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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1816

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Summary and Study Guide


Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude, published in 1816 when Shelley was in his early twenties, is widely regarded as the poet’s first major work and his most probing expression of the role of the poet. The poem is equal parts a visionary allegory centered on the tension between flesh and spirit; a mythical journey narrative of self-identity; a philosophical meditation on the sublimity of beauty and the mechanics of the imagination; and an autobiographical exploration by an aspiring, if melancholic, poet struggling to clarify the function of poetry itself.

Young Shelley wrote the poem, more than 700 lines of tightly constructed iambic pentameter, in three weeks of furious, passionate creativity in autumn, 1815. The poem is something of a cautionary tale as the poet’s heroic journey to find both beauty and truth is frustrated by his ambivalence over entirely breaking with nature. His heart tells him to do one thing, his imagination and creativity quite another. The title refers to a malevolent figure from Greek mythology, one of the black horses that pulls the chariot of Hades, the god of the underworld, and refers to the spirit that, in the poem, tempts the conflicted poet to abandon his interactions with the lackluster and corrupt “real world” to pursue the ideal dreamy worlds conceived by his soul at full throttle. The poem is at once defiant and ambivalent about the efficacy of that defiance.

Other thematic and rhetorical elements in Alastor include its gloomy subject matter; a brooding tone; its lyrical communication with the spiritual energy and organic healing power of nature; lush, exotic diction and imagery; an unironic celebration of the visionary power of the inspired poet; and its obsessive, even narcissistic presumptions about the importance of such poets in a materialistic, rapidly industrializing culture. These elements embody the spirit of the Romantic era, then flourishing among a young generation of college-educated poet-philosophers in England, uncompromising intellectuals who were restless—even eager—to throw off the conservative traditions that had for more than a century defined British poetry and British society.

Poet Biography

Few English-language writers have excited as much interest in their personal life as well as in their published works than poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In his short but tempestuous life (he drowned in a boating accident off the north coast of Italy when he was only 29), Shelley epitomized the defiant, rebellious spirit of the great age of the Romantics. A cosmopolitan adventurer, an unapologetic and very vocal atheist, a political radical, a scandalous lover whose intemperate private life of sensual indulgence and free love quite publicly mocked the conventions of his era, Shelley lived his life as a cause célèbre, embodying the role of the poet as provocateur, rebel, and iconoclast.

Shelley was born to privilege (his father served in Parliament) in the bucolic countryside near Broadbridge Heath some 40 miles south of London in 1792. A voracious reader, Shelley advanced quickly through his education. Often pestered by other children because of his precocious ways, Shelley disdained friendship early on and sought the magic retreat of his imagination. He began before the age of 12 to draft lyric poems about the pastoral world of nature and even penned a handful of lurid gothic tales about ghosts and maimed children. In 1810, he matriculated at the University College at Oxford only to be expelled within months for co-authoring a scathing indictment of organized religion. Undeterred by the censure, Shelley continued his education on his own. He published controversial broadsides that denounced conservative British politics and advocated radical agendas, most notably political independence for Ireland and the right of women to vote. He married an emotionally fragile woman two years his junior who found the charismatic bad boy Shelley and his very public flaunting of convention irresistible.

By 1813, when Shelley was 21, he had had two children by his wife and had taken a lover, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of the outspoken iconoclastic liberal firebrand, William Godwin. Shelley journeyed to Europe with Mary and her sister, who eventually became his lover as well. In 1816, at the time of the publication of Alastor, both his lover and his wife were pregnant. His distraught wife petitioned for divorce. She later committed suicide, after which Shelley and Godwin married.

