The Question by Percy Bysshe Shelley

‘The Question’ is a classic Percy Bysshe Shelley poem. In it, the poet uses nature-based imagery in order to depict a perfect dream of pristine wilderness. It is interesting to consider where Shelley, who was one of the best Britsh poets from the 17th/18th century,  was in his life when this piece was composed. His life, especially in the later years, is especially tragic. He and his wife, Mary Shelley, had last all three of their children. Shelley crafts this dream world, filled with innumerable flowers that feel like a kind of retreat. That being said, the first-person narrator in ‘The Question’ is not necessarily the poet himself. There is no clear context to allow one to say for certain one way or another. 

The Question by Percy Bysshe Shelley

 

Summary of The Question 

The Question’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley tells of a dream in which a speaker encounters a vast forest of pristine, blooming flowers.

The Question‘ begins with the speaker admitting that everything that’s to follow was in a dream. He was walking along a path, the season abruptly changed, and he followed the smell of spring to a river. From there, he caught sight of a vast garden containing endless numbers of the most beautiful flowers he had ever seen. 

The speaker goes through a great number of these flowers before collecting some the normally belong in different seasons. He runs back to the original path but then remembers there is no one here to share them with. He is alone. 

 

Themes in The Question

Shelley engages primarily with themes of nature and dreams in The Question.’ As stated previously, the poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that he dreamed everything he’s about to talk about. He’s not trying to confuse or surprise the reader with the facts of the situation. The beautiful images that Shelley follows this up with are entirely concerned with nature. He spends the stanzas of the poem going through the various sights, sounds, feelings, and colors he can see around him. The flower species take up a number of lines, as does his reaction to them.

 

Structure and Form of The Question 

The Question’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines or octaves. Each of these octaves follows a structured rhyme scheme. They conform to the pattern of ABABABCC; alternating end sounds as the poet aw fit. In regards to the meter, it is also very structured. Shelley chose to use iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. By using this pattern, Shelley goes through the poem at a very consistent pace. It is somewhat mediative and peaceful, just like the imagery he presents.

 

Literary Devices in The Question

Shelley makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Question.’ These include but are not limited to imagery, alliteration, and similes. The latter is a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, in the second stanza, Shelley uses the phrase “The sod scarce heaved; and that tall flower that wets— / Like a child, half in tenderness and mirth.”

Alliteration is a kind of repetition, one that’s concerned with the reuse of consonant sounds at the beginning of lines. For example, “suddenly” and “Spring” in line two of the first stanza as well as “flower” and “Faint” in lines three and four of stanza two.

Imagery is a very important literary device that is used quite successfully in ‘The Question.’ Shelley crafts numerous quite memorable images that readers should have lingering in their minds long after they’ve finished the poem. For example, “Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring, / And gentle odours led my steps astray, / Mixed with a sound of waters murmuring / Along a shelving bank of turf.”

 

Analysis of The Question 

Stanza One 

I dreamed that, as I wandered by the way,

Bare Winter suddenly was changed to Spring,

And gentle odours led my steps astray,

Mixed 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 kissed it and then fled, as thou mightest in dream.

In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by informing the reader that he had a dream. The substance of that dream makes up the following lines of text. He explains that in this dream, he was wandering around in a winter landscape when all of a sudden, it turned to spring. When this happened, a number of “gentle odours,” or spring-like, floral smells, sent the speaker on a detour.

He went to the “sound of waters” and ended up on the “bank of turf,” which was “Under a copse,” or a small grouping of trees. The trees sit right along the edge of the bank. Shelley personifies this fact by explaining that the trees were too tentative to fling their arms “round the bosom of the stream.” 

Rather than directly embrace the water, the trees were careful. They “kissed it” and “fled.” This image, as well as all those the speaker has thus far included in the narrative, depicts quite a dreamlike image. 

 

Stanza Two 

There grew pied wind-flowers and violets,

Daisies, those pearled 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’s collected tears,

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

In the second stanza of ‘The Question‘ the speaker starts his list of all the varieties of plants that lived in this area of his dream. First, he mentions “wind-flowers and violets, / Daisies.” He refers to the latter as the “pearled Arcturi of the earth.” This is a reference to the star Arcturus which is in the northern hemisphere. The grouping of flowers is “constellated” or constellation-like. It “never sets.” The speaker is finding deep meaning in what would normally be a simple pastoral scene. 

