The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 entire section is 542 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 (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...

(The entire section is 424 words.)