A Sample Analysis Focusing on Figures and Imagery
Writing about literature can be instructive, revealing what may have been missed on a first or subsequent read of a literary work. Even if the writing has to do with assessment (and who likes that), such as an exam, the effort can help unmask ideas and teach us something significant. In such a course, we might cover aesthetic elements, history or periodicity, reading methods, genre, and the “history” of ideas authors explore, expose, or examine in their work.
Consider the aesthetic element of imagery and the figure of simile in Romantic literature.
In the poem Mutability (which I express in italics), Percy Bysshe Shelley writes about the idea of change as a natural phenomenon. He ends the poem with a conclusion that expresses a certain conviction. He writes: “Nought may endure but Mutability” (line 16). In this line, Shelley embraces the word “may” which “may” be read in terms of how it modifies the degree of conviction or the nature of the phenomenon. “May” may indicate “might” or it may indicate “intent” or some sort of agency or choice. On top of all this, we might not always think about Change as a Thing.
The poem begins with a complicated image build on a figure of speech called simile. Shelley writes, “We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon; / How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver” (1-2). The “We” of the lines “speed,” “gleam,” and “quiver” like “clouds.” It’s an interesting way of thinking about “We.” In the image, “We” is not the phenomenon that is lit or aglow. The moon provides the light. People are like the clouds that streak past or in front of it. This implies that people in the image are not by themselves illuminated (rather, they’re dark). They require some other force, like a moon, to provide them with light.
The poem’s stanzas are divided into quatrains. The final two lines of the first stanza expand the cloud/human/moon image, as the clouds “. . . quiver, / Streaking the darkness radiantly!” (2-3). Line 4 introduces the idea of time to the image, transitioning from line 3: “. . .yet soon / Night closes round, and they are lost forever” (3-4). (Note the method of in-text citation reference here: the line breaks are divided with a / and the lines of the poem–not the page number–form the citation.) The reader can only imagine how long “soon” takes in the poem. Significantly, once the clouds pass, the sky goes dark around the moon: “Night closes round.” But why are “they [the clouds]” “lost for ever,” as the speaker of the poem writes (see below for a possible answer)? In addition, why do “they” not have an intrinsic light? We could even extend this image, as Shelley is aware that the sun is reflecting off the moon, and that the moon as a celestial body does not generate its own light.
The reader may not require an answer. What is important to think about is that the cloud/moon image is a simile. The “We” doesn’t take on the identity of clouds, becoming them, as in metaphor. Shelley doesn’t write: “We are clouds that veil.” The “We” in the first stanza “resemble” clouds, rather.
Most readers know that clouds move, change shape, and alter as they move across the sky. It is, therefore, perfectly fine to describe people in this way. To punctuate Shelley’s second line adverb: People behave or move “restlessly,” like clouds.
Importantly to reading the poem, and this is true of imagery as an aesthetic element (we can dig into them as deep as they allow), Shelley doesn’t stop with one comparison of people in relation to something else. The first line of the second stanza pops with the word “Or” (5). Or may be a small word but in this poem this “Or” is enormous. This “Or” relates grammatically as a kind of complex sentence back to line 1 of the opening stanza: “We are as clouds” (1) “Or like forgotten lyres” (5).
In the second stanza, people relate to wind harps in the sense that the sounds produced by the wind passing through the strings always produce a different sound:
Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or mudulation like the last. (5-8)
(note that this reference is in block quote format)
In this stanza, the sounds produced are expressed as “mood or modulation,” the first element perhaps going to emotion, the second element going to the potential for change. And so, people can be expressed in terms of the simile in this way also, according to Shelley’s speaker. Peoples’ image develops over the course of two stanzas. But why are the lyres “forgotten”? Both images are somewhat ambiguous. This is what makes them interesting. If everything were obvious, nothing would be interesting.
The next few stanzas develop the illustration of “We” to greater degree, providing more examples about the relations suggested by the similes. They illustrate restlessness, “dissonance,” “variant response.” Which leads to the oxymoron of the final line, the trope of enduring “Mutability”
We rest.—A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.—One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:—
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability. (9-16)
People’s rest may be interrupted or disfigured by a dream. Some random bad memory may disrupt a good day. They can go about “carefree” or sink into melancholy.
It is one thing to say that people are like clouds and wind instruments. It is quite another to evoke images (so that they can be amplified beyond mere abstraction) that suggest an intrinsic connection between the moon, clouds, and people. In Shelley, people are not separate from the natural world. People are “of” the natural world. It can be argued from Shelley’s poem that the light illuminating us is indirect; what we perceive as direct illumination is a reflection of some other source; so, while we are “of the world,” much of the world escapes our knowledge because our senses are limited and imperfect.
The clouds (like people) in the poem have volume and shape but their shape and volume is always shifting and this shifting in the poem is personified as a “restlessness.” Our illumination is also temporary. The palette of ideas that run through this poem is fairly straight forward in terms of Romanticism, early or late. People are integral to the natural world but they are also shaped by it. Nature lamps or animates people and it provides an “enduring” set of phenomenon through which we can be understood. Part of that understanding has to be that people live in a condition of limited knowledge and, given the essential mutability of the world, we exist in a state of chaos. This, therefore, provides an answer to the question of “lost for ever” (4). The same shape of cloud or mood of notes cannot be repeated. Once they dissipate, they are unrecoverable, like youth or childhood.
The use of the oxymoron “fond woe” (12) in the poem is also significant as it goes to that tendency in people to find a dark pleasure in or a fascination with suffering or melancholy. This may be tied to ideas associated with the Gothic.