With the publication of the grandly-conceived epical Alastor, Shelley moved to the forefront of the generation of angry young Romantics who sought to recast the role of the poet and to broaden the message of poetry to enhance the spiritual life of its culture. On a lengthy trip through Europe, Shelley met George Gordon, Lord Byron, and later John Keats, and the three struck up a personal and professional relationship. Shelley became known as a passionate advocate for religious freedom and for the liberation of the individual to explore ideas and to respond to the enticing, coaxing energy of nature. Over the next several years, Shelley completed dense and towering works on the role of the poet, the nature of beauty itself, and the function of the soul, among them Mont Blanc (1816), Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1817), The Revolt of Islam (1818), Adonais (1821), and his masterpiece Prometheus Unbound (1820). In addition, he published short lyrics that have become among the most quoted and most familiar poems in the English language, among them “Ozymandias,” “To a Skylark,” and “Ode to the West Wind.”

The Shelleys moved to Tuscany in northern Italy in 1818 in a kind of self-imposed exile from a British society that hounded him over his controversial radical views and his unconventional lifestyle. For several years, the two enjoyed the rich Italian culture, the freedoms of the Italian lifestyle, and the sublime expanses of the Italian countryside. In 1822, a month shy of his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned when his sailboat, staffed by a largely inexperienced crew, capsized during a sudden squall while crossing the Ligorian Sea in northern Italy. His body, deteriorated beyond easy recognition and gnawed away by sea life, washed up on shore some 50 miles south near Viareggio 10 days later. His body was cremated and the cremains interred at the Cimitero Inglese (The British Cemetery) in Rome near the final resting place of fellow Romantic John Keats.

Poem Text

Nondum amabam, et amare amabam, quaerebam quid amarem, amans amare.—

Confess. St. August.

Earth, ocean, air, belovèd brotherhood!

If our great Mother has imbued my soul

With aught of natural piety to feel

Your love, and recompense the boon with mine;

If dewy morn, and odorous noon, and even,

With sunset and its gorgeous ministers,

And solemn midnight's tingling silentness;

If autumn's hollow sighs in the sere wood,

And winter robing with pure snow and crowns

Of starry ice the grey grass and bare boughs;

If spring's voluptuous pantings when she breathes

Her first sweet kisses, have been dear to me;

If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast

I consciously have injured, but still loved

And cherished these my kindred; then forgive

This boast, belovèd brethren, and withdraw

No portion of your wonted favour now!

         Mother of this unfathomable world!

Favour my solemn song, for I have loved

Thee ever, and thee only; I have watched

Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps,

And my heart ever gazes on the depth

Of thy deep mysteries. I have made my bed

In charnels and on coffins, where black death

Keeps record of the trophies won from thee,

Hoping to still these obstinate questionings

Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost

Thy messenger, to render up the tale

Of what we are. In lone and silent hours,

When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness,

Like an inspired and desperate alchymist

Staking his very life on some dark hope,

Have I mixed awful talk and asking looks

With my most innocent love, until strange tears

Uniting with those breathless kisses, made

Such magic as compels the charmèd night

To render up thy charge:...and, though ne'er yet

Thou hast unveiled thy inmost sanctuary,

Enough from incommunicable dream,

And twilight phantasms, and deep noon-day thought,

Has shone within me, that serenely now

And moveless, as a long-forgotten lyre

Suspended in the solitary dome

Of some mysterious and deserted fane,

I wait thy breath, Great Parent, that my strain

May modulate with murmurs of the air,

And motions of the forests and the sea,

And voice of living beings, and woven hymns

Of night and day, and the deep heart of man.

         There was a Poet whose untimely tomb

No human hands with pious reverence reared,

But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds

Built o'er his mouldering bones a pyramid

Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness:—

A lovely youth,—no mourning maiden decked

With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath,

The lone couch of his everlasting sleep:—

Gentle, and brave, and generous,—no lorn bard

Breathed o'er his dark fate one melodious sigh:

He lived, he died, he sung, in solitude.

Strangers have wept to hear his passionate notes,

And virgins, as unknown he passed, have pined

And wasted for fond love of his wild eyes.

The fire of those soft orbs has ceased to burn,

And Silence, too enamoured of that voice,

Locks its mute music in her rugged cell.

