‘The Poet’s Dream’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the numerous songs that occur in Prometheus Unbound and that lend to this play a singular beauty and charm. This is regarded as one of the best lyrics written by Shelley, a masterpiece of his lyricism. It is remarkable not only for its music but also for its thought-content.
The Poet’s Dream Analysis
On a Poet’s lips I slept
The Spirit singing this song says that it was sleeping on the (silent) lips of a poet. As has been said, the Spirit that sings this song is an embodiment of poetic inspiration.
Dreaming like a love-adept
The Spirit was dreaming like one who is well-versed in the secrets of love. Shelley was an ardent believer in the ideals of beauty and love. A universal love, for him, was inseparable from the mental make-up of a poet.
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses
The poet is not interested in those joys and pleasures in which the generality of mankind are interested. (He is interested in divine pleasures and in visionary joys).
But feeds on the aerial kisses……Of shapes that haunt Thought’s wildernesses –
A poet finds nourishment in the visionary caresses that he receives from shapes and forms that are the product of his imagination and that have their abode in the wildernesses of thought. The regions of thought are here regarded as wildernesses. This is a somewhat obscure idea. If the poet’s mind is fertile in thought, what is the justification for the phrase “thought’s wildernesses?” Perhaps Shelley uses the word “wildernesses” to convey the vastness of the mental processes of a poet and also the inaccessibility of a poet’s thought to average mankind. In any case, the idea in these two lines is that the poet revels in the midst of shapes and forms that his imagination has invented.
He will watch from dawn to gloom
The lake-reflected sun illumine
The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
Nor heed nor see what things they be —
The poet will, from morning to evening, look at the sun, which is reflected in the clear waters of a lake, throwing its light on the yellow bees busy feeding themselves among the ivy-blooms. But the poet is not much interested in such sighs. The common sights of Nature and the ordinary earthly phenomena do not arouse much enthusiasm in the poet.
As already indicated above, we cannot accept the view that the poet is indifferent to common sights. And, in fact, Shelley himself was not quite indifferent to such sights. There are several poems in which Shelley gives us realistic Nature-imagery and even the Ode to the West Wind and The Cloud are no exception, despite the fanciful language in which the realistic imagery of these poems is clothed.
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of Immortality!
From this observation of the common sights of earth, the poet proceeds to imagine and to invent forms and shapes which have a greater reality for him than the actual, living human beings, and that is bound to acquire an immortal life which is denied to earthly beings. The idea here is that poetic thoughts and conceptions are more substantial than human beings living on earth, and that these conceptions and thoughts take such roots in the minds of mankind that, though men may come and men may go, these conceptions and ideas live forever.
This song is sung by one of the healing Spirits who come to soothe and comfort Prometheus who lies chained to the mountain and who is suffering untold misery. Prometheus’s torture has greatly been aggravated by the Furies who, after departure, are followed by a number of healing Spirits.
The Spirit who sings this song may be taken as a personification or embodiment of poetic inspiration. The song that this Spirit sings contains Shelley’s definition of poetry and Shelley’s concept of the function of poetry. According to Shelley’s view as expressed in this lyric, poetry is not mere imitation. It is “idealized imitation.” Wordsworth in one of his poems speaks of a poet as adding, to what he sees, “the gleam, the light that never was on sea or land, the consecration, and the Poet’s dream.” In other words, the poet adds the gleam, and it is the gleam that makes the value of poetry. The poet, according to Shelley’s view in this lyric, doesn’t seek mortal blisses. He feeds on the caresses which he receives from the visionary shapes and forms that his imagination creates. The poet certainly looks at the objects around him, but these objects do not interest him much. From his observation of these objects, the poet proceeds to create imaginary forms which have for him a greater reality than living man and which acquire an immortal life.
It is not possible for us wholly to accept Shelley’s conception of poetry as contained in this short lyric. This lyric lays emphasis only on the visionary or the imaginative aspect of poetry. Much of Shelley’s own poetry conforms to the idea of poetry as expressed here. But there is also the poetry of a different kind: poetry which deals with real life, the ordinary, day to day life of men and women. There is very little human interest in Shelley’s own poetry which has, on the whole, an ethereal or unearthly quality. His poetry is the product of pure fancy. But a poem like Wordsworth’s Michael deals with a fragment of the real-life of human beings. Michael is, indeed, characterized by stark realism. We cannot, therefore, feel too enthusiastic about Shelley’s conception of poetry as found in this short poem, ‘The Poet’s Dream’.
Commenting upon the kind of poetry that Shelley writes in ‘Prometheus Unbound’, J.A. Symonds says:
Shelley pierced through things to their spiritual essence. The actual world was less for him than that which lies within it and beyond it. ‘I seek’, he says himself, ‘in what I see, the manifestation of something beyond the present and tangible object.’ For him, as for the poet described by one of the Spirit voices in Prometheus Unbound, the bees in the ivy bloom are scarcely heeded. They become in his mind:
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of Immortality!
And yet who could have brought the bees, the lake, the sun, the bloom, more perfectly before us than that picture does?