A Dream Of The Unknown By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), born the heir to rich estates and the son of an Member of Parliament, went to University College, Oxford in 1810, but in March of the following year he and a friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, were both expelled for the suspected authorship of a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism.

In 1811 he met and eloped to Edinburgh with Harriet Westbrook and, one year later, went with her and her older sister first to Dublin, then to Devon and North Wales, where they stayed for six months into 1813. However, by 1814, and with the birth of two children, their marriage had collapsed and Shelley eloped once again, this time with Mary Godwin.

Along with Mary’s step-sister, the couple travelled to France, Switzerland and Germany before returning to London where he took a house with Mary on the edge of Great Windsor Park and wrote Alastor (1816), the poem that first brought him fame. In 1816 Shelley spent the summer on Lake Geneva with Byron and Mary who had begun work on her Frankenstein.

In the autumn of that year Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park and Shelley then married Mary and settled with her, in 1817, at Great Marlow, on the Thames. They later travelled to Italy, where Shelley wrote the sonnet Ozymandias (written 1818) and translated Plato’s Symposium from the Greek. Shelley himself drowned in a sailing accident in 1822.


A Dream Of The Unknown Analysis

I DREAM’D that as I wander’d by the way

Bare winter suddenly was changed to spring,

And gentle odours led my steps astray,

Mix’d with a sound of waters murmuring

Along a shelving bank of turf, which lay

Under a copse, and hardly dared to fling

Its green arms round the bosom of the stream,

But kiss’d it and then fled, as thou mightest in dream.


There grew pied wind-flowers and violets,

Daisies, those pearl’d Arcturi of the earth,

The constellated flower that never sets;

Faint oxlips; tender bluebells, at whose birth

The sod scarce heaved; and that tall flower that wets—

Like a child, half in tenderness and mirth—

Its mother’s face with heaven-collected tears,

When the low wind, its playmate’s voice, it hears.


And in the warm hedge grew lush eglantine,

Green cow-bind and the moonlight-colour’d may,

And cherry-blossoms, and white cups, whose wine

Was the bright dew yet drain’d not by the day;

And wild roses, and ivy serpentine

With its dark buds and leaves, wandering astray;

And flowers azure, black, and streak’d with gold,

Fairer than any waken’d eyes behold.


And nearer to the river’s trembling edge

There grew broad flag-flowers, purple prank’d with white,

And starry river-buds among the sedge,

And floating water-lilies, broad and bright,

Which lit the oak that overhung the hedge

With moonlight beams of their own watery light;

And bulrushes, and reeds of such deep green

As soothed the dazzled eye with sober sheen.


Methought that of these visionary flowers

I made a nosegay, bound in such a way

That the same hues, which in their natural bowers

Were mingled or opposed, the like array

Kept these imprison’d children of the Hours

Within my hand,—and then, elate and gay,

I hasten’d to the spot whence I had come

That I might there present it—oh! to Whom?

The poem, A Dream of the Unknown, by Shelley is more of a nature-poem than anything else. It is remarkable for its vivid and detailed nature-imagery. In fact, it is one of the few poems by Shelley which contain concrete Nature-pictures. There is nothing abstract or ethereal about this poem. Much of the imagery is certainly imaginary, but it is nonetheless realistic. It is surely a poem written by a man with his feet planted on the solid earth and not by a man living in the aerial regions above. Indeed, the vividness and the elaborate quality of Nature-imagery in this poem remind us of Keats’ Nature-poetry.

The poet, in the first stanza of the poem, dreams that winter has suddenly changed to spring. Gentle odours mix with the sound of murmuring waters flowing along a grassy bank. The poet sees spotted wind-flowers, violets, daisies, oxlips, blue-bells, lilies, eglantines, cherry-blossoms, wild roses, ivy, flag-flowers, and bulrushes. The poet then imagines that he made a garland of all these visionary flowers in order to present it to somebody. Who that somebody is, Shelley does not say. There must, of course, have been a lady in his mind, one of the many who, one after the other, had attracted his amorous heart). The meaning of term copse is a small wood, a place where shrubs etc., are growing thickly, while the meaning of  the ‘bosom of the stream’ is the surface of the stream. When the poet says: “as thou mightest in dream”, he indicates towards the way the beloved might kiss the poet in  a dream and then disappear.

The poem has a rich sensuous appeal. The second, third, and fourth stanzas abound in the names of flowers which, with their varied (variegated) colours and odours appeal to our senses of sight and smell. The profusion of flowers in the poem is remarkable. It is a poem that is full of a rich fragrance and is therefore highly pleasing. The word ‘arcture’ refers to the northern stars. Daisies are here metaphorically described as the pearl-like stars of the earth. The daisy is next described as the constellated flower which means a flower that is like constellation because it grows in clusters and may therefore be compared to a group of stars. Moreover, the daisy is a flower that never sets because it is found in all seasons.

But that is all that can be said in praise of this poem. The poem has little or no human interest. There is in it the want of sound subject-matter. The intellectual content of this poem is almost nil. There is no idea in it worth talking about it. A mere collection of flowers does not constitute a substantial poem. The theme of the poem is a large number of flowers seen by the poet in a vision. The only human sentiment that enters the poem is in the form of two similes:

  • The copse kisses the stream and then flees, as the woman (to whom the poem is addressed) might kiss the poet and then flee in a dream.
  • The tall flower that wets the plaint with dew is compared to a child who, half in tenderness and mirth, wets his mother’s face with tears. In going to present the nosegay which he has woven from those “visionary flowers.”

We must also recognize the felicity of word and phrase in this poem. Shelley uses some choice diction in describing some of the flowers. The daisy is described as “the castellated flower that never sets”. Then there are the “white cups, whose wine was the bright dew yet drained not by the day”. There are the reeds “of such deep green as soothed the dazzled eyes with sober sheen.” Thus, the poem, A Dream of the Unknown, by P.B. Shelley is a complete nature poems with beautiful descriptions of varied flowers.

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    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I’m glad you approve

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