On Love

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"On Love." By Percy Bysshe Shelley. From the 1880 edition of The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, edited by H. Buxton Forman.

Click here for Forman's editorial preface.

WHAT is Love? Ask him who lives, what is life; ask him who adores, what is God?

I know not the internal constitution of other men, nor even thine, whom I now address. I see that in some external attributes they resemble me, but when, misled by that appearance, I have thought to appeal to something in common, and unburthen my inmost soul to them, I have found my language misunderstood, like one in a distant and savage land. The more opportunities they have afforded me for experience, the wider has appeared the interval between us, and to a greater distance have the points of sympathy been withdrawn. With a spirit ill fitted to sustain such proof, trembling and feeble through its tenderness, I have everywhere sought sympathy, and have found only repulse and disappointment.

Thou demandest what is Love. It is that powerful attraction towards all we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond ourselves, when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void, and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves. If we reason, we would be understood; if we imagine, we would that the airy children of our brain were born anew within another's; if we feel, we would that another's nerves should vibrate to our own, that the beams of their eyes should kindle at once and mix and melt into our own; that lips of motionless ice should not reply to lips quivering and burning with the heart's best blood. This is Love. This is the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists. We are born into the world, and there is something within us which, from the instant that we live, more and more thirsts after its likeness. It is probably in correspondence with this law that the infant drains milk from the bosom of its mother; this propensity developes itself with the developement of our nature. We dimly see within our intellectual nature a miniature as it were of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise, the ideal prototype of every thing excellent and lovely that we are capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man. Not only the portrait of our external being, but an assemblage of the minutest particles of which our nature is composed;* a mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness; a soul within our own soul that describes a circle around its proper Paradise, which pain and sorrow and evil dare not overleap. To this we eagerly refer all sensations, thirsting that they should resemble or correspond with it. The discovery of its antitype; the meeting with an understanding capable of clearly estimating our own; an imagination which should enter into and seize upon the subtle and delicate peculiarities which we have delighted to cherish and unfold in secret; with a frame whose nerves, like the chords of two exquisite lyres, strung to the accompaniment of one delightful voice, vibrate with the vibrations of our own; and of a combination of all these in such proportion as the type within demands; this is the invisible and unattainable point to which Love tends; and to attain which, it urges forth the powers of man to arrest the faintest shadow of that, without the possession of which there is no rest nor respite to the heart over which it rules. Hence in solitude, or in that deserted state when we are surrounded by human beings, and yet they sympathize not with us, we love the flowers, the grass, the waters, and the sky. In the motion of the very leaves of spring, in the blue air, there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart. There is eloquence in the tongueless wind, and a melody in the flowing brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them, which by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul, awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes, like the enthusiasm of patriotic success, or the voice of one beloved singing to you alone. Sterne says that if he were in a desert he would love some cypress. So soon as this want or power is dead, man becomes the living sepulchre of himself, and what yet survives is the mere husk of what once he was.

Forman's Editorial Preface: Mrs. Shelley (Essays &c., 1840, Vol. I, page x) seems to regard this brief effusion on Love as in a manner cognate with Shelley's Platonic labours. It seems improbable however that it belongs to so late a period of his activity. The style appears to me rather that of 1815, or even earlier, than that of 1818; and Mr. Rossetti is probably not far wrong in assigning it to 1815. Instead, therefore, of placing it after the Banquet, it appears to me better to place it after the fragment on Life. It was issued as long ago as 1829, in The Keepsake, edited by Frederic Mansel Reynolds, which contained three poetic fragments by Shelley (Summer and Winter, The Tower of Famine, and The Aziola). For these four compositions, the Editor expresses in his Preface his indebtedness "to the kindness of the author of Frankenstein"; and Mrs. Shelley was also a contributor on her own account to this annual. Mrs. Shelley excepts from the censure of inaccuracy an "Essay on Love," published by Medwin. The follwoing effusion, I have not found in The Athenæum or in The Shelley Papers; and the little Reflection on Love that is to be found in both can hardly be alluded to, because Mrs. Shelley's text of it varies from Medwin's. It is possible that, in the multiplicity of details to be dealt with, the distinction between a cutting from The Keepsake and a series of cuttings from The Athenæum or The Shelley Papers escaped notice.—H.B.F.

even thine: In The Keepsake we read even of thine for even thine.

sympathy: This word is omitted in The Keepsake.

and: So in The Keepsake; in the Essays &c., or.

*: These words are ineffectual and metaphorical. Most words are so—No help! [Shelley's Note]

our own soul: In The Keepsake we read our own soul; in the Essays &c., our soul. As a prose expression the earlier reading seems more probable than the latter, which, however, corresponds more closely with the expression in Epipsychidion (line 455), a soul within the soul.

or: In The Keepsake we read and instead of or.

rules: The whole line of thought here and in the following sentence corresponds with the line of thought in Alastor, one would say, rather than with Shelley's studies and writings of 1818.

wind: Cf. Epipsychidion:

I questioned every tongueless wind that flew
Over my tower of mourning, if it knew
Whither 'twas fled, this soul out of my soul;

there is much in Epipsychidion that is reminiscent of Alastor and of the phase of Shelley's existence which produced that earlier poem.