         By solemn vision, and bright silver dream,

His infancy was nurtured. Every sight

And sound from the vast earth and ambient air,

Sent to his heart its choicest impulses.

The fountains of divine philosophy

Fled not his thirsting lips, and all of great,

Or good, or lovely, which the sacred past

In truth or fable consecrates, he felt

And knew. When early youth had past, he left

His cold fireside and alienated home

To seek strange truths in undiscovered lands.

Many a wide waste and tangled wilderness

Has lured his fearless steps; and he has bought

With his sweet voice and eyes, from savage men,

His rest and food. Nature's most secret steps

He like her shadow has pursued, where'er

The red volcano overcanopies

Its fields of snow and pinnacles of ice

With burning smoke, or where bitumen lakes

On black bare pointed islets ever beat

With sluggish surge, or where the secret caves

Rugged and dark, winding among the springs

Of fire and poison, inaccessible

To avarice or pride, their starry domes

Of diamond and of gold expand above

Numberless and immeasurable halls,

Frequent with crystal column, and clear shrines

Of pearl, and thrones radiant with chrysolite.

Nor had that scene of ampler majesty

Than gems or gold, the varying roof of heaven

And the green earth lost in his heart its claims

To love and wonder; he would linger long

In lonesome vales, making the wild his home,

Until the doves and squirrels would partake

From his innocuous hand his bloodless food,

Lured by the gentle meaning of his looks,

And the wild antelope, that starts whene'er

The dry leaf rustles in the brake, suspend

Her timid steps to gaze upon a form

More graceful than her own.

                                                His wandering step

Obedient to high thoughts, has visited

The awful ruins of the days of old:

Athens, and Tyre, and Balbec, and the waste

Where stood Jerusalem, the fallen towers

Of Babylon, the eternal pyramids,

Memphis and Thebes, and whatsoe'er of strange

Sculptured on alabaster obelisk,

Or jasper tomb, or mutilated sphynx,

Dark Æthiopia in her desert hills

Conceals. Among the ruined temples there,

Stupendous columns, and wild images

Of more than man, where marble daemons watch

The Zodiac's brazen mystery, and dead men

Hang their mute thoughts on the mute walls around,

He lingered, poring on memorials

Of the world's youth, through the long burning day

Gazed on those speechless shapes, nor, when the moon

Filled the mysterious halls with floating shades

Suspended he that task, but ever gazed

And gazed, till meaning on his vacant mind

Flashed like strong inspiration, and he saw

The thrilling secrets of the birth of time.

         Meanwhile an Arab maiden brought his food,

Her daily portion, from her father's tent,

And spread her matting for his couch, and stole

From duties and repose to tend his steps:—

Enamoured, yet not daring for deep awe

To speak her love:—and watched his nightly sleep,

Sleepless herself, to gaze upon his lips

Parted in slumber, whence the regular breath

Of innocent dreams arose: then, when red morn

Made paler the pale moon, to her cold home

Wildered, and wan, and panting, she returned.

         The Poet wandering on, through Arabie

And Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste,

And o'er the aërial mountains which pour down

Indus and Oxus from their icy caves,

In joy and exultation held his way;

Till in the vale of Cashmire, far within

Its loneliest dell, where odorous plants entwine

Beneath the hollow rocks a natural bower,

Beside a sparkling rivulet he stretched

His languid limbs. A vision on his sleep

There came, a dream of hopes that never yet

Had flushed his cheek. He dreamed a veilèd maid

Sate near him, talking in low solemn tones.

Her voice was like the voice of his own soul

Heard in the calm of thought; its music long,

Like woven sounds of streams and breezes, held

His inmost sense suspended in its web

Of many-coloured woof and shifting hues.

