“When the Lamp Is Shattered” is about the loss of ecstatic poetic creativity in response to a failure in love. This is a theme close to the deepest concerns of Shelley as a radical thinker, artist, and proselytizer of love as the liberating force for an imprisoned humanity.
As Shelley wrote in his essay “On Love” (1815), “This is Love. This is the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man but with everything which exists.” A major vehicle for releasing an oppressed humanity from the chains of political tyranny and personal insecurity and hatred was the poet’s imagination creating liberating visions of love in poetry that would inspire the human race. Shelley was not certain that poetry could accomplish this reformist goal, but he was certain that the artistic effort was worthwhile, if humanity was ever to progress and forsake a hopeless, self-created, and socially conditioned lethargy of spirit. As M. H. Abrams noted in the second edition of Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1973), “the imagination for Shelley is the faculty by which man transcends his individual ego, transfers the center of reference to others, and thus transforms self-love into, simply, love.”
If the great secret of moral good is love and the great instrument of moral good is the imagination—and if the great strength of the imagination is poetry—then “When the Lamp Is Shattered” is a despondent exploration by Shelley of the dissolution of his noble vision of love and poetic creativity. The poem is a beautiful statement of what happens when love fails, when the imagination cannot transcend self-absorption and sing a joyous love song for another, and when poetry must rest, not in an affirmation of universal love, but in a proclamation of disillusionment and a promise of bitterness.