The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 to force her to reveal herself, but to no avail. He continued his wanderings, more lost than ever, looking for “one form resembling hers.” Then he was seduced by a woman sitting beside a well in a forest, but she was false and filled with poison. She nearly killed him with her foul loving, turning him into an old man, worn out in youth.

Still looking...

(This entire section contains 1222 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

for an ideal form, he suddenly turned on his own thoughts, the way a deer will turn on chasing dogs. In that moment, a bright Being appeared; she reminded him of the Spirit he sought, though she was the Moon to that Spirit’s Sun. This new Being came to him the way the Moon came to Endymion, making love to him in the night when he was near death. She made him tranquil. Suddenly a great storm rocked him, blotting out the light of that Moon, as another Being, a “Planet,” disappeared and left him frozen, a lake of ice.

Then Emilia entered his life as “the Vision” he had been seeking. She came upon him like the dawn that slowly radiates, surely warms, and enlivens the universe. Music and fragrance came to him with her light, and she sent her beams into the cave of his desolation. She was the Sun beckoning him into a new life. He is the Earth, governed by the Being of the Moon and the Vision of the Sun. They are his “married lights,” who move him from Winter death through three seasons of vitality. He calls for yet another heavenly being, a “Comet beautiful and fierce,” who had once attracted him as well; she had been nearly wrecked before she “went astray.” Now he calls for her to return and make complete the universe of his new-found being.

In such a state of cosmic harmony, the poet suddenly turns to address Emilia directly again. He asks her to accept these verses as flowers from his heart; they will produce the fruit of Paradise. The day and the hour have arrived when she will be liberated from her prison; love will break down the barriers that divide her from the poet, and they will fly together. She will be his “vestal sister,” but also, paradoxically, united with him “even as a bride.”

The poet calls to Emilia to sail away with him. Their ship will become a bird to fly them to Eden, on “an isle under Ionian skies.” It is beautiful, with woods, fresh water, caves, and waterfalls to protect them from the outside world. They will feel as if they were in “an antenatal dream”—a time before birth; there are no wars, famines, or diseases in that place. Deep in its protective forests is a lonely dwelling: a “pleasure house” carved out of mountains. From its high terraces they can look down upon the beaches, where “Earth and Ocean seem/ To sleep in one another’s arms.”

The poet has prepared that place to receive them with simple pleasures: nature’s beauty, a few books, and music. Birds and deer will entertain them, as they explore the island’s secret delights. In some cool cavern they can kiss and talk, love one another completely, until they become “one Spirit within two frames,” “one passion in twin-hearts.” They will be like flaming meteors mixing their fiery lights until they become one transfigured, unconsumed energy of delight. Their separate beings will be annihilated.

On this thought, the poet expires beneath the weight of inexpressible desire: His very words, before winged with love, turn into “chains of lead,” and he falls into silence. Rather, he almost falls silent. Though the poem proper has ended with the speaker’s collapse, there is an envoi, a farewell by the poet to his poem. He bids his “weak Verses” to tell his Lady that he will serve her every desire. He tells his poem to prophesy that his love for Emilia will be fulfilled in another life, if not in this one. She and all his friends may join him as guests of Love, even beyond the grave.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.