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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895

In “The Moon,” by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), the speaker compares the rising moon to a “dying lady” (1) who “totters forth” (2) and is “insane” (3), apparently led by the “feeble wanderings of her fading brain” (4). In the second stanza, the speaker asks the moon...

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In “The Moon,” by the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), the speaker compares the rising moon to a “dying lady” (1) who “totters forth” (2) and is “insane” (3), apparently led by the “feeble wanderings of her fading brain” (4). In the second stanza, the speaker asks the moon if she is “pale” because of “weariness” (7) or from “climbing heaven and gazing on the earth” (8). He suggests that she wanders without a companion (9), alienated from the stars (10) and shifting her gaze continually (11) because she finds nothing worth her constant attention (12).

Shelley is one of the most important of the English Romantic poets, and this poem might be called a typically “Romantic” work for a number of reasons. First, it focuses (like many Romantic poems) on an aspect of physical nature. The Romantics emphasized nature partly because they believed that the natural world could often serve as a source of beauty, consolation, and meaning in a universe in which God no longer seemed as important as in the past (if, that is, he even existed at all). Secondly, this poem seems typically Romantic because it personifies part of nature, treating the moon as if it were a living being with a fully developed personality. (This attribution of human emotions to natural objects is often called “the pathetic fallacy.”) Finally, the poem is a standard piece of Romantic writing because it raises questions rather than clearly answering them, creating a sense of mystery rather than offering any traditional, conventional answers.

The poem begins by jumping in medias res (into the middle of events). The first word is “And,” technically making the entire first stanza a sentence fragment. By beginning this way, the speaker abruptly inserts us into what seems to be an on-going narrative, catching us by surprise and thus creating immediate interest. Our curiosity is further aroused, and a certain suspense is created, because we do not learn for certain until line 5 that it is the moon that is being compared to “a dying lady” (5). We might suppose, from the poem’s title, that this comparison is being made, but we cannot be absolutely sure until we reach the fifth line. Moreover, the fact that both the first and second stanzas consist of two long sentences adds to the impressiveness of the poet’s accomplishment, since he is able to keep two lengthy sentences and their complex sentence structures under clear control.

One of the first striking features of the work is the strong use of alliteration in the first line: “And, like a dying lady lean and pale.” The “music” here is hard to ignore, and similar music occurs elsewhere, particularly in line 4 (“And feeble wanderings of her fading brain”). Shelley has often been praised for the sound effects of his poetry, and his interest in using such effects seems, in this case, literally pronounced.

The opening line immediately sets a somber tone. Whereas the moon has often been praised for its beauty and brilliance and has often been likened to a lovely woman, the speaker of this poem instantly creates a morbid atmosphere. The “lady” who seems “dying” here seems in an advanced stage of her illness. She can barely walk; instead, she “totters forth” (2). Even more worrying than her physical weakness, however, are her mental limitations. Practically every line of the opening stanza implies the various losses the moon is suffering. By the end of the stanza, she even seems to be losing whatever definite shape she may once have possessed. Rising in one sense, she seems to be decaying in others. Even before she begins her nightly journey, she seems merely a “white and shapeless mass” (6). Her “gauzy veil” (2) almost resembles a funeral shroud.

If the first stanza describes the decrepit moon from a distanced perspective, the second stanza shifts the poem’s point of view and addresses the moon directly, asking her why she seems so pale. Is she pale from the weariness of “climbing,” “gazing” (8) “Wandering” (9), and constantly “changing” (10)? Neither the speaker nor the moon chooses from among these various options, and so all of them remain in play. Rather than suggesting just one reason why the moon may seem pale and weary, the speaker lets us ponder four, and then he ultimately concludes with an open question.

In the meantime, the poem itself seems in no hurry. It unfolds at a leisurely pace—an impression enhanced mainly by the two long sentences but also by the balanced sentence structure of line 8, which speaks of the moon as “climbing heaven and gazing on the earth.” Unlike many poems by Shelley, this one seems to have no definite point to make nor any didactic lesson to teach. It is apolitical and non-satirical and thus differs from much of his other writing. Instead, this poem is mainly (and appropriately) reflective. Ostensibly addressed to the moon, it is actually addressed to Shelley’s readers. It implicitly encourages us simply to think and ponder; it pushes us toward no specific conclusion. The moon’s inconstancy is not imagined as a source of its interest and beauty but rather as an indication of its indifference, or even of its supercilious condescension. Unlike the speaker contemplating the moon (an object he ponders over at length), the moon itself (apparently) sees no point in wasting its time or attention on any of the objects it passes near, through, or above.   

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