Percy Bysshe Shelley

Lines to an Indian Air by Percy Bysshe Shelley

This lyric, like several others, was written for Miss Sophia who was a good singer and who had requested Shelley to compose a few songs to fit certain tunes that she liked. This poem has all the qualities of a popular lyric and is, for that reason, a favorite with readers, especially young people. It is certainly a musical poem, but apart from that, “it is mechanical in metre and sentimental in tone”. It is, on the whole, a trifling poem and may be regarded as a billet-doux (love-letter) which Sophia Stacey must have been delighted to receive.

Lines to an Indian Air by Percy Bysshe Shelley


Lines to an Indian Air Analysis

Stanza One

I arise from dreams of Thee

In the first sweet sleep of night,

When the winds are breathing low

And the stars are shining bright:

I arise from dreams of thee,

And a spirit in my feet

Hath led me–who knows how?

To thy chamber-window, Sweet!

The first stanza shows the poem dreaming of his beloved in the course of his sleep. Walking up from his dreams, he walks straight to his beloved’s house and stands beneath the window of her bedroom. An unknown mysterious force has led him thither. His feet have obeyed an inner impulse in taking him there. It was not in accordance with any plan or an appointment with her that he went there but involuntarily, in obedience to a natural urge.


Stanza Two

The wandering airs they faint

On the dark, the silent stream–

The champak odours fail

Like sweet thoughts in a dream;

The nightingale’s complaint,

It dies upon her heart,

As I must on thine,

Oh, belovéd as thou art!

In stanza two, the poet first gives us three instances of things that seem to faint and to fail and then speaks of his own passion for his beloved. In the first place, the wandering breezes blowing gently seem to be swooning over the silent waters of the stream. Next, the sweet smells of the champak threes seem to lose their intensity, just as sweet thoughts fade away in a dream. Thirdly, the nightingale, finding itself unable fully to express its sorrow through its song, feels helpless and becomes silent. In the same way, the poet, feeling completely overcome by his passion, will faint upon his beloved’s bosom. Thus, everything in Nature seems to be in harmony with the poet’s own mood.

The nightingale is supposed to sing a sad song because, according to one of the stories of Greek mythology, a girl called Philomela was seduced by her brother-in-law and was eventually changed into a nightingale which, ever since, has been singing tragic songs.


Stanza Three

Oh lift me from the grass!

I die! I faint, I fail!

Let thy love in kisses rain

On my lips and eyelids pale.

My cheek is cold and white, alas!

My heart beats loud and fast;

O! press it to thine own again

Where it will break at last.

This last stanza of the poem contains a pathetic, almost heart-rending appeal from the poet to his beloved, an appeal which reminds us of a similar appeal from the poet to the West Wind. The poet is overwhelmed by his passion. His love is yet unfulfilled, and his longings unsatisfied. So oppressive as his passion    becomes that he feels like a man who is about to swoon, a man who is about to collapse, a man who is about to die.

He, therefore, appeals to his beloved to lift him from the grass and to favor him with a shower of kisses upon his lips and eyelids which are pale on account of the mental agony that he is suffering. His cheek is cold and while, and his heart is beating loud and fast on account of unsatisfied longings. He entreats his beloved to press him to her bosom   where his heart will break with the very intensity of his passion. If she lifts him from the grass and presses him to her bosom, his heart will break with the ecstasy of love.


Critical Appreciation

The poem, Lines to an Indian Air, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, has an Indian atmosphere, and gives expression to the poet’s passionate longings for the fulfilment of his love. Arising from dreams of his sweet-heart, he walks to her chamber-window whither an irresistible natural impulse leads him. The breezes are blowing so gently that they seem to be swooning on the silent stream in the darkness of the night; the sweet smells of the champak trees are fainting like sweet thoughts that fade away in a dream; the nightingale, unable to convey its deep agony through its son, lapses into silence; and the lover will sink upon his beloved’s breast.

This love-poem has undoubtedly a rich appeal for young, adolescent readers. It has certainly some charm, especially because of its musical quality, but otherwise, as has already been remarked, it is a trifling poem.  Shelley has characterized this lyric with his usual intensity of feeling. The poet doesn’t give expression to “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” He writes at the white heat of passion. This intensity of feeling, this fervor of love, and this burning ardor is the most striking quality of this poem. Similar to most of Shelley’s lyrics, this poem is also a   lament, or a cry from the wounded heart of the writer. There is a pessimistic quality about it. The mood of the poem is gloomy, one of despair almost. What can be more pathetic than this appeal?

Oh lift me from the grass!

I die! I faint, I fail!

These lines remind us of the following lines in Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind:

O lift me like a leaf, a wave, a cloud!

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

Indeed, the picture of the love-lorn poet in this poem reminds us of the pale and woe-begone knight-at-arms of Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The sadness of the poet here also verges on morbidity. It is not loved as something glorious that is presented here, but love as a disease, a sickness of the mind. The poem, though brief, brings several pictures to our minds – the wind breathing low, the stars shining bright, wandering airs which faint over the dark stream, the failing champak odours, the tragic song of the nightingale. Half a dozen beautiful pictures are briefly but suggestively and vividly presented so as to create a highly romantic atmosphere with an Indian touch imparted to it by the champak odours.

The language of the poem is extremely simple, while its magic and melody constitute its chief attraction.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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