Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Epipsychidion is an obviously autobiographical poem, despite the transparently self-effacing “Advertisement,” a disclaimer with which Shelley began the poem. Emilia Viviani is named in the poem several times, and three of Shelley’s companions in Italy are alluded to in the envoi: “Marina, Vanna, and Primus” are masked names for Mary Shelley, Jane Williams, and Edward Williams. Given such clues, most readers can piece together the story of Shelley’s love affairs to which the poem alludes, including Claire Clairmont as the Comet and Harriet Westbrook (Shelley’s first wife) as “the Planet of that hour” when the poet’s “Earth” was shaken by a Tempest (this refers to Harriet’s suicide).
The autobiographical level of the poem, however, is not its only meaning; its title is a clue to another theme. Epipsychidion is an attempt to capture in poetry the experience of self-discovery, of a “soul within the soul.” This occurs through the power of love, or desire, as it makes one aware of a void in one’s being. To realize that one is not sufficient unto one’s self is to drive one to search for the sufficiency of fulfillment in another. There is a profound truth in this experience, a truth which is elusive, constantly changing, and seductive. It requires constant pursuit and active commitment to something or someone outside the self. The poem is therefore an essay on love as the power of imagination to find truth, lose it, and search again for it. The “little soul” is the “soul within the soul,” the sweetly painful voice of desire which echoes the being of another, of the Other, who promises completeness.
Finally, the poem is also about making poetry itself. The art of language is frustratingly insufficient to realize all that it aims for, including the release of the imprisoned Emilia, the captive spirit, either from the convent or from the flesh (of the woman or of the poet). It is, however, the most effective medium of art available to imagination for mediation between mind and body, body and body, spirit and spirit. The frustration is that the poet desires an absolute, unmediated union with his beloved, with no differences; he can only barely reach the possibility of that kind of union, because it always eludes him. The poet is as much a prisoner of language as Emilia is a prisoner in her convent.