A Reading of ‘On a Poet’s Lips I Slept’ by Percy Shelley

October 9, 2018 Updated: November 23, 2018

On a Poet’s Lips I Slept

On a poet’s lips I slept
Dreaming like a love-adept
In the sound his breathing kept;
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
But feeds on the aerial kisses
Of shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses.
He will watch from dawn to gloom
The lake-reflected sun illume
The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
Nor heed nor see what things they be;
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality!

When we open our lips to recite a poem, we excite it, in the sense of breathing life into it, while it in turn breathes life back into us. It reminds us of everything we exclude from our daily perception: a sense of sky, of openness, and of freedom—of the vast distances both beyond and within our mysterious being.

This drama of reading is beautifully conveyed in Shelley’s short lyric, taken from his play “Prometheus Unbound.” (Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from Zeus and handed it to us mortals, sparking our unquenchable desire to vie with the gods.) The poem begins with mere breath and ends with a vision of immortality.

“On a poet’s lips I slept/ Dreaming like a love-adept.” These words remind us that reading is a kind of eros. It calls for affection, veneration, even worship. Far from wanting to debunk the poem, we need to fall in love with it. Far from wanting to consign the poet to the past, we need to evoke his presence through the words and melodies of his creation.

I was forcibly reminded of this attitude when visiting the Keats–Shelley museum in Rome, which contains a lock of Shelley’s hair, preserved and handed down like a saint’s relic from generation to generation, each wanting to get physically close to genius. How different from today, when disdain for canonical poetry is mistaken for sophistication.

Every poem begins and ends as a dream, in the sense of remaining unknowable. Of course, we strive to break through the mystery, to tear down the veil of our incomprehension, and as time goes on, we do indeed receive flashes of insight into the poem’s meaning. But, of course, no true work of art can be reduced to a convenient paraphrase. No dissection can make us hear the nightingale’s song. So, when we read a poem, we need to balance our expectation to find its meaning with a delight in its irreducible magic.

Admittedly, the opening lines of Shelley’s poem confirm all our worst suspicions about poets: They are idle, dreamy, and quite useless! But there is matter to this uselessness. In his detachment from the everyday, the poet sees something that others miss.

The “aerial kisses” that visit him are like the kisses of angels. They recall the supernatural sprite Ariel from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” who is often assumed to symbolize the creative faculty. In a peculiar, prophetic way, this link looks forward to Shelley’s early drowning and the epitaph on his grave—a quotation from Ariel’s funeral dirge for a man swallowed up by the sea: “Nothing of him that doth fade,/ But doth suffer a sea-change/ Into something rich and strange.”

Curiously, the skyey “aerial kisses” and the ghostly “shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses” are one. In a modern sense, we can say that the transcendent (perhaps in the material guise of great art) and the unconscious are linked in their common distance from the boringly familiar.

The poet here is an observer. He refrains from immediate judgment and meditates on what he sees in the silence of his heart. This echoes Wordsworth’s belief that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Visualizing the scene cannot help but induce in us a deep calm. The lapping water, the tints of sun reflected in each wave, with the bees droning sweetly by the shore—all these produce an impressionistic landscape we could dwell in for hours.

Behind these natural images may lurk a symbolic dimension, however. Perhaps, as in Plato’s philosophy, the sun represents ultimate truth that finds itself reflected, though broken up, in the glassy mirror of the cosmos. It is the poet’s task to sift through these shifting appearances to find the one behind the many.

The “yellow bees” in the “ivy-bloom” collect the nectar they will turn to honey, in the same way the poet’s words turn air to holy gold. The poet, otherwise lazy, clueless, and even rather laughable, creates from dust something immortal and so transcends his brief existence.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) is most famous for poems such as “Ozymandias,” “Ode to the West Wind,” and “To a Skylark.” Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.