Knowledge and truth and virtue were her theme,

And lofty hopes of divine liberty,

Thoughts the most dear to him, and poesy,

Herself a poet. Soon the solemn mood

Of her pure mind kindled through all her frame

A permeating fire: wild numbers then

She raised, with voice stifled in tremulous sobs

Subdued by its own pathos: her fair hands

Were bare alone, sweeping from some strange harp

Strange symphony, and in their branching veins

The eloquent blood told an ineffable tale.

The beating of her heart was heard to fill

The pauses of her music, and her breath

Tumultuously accorded with those fits

Of intermitted song. Sudden she rose,

As if her heart impatiently endured

Its bursting burthen: at the sound he turned,

And saw by the warm light of their own life

Her glowing limbs beneath the sinuous veil

Of woven wind, her outspread arms now bare,

Her dark locks floating in the breath of night,

Her beamy bending eyes, her parted lips

Outstretched, and pale, and quivering eagerly.

His strong heart sunk and sickened with excess

Of love. He reared his shuddering limbs and quelled

His gasping breath, and spread his arms to meet

Her panting bosom:...she drew back a while,

Then, yielding to the irresistible joy,

With frantic gesture and short breathless cry

Folded his frame in her dissolving arms.

Now blackness veiled his dizzy eyes, and night

Involved and swallowed up the vision; sleep,

Like a dark flood suspended in its course

Rolled back its impulse on his vacant brain.

         Roused by the shock he started from his trance—

The cold white light of morning, the blue moon

Low in the west, the clear and garish hills,

The distinct valley and the vacant woods,

Spread round him where he stood. Whither have fled

The hues of heaven that canopied his bower

Of yesternight? The sounds that soothed his sleep,

The mystery and the majesty of Earth,

The joy, the exultation? His wan eyes

Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly

As ocean's moon looks on the moon in heaven.

The spirit of sweet human love has sent

A vision to the sleep of him who spurned

Her choicest gifts. He eagerly pursues

Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade;

He overleaps the bounds. Alas! Alas!

Were limbs and breath and being intertwined

Thus treacherously? Lost, lost, for ever lost,

In the wide pathless desert of dim sleep,

That beautiful shape! Does the dark gate of death

Conduct to thy mysterious paradise,

O Sleep? Does the bright arch of rainbow clouds,

And pendent mountains seen in the calm lake,

Lead only to a black and watery depth,

While death's blue vault, with loathliest vapours hung,

Where every shade which the foul grave exhales

Hides its dead eye from the detested day,

Conduct, O Sleep, to thy delightful realms?

This doubt with sudden tide flowed on his heart,

The insatiate hope which it awakened stung

His brain even like despair.

                                             While daylight held

The sky, the Poet kept mute conference

With his still soul. At night the passion came,

Like the fierce fiend of a distempered dream,

And shook him from his rest, and led him forth

Into the darkness.—As an eagle grasped

In folds of the green serpent, feels her breast

Burn with the poison, and precipitates

Through night and day, tempest, and calm, and cloud,

Frantic with dizzying anguish, her blind flight

O'er the wide aëry wilderness: thus driven

By the bright shadow of that lovely dream,

Beneath the cold glare of the desolate night,

Through tangled swamps and deep precipitous dells,

Startling with careless step the moonlight snake,

He fled. Red morning dawned upon his flight,

Shedding the mockery of its vital hues

Upon his cheek of death. He wandered on

Till vast Aornos, seen from Petra's steep,

Hung o'er the low horizon like a cloud;

Through Balk, and where the desolated tombs

Of Parthian kings scatter to every wind

Their wasting dust, wildly he wandered on,

Day after day a weary waste of hours,

Bearing within his life the brooding care

That ever fed on its decaying flame.

