‘The cold earth slept below’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley was published in Hunt’s Literary Pocket-Book in 1823, a year after Shelley’s death. It was later included in the collection, Posthumous Poems compiled by his wife, Mary Shelley. The poem is divided into four sets of seven lines. Shelley did not create one single rhyme scheme for the text. Instead, it varies from stanza to stanza. More precisely, the second and third stanzas rhymes ABCCAAB while the first stanza rhymes ABCCDDE and the fourth: ABAACCB.
The lines also follow an interesting pattern of meter with the third and fourth lines consistently serving as the shortest with only four beats. The other lines vary. For example line one of the first, second, and third stanza contains six beats, but within stanza four it contains nine causing an added emphasis on the word “beloved.” Shelley’s choices in regards to rhyme and rhythm have been selected for very particular reasons. The variations most often appear when something is revealed in regards to the speaker’s loss. Any variation would’ve been well considered.
Summary of The cold earth slept below
The poem begins with the speaker describing a walk he took on a chilly night. Everything seems completely devoid of life as if the end times have come and the planet has been covered with darkness, death, and ice. The moon is going down as well, increasing the darkness with each passing second.
The speaker is eventually drawn to a light in a bog or swamp. It turns out to be the glare from his dead lover’s eyes. She too was drawn to this place but was unable to make it back and died there.
Analysis of The cold earth slept below
The cold earth slept below;
Above the cold sky shone;
And all around,
With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow
The breath of night like death did flow
Beneath the sinking moon.
In the first stanza of ‘The cold earth slept below’, the speaker begins by presenting a chilling image of the earth. The title is taken from the first line and embodies the feeling of the six lines. A reader should take note of the variety of images associate with freezing weather and inhospitable places. Shelley uses the word “cold” twice in the first stanza, emphasizing its importance to the description. The earth was sleeping “below” the speaker’s feet and the “cold sky shone” out with its minimal light above.
He spreads his attention to the world on either side of him. There are “chilling” sounds that seem to echo out from the “caves of ice and fields of snow.” Although there are no people there, these landscapes have their own presence. They feel dark and possibly malignant, while also representing danger. The speaker would not survive in this place long.
In the last two lines, he speaks on the “breath of night.” The evening is so dark that it feels as if death is flowing all around him. In combination with the cold, Shelley presents a fearful scene. Last, he states that the moon is sinking. The only source of light in this barren place is disappearing, making sure that everything will be completely consumed by blackness soon.
The wintry hedge was black;
The green grass was not seen;
The birds did rest
On the bare thorn’s breast,
Whose roots, beside the pathway track,
Had bound their folds o’er many a crack
Which the frost had made between.
In the next set of lines, the speaker moves on to describe some of the smaller details. He states that the “hedge” is “black” and the “grass was not seen.” This is due entirely to the absence of light, but the word choices make the situation feel strange and possibly dangerous. He returns to the hedge in line four. Likely because of the wintry season there are no leaves on the bush. This has exposed the “bare thorn’s breast” on the branches. This is not a place that a bird will rest. The speaker added this detail to emphasize the total lack of life.
In the last three lines, he describes how the plant’s roots have started to take over the areas “beside the pathway track.” The speaker is perhaps following this same path and it is from its relative safety (at least directionally) that he is observing the world. The path is cracked, and in and around these cracks the roots of the hedge are growing. This is another change to the landscape that the cold weather caused.
Thine eyes glow’d in the glare
Of the moon’s dying light;
As a fen-fire’s beam
On a sluggish stream
Gleams dimly—so the moon shone there,
And it yellow’d the strings of thy tangled hair,
That shook in the wind of night.
By the time a reader gets to the third stanza, the text has moved to focus on a description of something or someone. It is unclear at first who or what this thing is with “eyes glow’d in the glare / Of the moon’s dying light.” The answer is revealed in the fourth stanza but for now, all a reader needs to know is that this holding more light than the rest of the world. There is a “glare” in the eyes that outdoes the “moon’s…light.”
In the third line, Shelley references a “fen-fire.” This is a phrase used to refer to the lights often seen at night. These most commonly appear over wet areas, such as swamps. Additionally, the lights are associated with a negative experience. They are said to send travelers off the correct path and lead them to their death.
The next lines give some indication of what this being is. The speaker takes note of “thy tangled hair.” It shakes in the “wind of night.” This should lead one to believe it is a human being he is looking at, likely a woman with long, blonde hair. He is able to see these sights due to the light that comes from the person’s eyes. It has drawn him off the path like a fen-fire.
The moon made thy lips pale, beloved;
The wind made thy bosom chill;
The night did shed
On thy dear head
Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie
Where the bitter breath of the naked sky
Might visit thee at will.
The final set of six lines makes it clear that the person he is looking at is a woman, and someone the speaker loved. He refers to her as “beloved” and seems to mourn her death. She has fallen prey to the “wind” and the night. It could also be the case that she was drawn away from safety by the sight of a fen-fire.
The poem concludes with the speaker comparing the “frozen dew” to tears shed by the night. The bitterly cold season is moved, just as the speaker is, by her death. Although this is a sad ending to the poem, it does not end on a depressing note. Instead, the speaker seems happy that at least she is under “the naked sky” where the sky can “visit [her] at will.”