Poet's Pick April 25
Percy Bysshe Shelley: "Love’s Philosophy"
Selected by Troy Jollimore
National Poetry Month 2016

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

Our thanks to Troy Jollimore for today's Poet's Pick!

We are bringing you a special poem and commentary each weekday in April as part of our annual fund-raising campaign and in celebration of National Poetry Month. Please help us to continue our service to you and to poetry by making a tax-deductible contribution to Poetry Daily! Click here to find out how you can contribute online or by mailing a check or money order.

Thank you so much for your support! Enjoy today's special poem and commentary!

Warmest regards,

Don Selby & Diane Boller
Editors


Troy Jollimore's Poetry Month Pick, April 25, 2016

"Love’s Philosophy"
by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

The fountains mingle with the river
   And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
   With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
   All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
   Why not I with thine?—

See the mountains kiss high heaven
   And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
   If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
   And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
   If thou kiss not me?

   

 

* Troy Jollimore Comments:
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Love’s Philosophy” can look, at first glance, like a musty, old-fashioned, fairly staid poem: pretty, sing-song-y, unabashed in its rhyming, and composed predominantly in trochaic tetrameter, the meter of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.” (“By the shores of Gitche Gumee, / By the shining Big Sea-Water…”) Worse still, the poem is, in my case, too appropriate, too fitting. I’m a poet who is also a professional philosopher, and my main area is the philosophy of love. That I should love “Love’s Philosophy” is overdetermined, and that makes me want to resist it. But of course, I can’t. The poem is irresistible.

It’s irresistible, in part, because the philosophical argument it puts forward is very much the opposite of irresistible. While I have always found a fair bit of truth in Randall Jarrell’s stated view that “poetry is a bad medium for philosophy,” I would add that poetry can be quite a fine medium for bad philosophy, and that bad philosophy, like clumsy dancing or incompetent prestidigitation, can in the proper context be very entertaining indeed. (Think how many memorable literary characters—in Dickens, for instance—are entertaining precisely in so far as they are bad philosophers.) Of course one doesn’t necessarily want poor reasoning to succeed, particularly where something as consequential as coupling is at stake; and it is perhaps essential to the poem’s success that it leaves it entirely unresolved whether the speaker’s attempted seduction is successful.

That this poem is an attempt at seduction is something we discover only gradually. Our speaker is cautious, cagey; he takes some time to get round to announcing his true intent. (I am imagining that our male author was imagining a male speaker, though I do not intend to equate Shelley with the speaker, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that only men are shameless enough to make use of highfalutin philosophical discourse in the attempt to get laid.) The appearance of “love” in the title is a clue, but the title is nonetheless more likely to suggest a fairly abstract philosophical discourse—“A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy,” to borrow a line from an earlier poem by John Donne—and that, in the first few lines, is what we seem to get. “The fountains mingle with the river / And the rivers with the ocean, / The winds of heaven mix forever / With a sweet emotion…” The “sweet emotion” in line four disrupts the more neutral observational tone that has prevailed to that point; but what lecturer does not allow himself, here and there, to pepper his dry discourse with the occasional flight of fancy? How else to keep hold of an audience? It is only in the eighth line, the final line of the first stanza and essentially the halfway mark of the poem, that it becomes clear in just what manner this speaker would like to hold his audience; it is only there that the speaker inserts himself into the poem, boldly confronting his audience (an audience of one, as it turns out) with a question, indeed a challenge, that reveals the true nature of his efforts.

So, along with its musicality and its occasional charming ungainliness, this, too, is part of the pleasure of the poem: that is surprises us. It pretends to be one thing and then reveals itself as something very different indeed. And in doing so it slips from philosophical discourse to character-driven comedy. Though the poem’s forward momentum, powered largely by that restless and reckless trochaic energy,  drives us inexorably forward (especially on a first reading) into the second stanza, the sudden realization of the poem’s true nature, and of the speaker’s intentions, tends to throw us back so that, looking over the first stanza again, we now realize how implausible and tendentious the speaker’s philosophical claims were, how weak the argument is. “Nothing in the world is single”? Really? Tell it to the moon. As for that “law divine”—suppose the universe is law-governed. Suppose we call those laws “divine.” They are nonetheless surely not so harmonious nor so friendly as here depicted. And even if the description of the cosmos were accurate, it would hardly follow that we are somehow obligated to adopt the laws of nature as our own rules of conduct, let alone that we are mandated to do so with any particular desirous individual, poet-philosopher or no.

Things are as bad, if not worse, in the second stanza. Are the mountains and the sky really kissing? Are flowers fairly faulted for failing to feel fondness for their fellow florets? Our would-be philosopher-seducer would seem to be projecting rather than observing. Perhaps he hopes that the object of his address will not notice the weakness of his premises. Or perhaps he is simply counting on the relentless power of that old Longfellow rhythm to silence the obvious objections. (Is this the sort of thing Plato was worried about when he banished the poets?) And yet, as ridiculous as one might find him—and I think part of the pleasure of the poem depends on our finding him, to a certain degree, ridiculous—we may also find ourselves identifying and perhaps empathizing with him. The expression of frustrated desire in the last two lines, no matter how unconvincing as an argument, feels sincere, authentic, real. (And notice the somewhat submerged admission of jealousy: “If thou kiss not me” can be read as “If thou does not kiss me,” if we take “kiss not” as a verb phrase; but if we read “not me” as a noun phrase then it reads as “If thou kiss someone who is not me.” Our speaker is not so high-minded as he may make himself out to be.) We have all been in the position of wanting something very badly and not being able to have it. What could be more human?

As I mentioned above, the phrase “love’s philosophy” also occurs in a poem by John Donne, titled “A Lecture Upon the Shadow.” And Donne, of course, is the author of one of the most famous seduction poems in the English language, “The Flea”—a poem which, like “Love’s Philosophy,” prominently features the word “mingle.” So “Love’s Philosophy” takes place in the shadow of “The Flea,” a poem whose argument is even more absurd than that put forward in Shelley’s poem. (To wit: our fluids are already mixed, since we’ve both been bit by the same flea; we might as well, then, go to bed with each other.) No matter. At the end of the day what Donne and Shelley are mocking is not desire, but the idea that we can ever be reasoned into desire—or, for that matter, argued out of it. “The heart has its reasons,” wrote Blaise Pascal, “that reason knows nothing of.” Everything else is kissing, why don’t we? Is a pretty lousy argument. But given how delicious a kiss can be, is there really any point in waiting until a better argument comes along?


Troy Jollimore:
Troy Jollimore is the author of two collections of poetry from Princeton University Press, Syllabus of Errors and At Lake Scugog,  as well as Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.


Don't forget! If you enjoy our regular features and special events like this one, please join Troy Jollimore in supporting Poetry Daily by making a tax-deductible contribution.