And now his limbs were lean; his scattered hair

Sered by the autumn of strange suffering

Sung dirges in the wind; his listless hand

Hung like dead bone within its withered skin;

Life, and the lustre that consumed it, shone

As in a furnace burning secretly

From his dark eyes alone. The cottagers,

Who ministered with human charity

His human wants, beheld with wondering awe

Their fleeting visitant. The mountaineer,

Encountering on some dizzy precipice

That spectral form, deemed that the Spirit of wind

With lightning eyes, and eager breath, and feet

Disturbing not the drifted snow, had paused

In its career: the infant would conceal

His troubled visage in his mother's robe

In terror at the glare of those wild eyes,

To remember their strange light in many a dream

Of after-times; but youthful maidens, taught

By nature, would interpret half the woe

That wasted him, would call him with false names

Brother, and friend, would press his pallid hand

At parting, and watch, dim through tears, the path

Of his departure from their father's door.

         At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore

He paused, a wide and melancholy waste

Of putrid marshes. A strong impulse urged

His steps to the sea-shore. A swan was there,

Beside a sluggish stream among the reeds.

It rose as he approached, and with strong wings

Scaling the upward sky, bent its bright course

High over the immeasurable main.

His eyes pursued its flight.—"Thou hast a home,

Beautiful bird; thou voyagest to thine home,

Where thy sweet mate will twine her downy neck

With thine, and welcome thy return with eyes

Bright in the lustre of their own fond joy.

And what am I that I should linger here,

With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes,

Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned

To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers

In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven

That echoes not my thoughts?" A gloomy smile

Of desperate hope wrinkled his quivering lips.

For sleep, he knew, kept most relentlessly

Its precious charge, and silent death exposed,

Faithless perhaps as sleep, a shadowy lure,

With doubtful smile mocking its own strange charms.

         Startled by his own thoughts he looked around.

There was no fair fiend near him, not a sight

Or sound of awe but in his own deep mind.

A little shallop floating near the shore

Caught the impatient wandering of his gaze.

It had been long abandoned, for its sides

Gaped wide with many a rift, and its frail joints

Swayed with the undulations of the tide.

A restless impulse urged him to embark

And meet lone Death on the drear ocean's waste;

For well he knew that mighty Shadow loves

The slimy caverns of the populous deep.


         The day was fair and sunny: sea and sky

Drank its inspiring radiance, and the wind

Swept strongly from the shore, blackening the waves.

Following his eager soul, the wanderer

Leaped in the boat, he spread his cloak aloft

On the bare mast, and took his lonely seat,

And felt the boat speed o'er the tranquil sea

Like a torn cloud before the hurricane.

         As one that in a silver vision floats

Obedient to the sweep of odorous winds

Upon resplendent clouds, so rapidly

Along the dark and ruffled waters fled

The straining boat.—A whirlwind swept it on,

With fierce gusts and precipitating force,

Through the white ridges of the chafèd sea.

The waves arose. Higher and higher still

Their fierce necks writhed beneath the tempest's scourge

Like serpents struggling in a vulture's grasp.

Calm and rejoicing in the fearful war

Of wave ruining on wave, and blast on blast

Descending, and black flood on whirlpool driven

With dark obliterating course, he sate:

As if their genii were the ministers

Appointed to conduct him to the light

Of those belovèd eyes, the Poet sate

Holding the steady helm. Evening came on,

The beams of sunset hung their rainbow hues

High 'mid the shifting domes of sheeted spray

That canopied his path o'er the waste deep;

Twilight, ascending slowly from the east,

Entwined in duskier wreaths her braided locks

O'er the fair front and radiant eyes of day;

Night followed, clad with stars. On every side

More horribly the multitudinous streams

Of ocean's mountainous waste to mutual war

Rushed in dark tumult thundering, as to mock

The calm and spangled sky. The little boat

Still fled before the storm; still fled, like foam

Down the steep cataract of a wintry river;

Now pausing on the edge of the riven wave;

Now leaving far behind the bursting mass

That fell, convulsing ocean. Safely fled—

As if that frail and wasted human form,

Had been an elemental god.

