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The Indian Serenade -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

And now for something completely different...
(Poem #399) The Indian Serenade
I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Hath led me -- who knows how? --
To thy chamber window, Sweet!

The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream --
The champak odors fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The nightingale's complaint,
It dies upon her heart;
As I must on thine,
Oh, beloved as thou art!

O lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;--
Oh! press it to thine own again,
Where it will break at last.
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley
I really dislike this poem.

I don't care much for Percy Shelley at the best of times - I find his philosophy
irritatingly vague, his verse overly melodramatic, and his politics utterly
naive. The second complaint is the most telling - it's hard to take a poet
seriously if he tries to cultivate his image at the expense of his art. Of
course, Shelley has written some good poems ('Ozymandias' springs to mind), but
he's also written some shockers. In that respect he reminds of Belloc's Jemima:
'When she was good, she was very very good, but when she was bad she was
DREADFUL'. And today's poem is one of the dreadful ones.

Hmm, how do I loathe it? Let me count the ways:

The verse is trite. Technically sound, but utterly unmemorable - the last thing
I'd expect from a self-professed champion of individual expression and poetic
inspiration. The gratuitous insertion of 'local colour' in the form of the
champak and the nightingale makes me wince. As do the frequent apostrophes - "Oh
beloved as thou art!", "Oh lift me from the grass!", "Oh press it to thine own
again" - which sound like a bad actor hamming it up for the pits.

The sentiments are... well, sentimental. Verses like this one:
        "My cheek is cold and white, alas!
         My heart beats loud and fast; --
         Oh! press it to thine own again,
         Where it will break at last. "
seem to embody the worst excesses of Romanticism - specifically, the
substitution of indiscriminate tearjerking for genuine emotion. And it's not as
if any of it were true, is it?

Most of all, though, I'm irritated by the sheer melodrama of the whole thing.
It's as if Shelley were consciously playing to the galleries of his reading
public (a reading public completely sold on the entire phenomenon of the
Romantic Image), shamelessly tugging at their heartstrings. This one line says
it all:
        "I die! I faint! I fail!"



PS. To be taken with a pinch of salt <grin>. But boy, that was fun - maybe I
should run poems I dislike more often... what do you say?

35 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

rajeevc said...

ooh!! boar's tripe fried in auroch's dripping...

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

On 14 Apr 2000, at 13:37, Abraham Thomas wrote:

> PS. To be taken with a pinch of salt <grin>. But boy, that was fun -
> maybe I should run poems I dislike more often... what do you say?

Do it - and start running crap like Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu
churned out by the dozen. That's the day I'll unsubscribe from
minstrels ... there's enough sorrow in the world without having to
read even a few lines of that dreck again.

[NOTE] The roasting they get at the end makes it almost worth
wading through the trashy verse ;)


Suresh Ramasubramanian + suresh (@) [broken link]
If it weren't for the last minute, nothing would get done.

Christina Godfrey said...

well, I find Indian Serenade quite beautiful. All the negative comments are
a bit depressing for me! For if we can't let go of ourselves a little, and
mingle with the myth of romance of one mans thoughts (truthful or false)
with out ripping it apart, Why read poetry in the first place? This poem
fills my heart with it's words and makes me want to believe in love. when
with today's harsh unforgivable world it is so hard to feel love truthfully.
Reality is a bit too much for me I guess. I love the sappy stuff!

Anonymous said...

Ever thought of Shelley as being capable of a sense of humour as well? Ever thought of the possible sexual symbolism of the poem? Shelley wasn't sappy at all, he preached free love about some 300 ears or so ago! Consider he was still a very young man when he died. Obviously criticism sometims needs to be supported by study and understanding the context. May the Cor Cordium rest in perfect peace.

Anonymous said...

Addressing his beloved, the speaker says that he arises from “dreams of thee / In the first sweet sleep of night, / When the winds are breathing low, / And the stars are shining bright.” He says that “a spirit in my feet” has led him—”who knows how?”—to his beloved’s chamber-window. Outside, in the night, the “wandering airs” faint upon the stream, “the Champak odours fail / Like sweet thoughts in a dream,” and the nightingale’s complaint” dies upon her heart—as the speaker says he must die upon his beloved’s heart. Overwhelmed with emotion, he falls to the ground (“I die, I faint, I fail!”), and implores his beloved to lift him from the grass, and to rain kisses upon his lips and eyelids. He says that his cheek is cold and white, and his heart is loud and fast: he pleads, “Oh! press it to thine own again, / Where it will break at last.”

The trancelike, enchanting rhythm of this lovely lyric results from the poet’s use of a loose pattern of regular dimeters that employ variously trochaic, anapestic, and iambic stresses. The rhyme scheme is tighter than the poem’s rhythm, forming a consistent ABCBADCD pattern in each of the three stanzas.

This charming short lyric is one of Shelley’s finest, simplest, and most exemplary love poems. It tells a simple story of a speaker who wakes, walks through the beautiful Indian night to his beloved’s window, then falls to the ground, fainting and overcome with emotion. The lush sensual language of the poem evokes an atmosphere of nineteenth-century exoticism and Orientalism, with the “Champak odours” failing as “The wandering airs they faint / On the dark, the silent stream,” as “the winds are breathing low, / And the stars are shining bright.” The poet employs a subtle tension between the speaker’s world of inner feeling and the beautiful outside world; this tension serves to motivate the poem, as the inner dream gives way to the journey, imbuing “a spirit in my feet”; then the outer world becomes a mold or model for the speaker’s inner feeling (“The nightingale’s complaint / It dies upon her heart, / As I must die on thine...”), and at that moment the speaker is overwhelmed by his powerful emotions, which overcome his body: “My cheek is cold and white, alas! / My heart beats loud and fast...”

In this sense “The Indian Serenade” mixes the sensuous, rapturous aestheticism of a certain kind of Romantic love poem (of Keats, for example) with the transcendental emotionalism of another kind of Romantic love poem (often represented by Coleridge). The beautiful landscape of fainting airs and low-breathing winds acts upon the poet’s agitated, dreamy emotions to overwhelm him in both the aesthetic and emotional realm—both the physical, outer world and the spiritual, inner world—and his body is helpless to resist the resultant thunderclap: “I die! I faint! I fail!”

Dinesh said...

That must have been the worst of criticism I've ever read. Let's not talk of Melodrama in the context of poetry, nor quote it as "indiscriminate tearjerking". It's as if you haven't felt romantic ever. Utterly disappointing.

PS. And from quoting "Ozymandias" for one of the best poems of Shelly, it's obvious that you can't interpret "Mont Blanc", "One word is too often profaned", "Stanzas written in dejection", "Spirit of Delight" etc also.

Michael said...

The critique of this lovely poem is so nasty, snide, and sophomoric, written from such a jaded point of view, that it makes me sorry I stumbled on this post. I feel exactly this way about my lover and I'm glad I do. Thank you PBS for your genius and inner beauty whether you were serious or not or both.

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Anonymous said...

Disliking Percy Shelley and his are not for poetry...he is immensely powerful with his splendid lyric charm...and Percy politically unconscious!!! no nothing of politics...

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