The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Epipsychidion is a love lyric of 604 lines, written for Emilia Viviani, whom Percy Bysshe Shelley met while she was “imprisoned” by her family in a convent near Pisa, Italy, in 1820. The title is Greek for “concerning a little soul.”

Epipsychidion opens with an invocation to Emilia as a spiritual sister of the speaker. He addresses her as a “captive bird,” for whose nest his poem will be soft rose petals. He calls her an angel of light, the light of the moon seen through mortal clouds, a star beyond all storms, and a mirror like the sun itself, making everything shine in its light. He wishes she were his twin sister, or the sister of his wife. They could blend their separate beams of light together into one.

The poet calls her the lamp into whose light his muse flies like a moth. He is annihilated by her love and beauty, as if he were drowned by water flowing from the well of her being. He strives to express her essence, but he cannot find the right comparison.

Then the poet addresses the reader, a “Stranger,” to explain how he met Emilia. She lured him from night and winter into day and spring. The sound of her voice was a “liquid murmur” of sweet music from heaven. The warmth of her love enlivens the cold air, and her very fingertips glow. Her hair emits a sweet fragrance that fills the wind. She is like the power of the moon’s gravitational pull on the tides of his earthly love. Finally, the poet admits again how desperately he searches for the adequate phrase, for she is the metaphors themselves.

Transported by his song of ecstasy, the poet asserts the equalizing power of love; the lowly worm is made one with God Himself by love. Thus he laments his failure to have met Emilia earlier in his life, when her love might have made him feel as one with divinity. Now he must accept a different relationship with her, even though he knows that they were made for each other, the way musical notes make sweet concord.

He says that he should be a warning, as a lighthouse which stands on dangerous rocks. Here Shelley begins a spiritual autobiography, with a creed of free love. He has never accepted the “code of modern morals” that confines one person for life to another in marriage. Instead, he asserts, love does not diminish when it is shared with many others. It is not like gold or clay; it will not become smaller when it is divided. Instead, it is like the mind itself, which grows stronger the more it is applied to understand the truth; it is like the light of imagination, which fills the universe and destroys dragons of ignorance.

When he was young, he wandered far and often, until he was met by a “Being” that spoke to him through the harmony of nature’s beauty. He flitted about like a moth, looking for her, calling for her to remain with him. She passed by him and disappeared; in his frenzy to find her perfect form, he missed her altogether. He tried magical charms and rituals...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Epipsychidion is an erotic poem of pentameter couplets. There is a pattern of highly sensuous imagery which climaxes in sexual intensity. Since Shelley himself cites Dante’s Il convivio (c. 1307, The Banquet, 1909), he draws attention to his poem’s kinship with that one, a spiritual feast of life’s pleasures. Also, as in the biblical “Song of Solomon,” Shelley’s poem is an epithalamion, a marriage song (as illustrated by Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion in 1595, and Prothalamion in 1596).

The form of the marriage song is generally followed in “Epipsychidion,” which begins with a salute to the beloved, then presents a lamentation for her virginal imprisonment, a catalog of her beauties and virtues, a history of their meeting, and an invitation for her to join the bridegroom in the marital bliss of Eden.

The rhetorical devices which establish the tone of the poem are the apostrophe, or address of salutation, and the invocation, or calling, to the beloved. To develop his relationships, Shelley relies upon similes and metaphors, primarily using images of moon, sun, earth, and comet. The result is to imagine a harmony of love in the human community which is a restoration of the heavenly harmony that prevailed before the Fall of Man, when the cosmic spheres moved together to make celestial music.

Shelley rapidly takes up one image after another in his urgent attempts to capture essential, though evanescent, qualities. He moves forcefully and excitedly, from the comparison with a “poor captive bird,” through “Seraph of Heaven,” to the light of the moon, the sun, and the pole star that guides mariners. One of the interesting qualities of the poem is that its speaker is very conscious of his limitations—of the fundamental limit of language—in attempting to reach the kind of truth that he is anxious to describe. Therefore, he rises in frantic explorations of metaphors and similes until he runs out of energy, reaches the limits of referentiality, and then falls exhausted into despairing frustration.