When the Lamp Is Shattered

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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The Poem

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“When the Lamp Is Shattered” is a poem of thirty-two lines expressing the loss of ecstatic poetic creativity in response to the loss of a beloved woman’s affections.

The poem was written at the height of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetic powers, in the last year of his short life, after he had anchored his restless exile from England in Pisa, Italy. There, in 1820, he at last found the semblance of contentment with his troubled wife and a group of close friends. Among Shelley’s friends were Edward Williams, a retired lieutenant of a cavalry regiment serving in India, and his charming common-law wife, Jane, with whom Shelley carried on a flirtation and to whom he addressed some of his best lyrics. Whether or not Jane Williams was the inspiration for “When the Lamp Is Shattered” remains a matter for conjecture. It was Jane’s husband who was to drown with Shelley when a violent storm swamped their boat off the Leghorn coast on July 8, 1822.

The poem opens with a catalog of images expressing the shattered poetic creativity of the lovelorn male speaker made desolate by the loss of a beloved woman’s affections. The desolation oppressing his creative imagination is like a broken lamp robbing the mortal poet of his vital genius (“The light in the dust lies dead”), like a dispersal of clouds breaking up a brilliant rainbow, or like a shattered lute unable to produce sounds to revive the memories of past love songs already forgotten by the lady of his hopeless affection (lines 1-8).

The second stanza elaborates on the images of the first stanza to explore the failure of the poet’s joyous creativity in response to his failure in love. When lute and lamp cease, the inspiration for poetic sound and rhetorical brilliance ceases, and the poet’s broken heart and desolate spirit have no creative resources left to produce soaring, joyous verse (lines 9-12). The desolate poetic imagination, capable of only grief-stricken songs of death, is like a cramped ancient apartment in a wrecked monastery or like the doleful sea-wind and crashing waves that sound the death knell for a drowned sailor (lines 13-16).

The third stanza takes a new metaphoric and thematic tack and reviews the events of the romantic breakup by personifying Love as an eagle that bemoans the frailty of the heart’s affections and yet perversely inhabits the nest or heart of the poet-speaker, the weaker of the two lovers (lines 17-24). He is left to lament his heart-sickness and to wonder why Love made his heart its place of birth, development, and demise (“For your cradle, your home, and your bier”), whereas the still beloved lady, who no longer cares for him, escapes from being so enthralled.

The fourth stanza, continuing the personification of Love as a nesting eagle, warns that his heart will be an inhospitable domicile for Love. His lovelorn passions will act as a tempest blowing against nesting birds of prey (lines 25-26). His disenchanted intellect, like a brilliant wintry sun, will see through Love’s tortures and delusions. The poet’s embittered being will be but a rotting nest in the cruel winter season, exposing Love to the harsh elements of derisive disillusionment (lines 29-32).

Forms and Devices

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“When the Lamp Is Shattered” is a delicate and melancholy lyric poem consisting of four stanzas, each with eight lines of alternating end rhymes. Shelley composed each stanza out of two sets of quatrains and made sure that weak, feminine end rhymes appeared in each stanza to capture the fluttering, evanescent quality of lost love through sound effects...

(This entire section contains 424 words.)

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(for example, “shattered” and “scattered”).

The poem’s metrical system wavers between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, both with many variations. The musical irregularity—the abrupt use of stressed sounds breaking, at intervals, the harmony of the iambic beat—works with the feminine rhymes to convey through sound the discord of romantic bereavement. Shelley also made heavy use of consonance and assonance (as in “The light in the dust lies dead”) throughout the poem.

Shelley was a master of rhetorical fireworks, so much so that he has been criticized (often unfairly) for overdoing the artistry of poetry and for lapsing into incoherence and obscurity. Desmond King-Hele, in Shelley: The Man and the Poet (1960), adjudged “When the Lamp Is Shattered” to be too “trite and trivial” for its repeated appearance in anthologies of poetry; he was perhaps overly influenced in his severe verdict by F. R. Leavis’s jaundiced opinion of the poem’s diction and overall worth. Such criticism is excessive. Although “When the Lamp Is Shattered” may not rank with Shelley’s greatest performances, it is an authentically desolate Romantic lyric on a typical Shelleyan theme of love and poetic creativity. The poem is not overly incoherent or obscure in its piling on of evocative images of his lovelorn state.

Cooperating with his complex sound effects is a series of metaphors and similes that are at the heart of the poem’s achievement in communicating vividly the loss of love and ecstatic poetic creativity. The metaphors of the broken lamp, lute, and rainbow in the first stanza are implicit comparisons to the poet-speaker’s lovelorn state of melancholy poetic inspiration in the second stanza, which concludes with two similes—explicit comparisons of his muted melancholy powers of imagination to narrow, wrecked cells and to doleful, death-dealing waves.

Finally, a new metaphor, comparing a personified Love to a nesting eagle, is central to the last two stanzas in describing the utter desolation of the romantically thwarted poet-speaker, who is still possessed by a strong emotional attachment. Stanza 4 employs two similes of storm and sun that are integrated with the pervasive eagle metaphor in order to communicate the poet-speaker’s wintry embitterment with his failure in love.