E212: British Literature since 1760
Percy Bysshe Shelley Study Questions
Assigned: "Mutability" (701), "Ozymandias" (725), "Mont Blanc" (720), "Ode to the West Wind" (730), "To a Sky-Lark" (765), "Adonais" (772).
1. In this poem Shelley describes the inconstancy of human emotions and aspirations, even of life itself. To what extent is the sentiment in this poem a comment on poetry's potential to transform the individual and the community?
2. The traveler suggests that the statue's sculptor intended his work to express the cruelty of Ramses II. The sculptor and time's ruinous effects appear to have issued their sentence against the Pharaoh, but in what sense has he defeated them both--what statement do the ruins still make about human history and human nature?
3. How does the speaker describe the mind's relationship to the material world? How does he connect the mind's processes and natural process, if in fact he does connect them? And is the mind an active, creative power, or does Shelley describe it some other way? Explain.
4. In what sense might Mont Blanc be said both to invite and to challenge interpretation, based on the way the speaker responds to the sight of the mountain in the middle and latter sections of the poem? Moreover, what promise does the mountain hold forth, and for whom?
5. How do Mont Blanc's glacial movements, combined with the elements, compare with or offer insight into the workings and durability of human civilization? In other words, how does the speaker reflect upon nature in such a way that he is also reflecting on human desire and achievement?
"Ode to the West Wind"
6. How might we apply Shelley's theories in "Defence of Poetry" about inspiration, expression, and poetry's value, to this poem?
7. Describe the structure of this poem. How does the "terza rima" verse form suit the poem's subject and aims?
8. Characterize the West Wind in this poem -- what are its powers, what effects does it have on nature and the poet? In what way does it embody both danger and hope? How is the operation of Shelley's West Wind different from natural forces in Wordsworth and Coleridge (or Blake)?
9. What is the traditional purpose of an ode? What does it seem to be to romantics such as Shelley?
10. What assistance does the poet ask of the West Wind? Why has he been striving with the Wind, and why doesn't the Forest have to do that?
11. When towards the poem's end the speaker prays to the West Wind to scatter abroad his words and thoughts like dead leaves and ashes, what is he implying about poetic language? How does such a prayer relate to Shelley's ideas about inspiration and expression?
12. Is the speaker certain that the West Wind will grant the prayer that has been uttered? What is the task of the poem with regard to the reader and perhaps to the human community?
13. In what way or ways does the organic metaphor operate in this poem?
"To a Skylark"
14. Why can't the poet define the skylark? How does the skylark exceed the capacity of human language to describe its qualities or the qualities of its song?
15. What is the purpose of the similes that the speaker employs in place of direct definition? Do they adequately describe the skylark?
16. What is the relationship between the skylark and physical nature? What is the source of the skylark's song?
17. What prevents the speaker (and us) from singing as the skylark does? Why is the skylark's song better than even the best productions of human genius, language, and emotion?
18. In what sense might this poem (like many other romantic lyric poems) be said to efface the act of writing in favor of the spoken word? Why would a poet do that, whether consciously or otherwise?
19. At the poem's end, does the speaker seem confident that his words can have the same effect on future readers as the bird's pure song has upon him? Why or why not?
20. Stanzas 1-8 set forth the invocation and the speaker's lament over the fallen Adonis (Keats). In stanzas 9-13, how, according to the speaker, does imagination work, and what are its effects?
21. In stanzas 14-21, the speaker details the sympathetic response of nature to Adonis' death. But what alteration in the relationship between the speaker and the natural world does he go on to describe in these stanzas? What musings on the human condition does he offer?
22. In stanzas 22-29, the muse Urania laments over the death of Adonis. What powers does she have, and what powers does she not have in relation to humanity? What does she say about the relationship between the literary arts and criticism?
23. In stanzas 30-38, we hear about a procession of mourners, the last of whom is the Shelleyan speaker. What does this speaker establish about his own status as an artist and his relation to the departed poet Adonis?
24. In stanzas 39-46, the speaker has arrived at a less disconsolate way of understanding the passing of Adonis. How, based on what has gone before, do you think he has transitioned to this new frame of mind, and what supposition about the brotherhood of poets sustains it in the present stanzas?
25. In stanzas 47-52, the speaker partly addresses himself, and partly a projected audience of mourners. What advice does he offer, and what Neoplatonic claims underlie it? (Refer to stanza 52 on this point)
26. In stanzas 53-55, at what final resolution has the speaker arrived? How do you interpret the concluding reference in stanza 55, line 486-87 to Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind"?
Edition: Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2A. Seventh edition. New York: Norton, 2000.