is put into the place of the lover. As such we are voyeurs, taking the silent place in a relationship. As to whom the poem is addressed, we can only speculate. It sounds like a new lover, a lover yet to be convinced, a lover yet to be kissed. This is the poem of a frustrated poet, someone pulling out big arguments as Donne and Marvell did to convince the object of their affections to submit. Thus, there is a freshness to this love just as we find in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem. It’s also very natural in its choice of images, just as Barrett Browning is. Where she had trees, this poem has “mountains”, “rivers”.
It starts with a fact: “the fountains mingle with the river” which then builds up through subsequent lines. I love that word “mingle”, though it is similar to the choices John Donne makes lexically (and who, coincidentally, wrote a poem with a line about “Love’s Philosophy”) as the word “mingle” suggests unity, a coming together and a oneness. Fountains become rivers become oceans and everything is one. It’s a word picked up in line three with “mix”.
There seems to be something going on with the sounds of the words as well. Blame it on my Canadian English teacher at University, who only had to say “Oceans” and send me into joy. These are such soft words with the fricatives of “fountain”, the voiceless fricative of “h” and their sibilant sisters in “oCean” and “emoTion”. Those “f”, “w”, “h” and “sh” sounds give it a very breathy, soft feel which I just love. This gets really evident in the final lines of the poem as well, “And the sunlight clasps the earth/And the moonbeams kiss the sea” – all those soft s sounds. Ahhhh! Add that to the alliteration of “high heaven” and you’ve got more breathiness and more softness.
The first four lines of the poem set out the facts: the fountains (springs) run into the rivers which run into the oceans: everything is connected and everything is one. There’s a real sense of eternity here as well, the water, the winds, flow and movement. I read hundreds of times a year that something “flows” when writing about poetry in exams, and I hate that. It’s so generalised and meaningless. Here, though, it’s different. There really IS a sense of flow, because the content – the fountains, rivers and oceans, the wind – they are currents. There’s a sense of natural movement and motion. The lines run into each other, enjambed from line 1 into line 2, line 3 into line 4 with nothing but spaces or commas. Only that beautiful wedding of a semi-colon brings the two parts of stanza one together at line 4. I love the semi-colon. It’s a balance, not so much a separation but a junction. It brings two separate sentences together. That’s just lovely – the poem is brought together, balanced and equal just as he sees in nature, just as he wants with them. There’s a second semi-colon in line 5 linking “nothing in the world is single; all things by a law divine in one spirit meet and mingle.” so that the first seven lines all run into each other. Nothing stops them until they get to the question. The rhetorical question after all of this very logical, natural and beautiful argument indicates a kind of dialogue. It brings the reader into the poem once again and has a surprisingly personal quality. That’s why I like it. It’s not Shelley speaking: it is whomever I wish it to be. I think that’s why it’s become such a popular love poem. It could be from anyone to anyone. It’s not a shepherd (or Christopher Marlowe writing as if he were one) it’s not John Donne. It’s not Andrew Marvell and his Coy Mistress. That rhetorical question puts us right into the heart of the poem.
In the second stanza, it gets more authoritative still, urging us to “see” the mountains and heaven, the waves, chiding us for “disdaining” our fellow flowers, leading us through two more examples via two semi-colons, a colon and a full-stop. The punctuation drives the verse like a conductor of an orchestra, linking everything in stanza two just as it was (practically) in stanza one. The colon is the crescendo, the build-up. A colon marks out the springboard into an explanation, into the point: what IS all this for if you won’t kiss me?
It is as if, at this point, everything in the whole universe from the sun and the moon, the rivers and the oceans, the mountains and the sky, are conspiring together to build up to this one magnificent moment. How could anyone say no to such an argument for such a kiss?
The second rhetorical question suggests that all of this is utterly pointless without the kiss. It reminds me of the moment in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby kisses Daisy:
“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”
It’s like the kiss is some form of magic. That’s what Shelley seems to be suggesting the kiss will be.
At the end, we are left with a simple poem. It is not complex and crafted like that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It is not a mathematically complex sonnet with layers of meaning and dense imagery. This is what I like about it. The simplicity of it is almost more natural, more perfect. It builds up with the rhythm, the rhyme, the metre, the punctuation into a final question.
And what IS life and the universe all about if she doesn’t kiss him?
Good one, Shelley. You got me thinking that the kiss was some kind of divine, heavenly, mystical, wonderful coming together, as natural as oceans and rivers and sunlight and moonbeams. Not just a man impatient for his lover to give him a bit of tongue. He elevates it into something quite magnificent, like F Scott Fitzgerald does, like Shakespeare does with Romeo and Juliet. How could we doubt the sincerity of his argument?
In terms of the anthology, this sits well with Elizabeth Barrett Browning (although you’ll notice that I didn’t need two posts to write about this one and most of this one has just been raptures about the sheer, heavenly loveliness of how he takes a potential kiss and turns it into something that is as marvellous as a mountain) and there’s certainly lots you can say about how both use pace, images, form and language to give us a glimpse of their feelings.
Here’s a bit of Faith Hill with This Kiss, just in case you weren’t feeling the wonder of Shelley’s argument.
If you’d like to discuss the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology in more detail, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.