‘On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. The lines conform to a rhyming pattern of abababcc, alternating end sounds from stanza to stanza as the poet saw fit. Shelley has also structured his stanza in iambic pentameter. This is the most common of metrical patterns and means that each line is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
The story of Medusa comes from Greek mythology and defines her as being a monster with venomous snakes that replace her hair. Integral to her story, is that anyone who looks at her face turns to stone. She is often described as being both a terrible creature and a beautiful maiden. Generally, it is written that Perseus was the hero who defeated her. He is said to have cut off her head and used it as a weapon.
Summary of ‘On the Medusa…’
The poem begins with the speaker outlining how it would feel to look at Medusa if one was able to without turning to stone. He interprets her thoughts through her shadowed gaze as being those of anguish and death. As the poem continues the speaker describes how the snakes move on her head and their skins shed, transforming them endlessly throughout time. Medusa is on a rock in the water, looking down at the smaller creatures below her. It is their mistake, coming within range of her gaze, that allows the snakes to gleam their “brazen glare.”
Analysis of ‘On the Medusa…’
It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky,
Upon the cloudy mountain peak supine;
Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;
Its horror and its beauty are divine.
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie
Loveliness like a shadow, from which shrine,
Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,
The agonies of anguish and of death.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing “It.” Here a reader will need to refer to the title to understand who or what it is that is the main subject of the poem. The title refers to a specific painting, of the Medusa, done by Leonardo Da Vinci. It is not the painting that the speaker begins with though, but the Medusa herself. As one progresses through the first few stanzas it becomes clear that the speaker has seen the painting of the Medusa and has been inspired into fantasy regarding her realm and nature.
First, she is described as lying “supine” or on her back at the top of a “cloudy mountain peak.” This is a mystical place that allows her to gaze at the “midnight sky.” Beneath the mountain there are other lands that are trembling. When they think upon the monster that is on top of the mount they feel its “horror and its beauty.” While Medusa is a frightening sight, it is also “divine” or godlike. By the end of the poem it becomes clear that this peak is less of a mountain and more of a rock in the water.
In the second half of the stanza, the speaker describes the face of Medusa. She has a “loveliness” that is like a shadow. It is in her features that one could find a conflict of “aguish and…death.” She is tortured and must feel burdened by the weight of her fate and perception.
Yet it is less the horror than the grace
Which turns the gazer’s spirit into stone;
Whereon the lineaments of that dead face
Are graven, till the characters be grown
Into itself, and thought no more can trace;
‘Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown
Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,
Which humanize and harmonize the strain.
In the second octave the speaker clarifies for the reader that he is describing of Medusa. He says that his gaze turns one “into stone.” He also makes sure to mention that of the grace and horror on her face, it is a “grace” that transforms a viewer. One is struck by her divine nature and their face transforms into something that is ingrown. Any thoughts that pass are imperceptible.
In the next three lines, the speaker describes how Medusa is so impactful. Her face is a melody of “beauty” and “darkness” the two are placed together, and her “glare of pain” brings them to the viewer’s eyes.
And from its head as from one body grow,
As [ ] grass out of a watery rock,
Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow
And their long tangles in each other lock,
And with unending involutions shew
Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock
The torture and the death within, and saw
The solid air with many a ragged jaw.
Within the third stanza, the speaker gives greater detail to the head of Medusa, specifically the snakes which are well-known and feared by all. Her hair is made of “vipers” and sits upon her head as “grass” upon a “watery rock.”
As they move the snakes twist around one another creating a sight that is both horrifying and entrancing. The snakes grow, to only shrink again. Their skin is “mailed” and they shine with a “radiance” that is as terrifying as Medusa’s entire being. From these lines one gets the sense that the snakes can never die. They are constantly transforming and revitalizing their own bodies.
And from a stone beside, a poisonous eft
Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes;
Whilst in the air a ghastly bat, bereft
Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise
Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft,
And he comes hastening like a moth that hies
After a taper; and the midnight sky
Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.
In the next set of lines, the speaker draws the reader’s attention away from Medusa who is on a stone in the water, and to a “poisonous eft” or newt. This creature is staring up at the “Gorgonian eyes” of Medusa. There is also a “ghastly bat” that flies without sense out of a cave. It comes into the “hideous light” of the day.
The speaker describes how the bat is moving “like a moth.” It is flitting back and forth as if it cannot control its body. This is reminiscent of the way Medusa is unable to control the snakes.
The moth-like bat is moving quickly with an out of control single-mindedness. These two creatures have come together into the presence of Medusa, under the “midnight sky.”
‘Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;
For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare
Kindled by that inextricable error,
Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror
Of all the beauty and the terror there—
A woman’s countenance, with serpent locks,
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.
In the final lines, the speaker returns to the “loveliness of terror” that has become an important theme of this piece. Medusa’s visage contains all the elements of the sublime. Medusa is both horrifying and beautiful to behold. The serpents are similar, except it is they who enact the horror on the viewer. “From the serpents” there comes a “brazen glare.” It emanates from their eyes due to the “error” of any creature that wanders into view.
The “air” is filled with the tragedy of the near future and represents the “terror” and “beauty” of the snakes and their possessor. The last lines summarize the image of Medusa: she sits on the “wet rocks,” gazing “in death” at all those who come before her. She takes what is “heaven” and transforms it.
Here there is also a statement of a “woman’s countenance.” There is a horror attributed to the power that Medusa has, a fact that has been interpreted in many different ways throughout history. To this speaker, she is a beautiful monster, but to many contemporary theorists, she represents something more complicated. She can be seen as a woman burdened with a terrible curse she did not ask for, or as a symbol of female power, someone who is unwilling to submit to the male gaze.