This writeup is about English writer Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Alastor: Or, the Spirit of Solitude that was written in 1816. I have included some quotations from the poem, but reading them is optional so feel to free to skip them or give them just a quick glance. It's up to you, the reader
I think it's fair to say that some poets come across as out of touch with ordinary people; their work comes across as too concerned with what it's like to be a poet
, but ignores other concerns that might matter to people. When a poet
writes about poetry
, his readers may yawn and put away the book of verse.
poets are guilty of this crime of following their own concerns too closely. Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Alastor: Or, the Spirit of Solitude
is certainly guilty of this because it deals with the fleeting and temporary nature of creativity
and inspiration, a theme that is near and dear to many poets.
But this poem actually manages to strike a cord with readers because it surpasses Shelley's own concern with being a poet and manages to touch the issue of inspiration
in general. Most of us have had the experience of a perfect day where everything seemed to go just right, but then were later unable to come back to the same experience. The feeling of coming down from heaven
to earth, from an amazing perfect day to the mundane annoying reality
that is just plain, common, and uninspiring is a bummer to put it mildly. That's a feeling well known especially to those who have managed to refine and attune their sensations via hallucinogenic
substances, only to feel disappointed when their power of perception became common and limited once the effects of the stimulant
have worn down.
Now, Shelley describes this very experience, but of course from the point of a view poet whose source of intoxication
is his own creative power to see nature
in a glorious way. Alastor is essentially a poem about a visionary poet who imagines nature to be his muse and seductress. He imagines himself to have blown kiss
es to nature, like a magician
conjuring her to reveal her secrets.
In lone and silent hours,
When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness,
Like an inspired and desperate alchemist
Staking his very life on some dark hope,
Have I mixed awful talk and asking looks
With my most innocent love, until strange tears,
Uniting with those breathless kisses,made
Such magic as compels the charmèd night
To render up thy charge; and, though ne'er yet
Thou hast unveiled thy inmost sanctuary,
Enough from incommunicable dream,
And twilight phantasms, and deep noonday thought,
Has shone within me
Now, our poet dreams of a woman when he sleeps at night
, whose appearance mirrors the various beautiful aspects of nature]; her voice unites the sound
s of stream
s and breeze
A vision on his sleep
There came, a dream of hopes that never yet
Had flushed his cheek. He dreamed a veiled maid
Sate near him, talking in low solemn tones.
Her voice was like the voice of his own soul
Heard in the calm of thought; its music long,
Like woven sounds of streams and breezes, held
His inmost sense suspended in its web
However, this peak experience of beauty
, this attainment of perfection in his dream
must give way. The maiden that unites all of the beauty of nature dissapears in his dream as soon as he grasps her.
Then, yielding to the irresistible joy,
With frantic gesture and short breathless cry
Folded his frame in her dissolving arms.
Now blackness veiled his dizzy eyes, and night
Involved and swallowed up the vision; sleep,
Like a dark flood suspended in its course,
Rolled back its impulse on his vacant brain.
Roused by the shock, he started from his trance.
As he opens his eyes, darkness
swallows, i.e replaces his, vision of the perfect woman with all of nature's beauty. He feels the night to be like a dark flood that drowns him. Its arrival to replace his vision makes him think he is about to suffocate and die. The point here is that the loss of intoxication
is very painful. That is something that most readers can sympathize with. If you come in touch with something perfectly pleasurable and enjoyable and all of that pleasure and intoxication is gone, the feeling that comes next is that of being swallowed by emptiness
. I can think of hundreds of situations that this type of feeling applies to. A man who is in love will mope around helplessly when his girlfriend
has to be away for weeks, because her presence had contributed so many pleasurable moments of his every-day existence than her absence makes him notice that everything he does is a lot less exciting without her around. Or, people who may enjoy a holiday
get-together or a birthday party
at which everyone seems to be in a good mood and in a very festive spirit may feel like life is drab after the party is over and those same people return to being serious and business like.
So after the poet had soaked up the scenes of nature and turned them into a woman in his dream, the sudden disappearance of these after his awakening lead him to a kind of despair
at his feeling of emptiness.
The hues of heaven that canopied his bower
Of yesternight? The sounds that soothed his sleep,
The mystery and the majesty of Earth,
The joy, the exultation? His wan eyes
Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly
As ocean's moon looks on the moon in heaven.
The next part of the poem illustrates that seeking an experience of intoxication and incredible pleasure involves danger. People who go sky-diving
feel an incredible rush and pursue these experiences because the exhiliration outweighs danger
. In Shelley's poem, our narrator is determined to regain the exhiliration of experiencing nature's beauty by deciding to embark on a boat trip
down fast, rushing waters. He is able to enjoy the perfect beauty of nature via the stream because its waters reflect nature and yet transform it creatively by using their motion to mix up the reflected images much like a caleidoscope
. It's no accident that impressionist painters
liked to paint scenes of nature as reflected through water, because the surface of a lake
distorted the colors of what it reflected, making them more luminous or pale than otherwise.
Now on the polished stones
(the stream) danced, like childhood laughing as it went;
Then, through the plain in tranquil wanderings crept,
Reflecting every herb and drooping bud
That overhung its quietness.--'O stream!
Whose source is inaccessibly profound,
Whither do thy mysterious waters tend?
Now, as many of you probably know, some of the most fascinating experiences in life involve extreme danger. For example, immersing yourself in a jungle-like environment where animals
run wild in order to hunt them or just watch them produces an incredible feeling. Nowadays, they offer a simulation of that experience by constructing virtual wild safari zoo
s for people to drive through and watch the predators cavorting with the prey. In one zoo like that, people pay to watch tigers and lions devour cows. Navigating the waters is also exhilirating because you frequently have to adjust course to match the flow of the current
and have to pay a lot of attention to keep afloat and to steer in the right direction.
Now this is sort of rush the narrator of the poem is after.. Although he initially conceives of the beauty of the stream in terms of its powers of reflecting nature, what really fascinates him on a second look is the constant motion of water with its violent gushes... Since water reflects nature so masterfully, he takes the roar and motion of the stream to be a sign of a living being, a creative mind of water that captures the appearance of nature. If this sounds a little bit too imaginary and myth
ical, please do keep in mind that poets make a habit of trying to make various aspects of nature come to life. They are like ventriloquis
ts who turn nature into their puppet and try to convince you that it thinks and talks.
An unaccustomed presence--and the sound
Of the sweet brook that from the secret springs
Of that dark fountain rose. A Spirit seemed
To stand beside him--clothed in no bright robes
Of shadowy silver or enshrining light,
flourishes aside, what it comes down to in this poem is that the narrator is so enraptured by the stream
's beauty and the violent upheavals of its rushing waters, that he decides to row furiously and endlessly down the river
to find its source where the waters beat the quickest. Doing so allows him to glimpse the "living being" that is the river but not without sacrifice. He dies upon reaching his goal. The association of death with the pursuit of ultimate pleasure is something that affects many zealots of the "ultimate experience." Extreme sports
, boating, flying are all contacts with nature that heighten the feeling of being alive to the point of incredible, unbelievable exhiliration but often bring about death or at least a rather severe risk
of it. Heck, even journalism
belongs to this category. Think about the embedded journalists in Iraq
who get to see war
and report on it; the experience, though traumatizing, is probably unforgettable and incredibly vivid. These people participate in the most intense moments that life has to offer and they might pay a price for it.
For Further Reading
Two nodes seem to explain the experience of "feeling the rush" really well: adrenaline junkie