He goes on to mention the “Faint oxlips,” a small, usually yellow flower, and the “tender bluebells.” The bluebells are elaborated on. He refers to them as a kind of flower over which the “sod scarce heaved.” It is not entirely clear what this line refers to, but it is likely related to the flower’s ability to grow quickly, and seemingly, anywhere. 

The following lines are also not entirely clear. Rather than give the reader another flower to immediately visualize, the speaker talks around a flower without giving its name. It is tall with some kind of a bell that collects water. In the final lines, just like with the trees in the first stanza, the wind is personified. Shelley refers to it as the “playmate” of the unnamed flower. 

 

Stanza Three

And in the warm hedge grew lush eglantine,

Green cowbind and the moonlight-coloured may,

And cherry-blossoms, and white cups, whose wine

Was the bright dew, yet drained not by the day;

And wild roses, and ivy serpentine,

With its dark buds and leaves, wandering astray;

And flowers azure, black, and streaked with gold,

Fairer than any wakened eyes behold.

In the next set of lines the speaker continues his list of flowers. There is also “eglantine,” which is another name for sweetbrier, a kind of rose. In the woods, the speaker also sees “Green cowbind.” There are cherry blossoms and “white cups” that collect wine or “bright dew.” 

The description goes on to speak on the “wild roses” and the twisting, snake-like “ivy.”  It “wander[s]” here and there, just like the speaker as he went off his path into this garden. 

Last, he refers to “flowers azure” or blue. They are also “black and streaked with gold.” In comparison to everything else, these are the most beautiful. Nothing he has ever seen while awake ever came close to these flowers. 

 

Stanza Four

And nearer to the river’s trembling edge

There grew broad flag-flowers, purple pranked 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.

The speaker returns to the river in the fourth stanza of ‘The Question.’ Here, he speaks on the “broad flag-flowers” that grow alongside it. They are “purple” with random bits of white. In the water, the speaker can see “floating water-lilies,” which he says are “broad and bright.” It is evident that everything in his dream is at its most extreme. None of the plants are less beautiful than they could be. In fact, it seems that everything is more beautiful than he ever expected the world to be. This makes sense as he is still dreaming. 

In the next line, the speaker connects color to “light.” The lilies are so bright and beautiful that they have illuminated the “oak that overhung the hedge.” In contrast to these bright images of flowers, there are some which are less vibrant. These are the “bulrushes” and “reeds.” These plants are “deep green” rather than striking purple and white or red. They are “sober” in comparison but still beautiful. They serve the very different purpose of “sooth[ing]” the speaker’s eyes. 

 

Stanza Five 

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 imprisoned children of the Hours

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

I hastened to the spot whence I had come,

That I might there present it!—Oh! to whom?

In the final stanza of ‘The Question‘ the speaker refers to his dream of flowers as a vision. Never before has he seen or imagined something quite so beautifully complete. The speaker describes how this dream he created is similar to how one might make a “nosegay” or bouquet of flowers. He crafted it just as one would arrange flowers. 

In the dream itself, the speaker gathers an actual bouquet together. He made it out of flowers of different seasons. These lives, which are normally bound in by “the Hours” live “within [his] hand.” The speaker is extremely excited by the time he spent in the company of the flowers, and now with the bouquet in hand, he runs back to “the spot whence [he] had come.” 

When the speaker gets back to where he started, he realizes that there is no one there for him to share the bouquet with. The “whom,” a prospective lover, he refers to is not there. This speaks to the reality of the speaker’s life, and perhaps to Shelley’s as well.

 

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘The Question’ should also consider reading some of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s other best-known poems.

  • ‘To a Skylark‘- An ode to the essence of a singing bird and a discussion of how humanity’s limitations.
  • A Lament,‘ – A short poem in which the speaker addresses the world, life, and time, asking if the glory of their “prime” is going to return. Unfortunately, the answer is, as it is for everyone, no.
  • ‘Invocation.’A beautiful poem in which Shelley depicts the “Spirit of Delight” and suggests that it has deserted him. He makes an appeal for it to return, one that might be called an invocation. ‘A Lament’ is  ‘To a Skylark’ 
  • England in 1819– A poem that contains a description of England in 1819 through the poet’s liberal lens.
  • The cold earth slept below‘ – A poem that describes the state of the world on a freezing winter night and the discovery of a lover’s cold body.

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