‘The Question’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets f eight lines, or octaves. Each 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.
It is interesting to consider where Shelley was in his life when this piece was composed. His life, especially the alter 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 feels 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.
Summary of The Question
‘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.
Although the poem is quoted in full below, you can read the poem also at Poetry Foundation here.
Analysis of The Question
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 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, depict quite a dreamlike image.
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.
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 sect 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” which 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.
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.
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 visionary. 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.