The poem follows the traditional pattern of a Petrarchan sonnet throughout the first set of four lines, but by the second it has diverged. Like most sonnets, there is a turn in the middle. In the case of this poem, it is a turn from speaking about the questions of life to those who are trying to answer them.
Explore A Question by Shelley
The poem begins with the speaker referencing some of the last words that Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the greatest Romantic poets, wrote before his death. These words, “Then what is life?” are the basis for the poem. Shelley never provided the speaker, presumably Tennyson himself, with an answer and he is deeply upset by this.
Tennyson believes that Shelley might have has his question answered though because soon after these words were written Shelley died.
In the next section of lines, Tennyson describes the fervor with which he and those like him discuss these questions of life. They want to know why there is sin in the world and what happens after death. He believes that Shelley has “left” them to “murmur” on these topics for the rest of time.
A Question by Shelley concludes with the speaker describing two different types of people, those who care about these questions and those who don’t. He is happy to count himself among the latter, even though it is the harder path.
Analysis of A Question by Shelley
“Then what is life?” I cried. From his rent deeps
Of soul the poet cast that burning word;
And it should seem as though his prayer was heard,
For he died soon; and now his rest he keeps
Somewhere with the great spirit who never sleeps!
This sonnet begins with the poet stating the question that is to be the basis for this piece. “Then what is life?” This question is one that many have asked, writers, and readers alike. In this case, the question is not being asked by Tennyson but by whom this poem is dedicated, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Shelley was an idol of Tennyson’s and is known today as one of the greatest poets of his age. He died quite young at only 29, drowning while sailing his boat in Italy. He was married to another well-known writer, Mary Shelley.
Tennyson has used Shelley’s words in this poem in an attempt to draw attention to the all-important question, what is the purpose of life? The use of Shelley as a subject for this poem is perfect, as his premature death seems pointless and wasteful when he could have contributed so much more to the world.
Additionally, the first lines of the poem reference the last major work that Shelley wrote before his death, “The Triumph of Life.” He was working on it when he died. The final line of this work is, “Then, what is life?”
The speaker, presumably Tennyson himself, is repeating Shelley’s famous words when the poem begins. He is crying them, desperate for an answer that Shelley’s unfinished poem did not supply.
The speaker describes how Shelley first wrote these lines and the state of his soul from whence he dragged them. They are so important, so ingrained in all of us, that when he cast them out they were “burning” like wood. The next lines tell of the possibility that Shelley’s question was answered as only a short time passed before he moved on to the next world. Perhaps it is there, while he is sleeping the “great rest” alongside God, the one who “never sleeps,” that he will find the answer.
He had left us to murmur on awhile
And question still most fruitlessly this pile
Of natural shows, What life is? Why man weeps?
Why sins?–and whither when the awful veil
Floats on to him he sinks from earthly sight?
In the second sestet of A Question by Shelley the poet is mulling over the consequences of the world being left with this, and many other, unfinished questions. Shelley, he says, has “left us to murmur on” them for the rest of time, debating about all the unanswered mysteries of the world. The speaker lists these questions in the next two lines, stating that they are “fruitless.” They have no possible chance of being resolved.
The poet believes that they will never know “What life is” or “Why man weeps.” There will, he thinks, never be an answer to why there is sin in the world. Or most importantly, where does one go after death?
Some are, who never grow a whit more pale
For thinking on the general mystery,
Ground of all being; yet may I rather be
Of those who know and feel that it is night.
With an ending four lines or quatrain, the speaker concludes by describing two different types of people who live in the world. The first, those who do not care what the answers are to these questions nor about the fact that there even are questions at all. These people do not “grow…more pale” when they think about the “general mystery” of life. They have “Ground” themselves of all being and exist only for the physical world.
There is a second type of people, among whom the poet counts himself. Those that know there are unanswered questions and are made “pale” by them. They know “that it is night” and that all is dark and without definition.
About Alfred Lord Tennyson
In 1827 Tennyson left his home to attend Trinity College, Cambridge. It was there he and his brother, Charles, co-published a book of poems titled, Poems by Two Brothers. This book put Tennyson on the radar of other prolific college writers and he made friends with another student, Arthur Hallam. After a brief but intense friendship, Hallam died, leaving a bereft Tennyson to devoted a number of poems to his memory.
From 1830 to 1832, Tennyson published two more books of poetry. These were not met with outstanding reviews and the poet was greatly disappointed. His naturally shy disposition would keep him from publishing again for another nine years. Tennyson finally met with some success in 1842 after the publication of this book, Poems in two volumes. When Tennyson published In Memoriam, one of the pieces dedicated to his college friend, Hallam, his reputation was solidified throughout Britain. That same year he married Emily Sellwood, with whom he would have two sons.
Tennyson’s popularity and success allowed him to continue writing full time and purchase a home for his family in the country. Tennyson died in 1892 and remains one of the most popular Victorian poets.