Last Updated September 6, 2023.
And in succession due, did Continent,
Isle, Ocean, & all things that in them wear
The form & character of mortal mould
Rise as the Sun their father rose, to bear
Their portion of the toil which he of old
Took as his own & then imposed on them
Shelley adds another layer to his idiosyncratic creation narrative. In this scenario, all things in the world come into being “to bear / Their portion of the toil which he of old / Took as his own.” Elements of ancient Near Eastern geogeny (an account of the origin of the earth) and theogony (an account of the the origin of the gods) come into play. The sun is now represented as a figure who at one point in the unspecified past assumed a terrible burden (apparently, some portion of cosmic toil). Now, he passes on the workload to the world—a transmission of responsibility that assumes the character of an imposition. Note that the world must not work because of sin but because of an ostensibly unjust parent. Into this odd scenario comes the voice of an “I” who has a secret that he cannot disclose in the form of “thoughts which must remain untold”:
But I, whom thoughts which must remain untold
Had kept as wakeful as the stars that gem
The cone of night, now they were laid asleep,
Stretched my faint limbs beneath the hoary stem
Which an old chestnut flung athwart the steep
Of a green Apennine: before me fled
The night; behind me rose the day; the Deep
Was at my feet, & Heaven above my head
When a strange trance over my fancy grew
Which was not slumber
Here, the most obvious antecedent is Dante, but whereas in Inferno Dante starts out “lost” in the woods in midlife before having his visionary journey, Shelley’s speaker is not lost at all; he is just preoccupied. This is a modern...
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aspect of the poem, which is much concerned with the distractions and preoccupations of modern existence.
“Whence camest thou & whither goest thou?
How did thy course begin,” I said, “& why?
“Mine eyes are sick of this perpetual flow
Of people, & my heart of one sad thought.—
Speak.”—“Whence I came, partly I seem to know,
“And how & by what paths I have been brought
To this dread pass, methinks even thou mayst guess;
Why this should be my mind can compass not;
“Whither the conqueror hurries me still less.
But follow thou, & from spectator turn
Actor or victim in this wretchedness,
“And what thou wouldst be taught I then may learn
From thee.—Now listen . . .”