                                             At midnight

The moon arose: and lo! the ethereal cliffs

Of Caucasus, whose icy summits shone

Among the stars like sunlight, and around

Whose caverned base the whirlpools and the waves

Bursting and eddying irresistibly

Rage and resound for ever.—Who shall save?—

The boat fled on,—the boiling torrent drove,—

The crags closed round with black and jaggèd arms,

The shattered mountain overhung the sea,

And faster still, beyond all human speed,

Suspended on the sweep of the smooth wave,

The little boat was driven. A cavern there

Yawned, and amid its slant and winding depths

Ingulfed the rushing sea. The boat fled on

With unrelaxing speed.—"Vision and Love!"

The Poet cried aloud, "I have beheld

The path of thy departure. Sleep and death

Shall not divide us long!"

                                             The boat pursued

The windings of the cavern. Daylight shone

At length upon that gloomy river's flow;

Now, where the fiercest war among the waves

Is calm, on the unfathomable stream

The boat moved slowly. Where the mountain, riven,

Exposed those black depths to the azure sky,

Ere yet the flood's enormous volume fell

Even to the base of Caucasus, with sound

That shook the everlasting rocks, the mass

Filled with one whirlpool all that ample chasm;

Stair above stair the eddying waters rose,

Circling immeasurably fast, and laved

With alternating dash the gnarlèd roots

Of mighty trees, that stretched their giant arms

In darkness over it. I' the midst was left,

Reflecting, yet distorting every cloud,

A pool of treacherous and tremendous calm.

Seized by the sway of the ascending stream,

With dizzy swiftness, round, and round, and round,

Ridge after ridge the straining boat arose,

Till on the verge of the extremest curve,

Where, through an opening of the rocky bank,

The waters overflow, and a smooth spot

Of glassy quiet mid those battling tides

Is left, the boat paused shuddering.—Shall it sink

Down the abyss? Shall the reverting stress

Of that resistless gulf embosom it?

Now shall it fall?—A wandering stream of wind,

Breathed from the west, has caught the expanded sail,

And, lo! with gentle motion, between banks

Of mossy slope, and on a placid stream,

Beneath a woven grove it sails, and, hark!

The ghastly torrent mingles its far roar,

With the breeze murmuring in the musical woods.

Where the embowering trees recede, and leave

A little space of green expanse, the cove

Is closed by meeting banks, whose yellow flowers

For ever gaze on their own drooping eyes,

Reflected in the crystal calm. The wave

Of the boat's motion marred their pensive task,

Which nought but vagrant bird, or wanton wind,

Or falling spear-grass, or their own decay

Had e'er disturbed before. The Poet longed

To deck with their bright hues his withered hair,

But on his heart its solitude returned,

And he forbore. Not the strong impulse hid

In those flushed cheeks, bent eyes, and shadowy frame

Had yet performed its ministry: it hung

Upon his life, as lightning in a cloud

Gleams, hovering ere it vanish, ere the floods

Of night close over it.

                                             The noonday sun

Now shone upon the forest, one vast mass

Of mingling shade, whose brown magnificence

A narrow vale embosoms. There, huge caves

Scooped in the dark base of their aëry rocks

Mocking its moans, respond and roar for ever.

The meeting boughs and implicated leaves

Wove twilight o'er the Poet's path, as led

By love, or dream, or god, or mightier Death,

He sought in Nature's dearest haunt, some bank

Her cradle, and his sepulchre. More dark

And dark the shades accumulate. The oak,

Expanding its immense and knotty arms,

Embraces the light beech. The pyramids

Of the tall cedar overarching, frame

Most solemn domes within, and far below,

Like clouds suspended in an emerald sky,

The ash and the acacia floating hang

Tremulous and pale. Like restless serpents, clothed

In rainbow and in fire, the parasites,

Starred with ten thousand blossoms, flow around

The grey trunks, and, as gamesome infants' eyes,

With gentle meanings, and most innocent wiles,

Fold their beams round the hearts of those that love,

These twine their tendrils with the wedded boughs

Uniting their close union; the woven leaves

Make net-work of the dark blue light of day,

And the night's noontide clearness, mutable

As shapes in the weird clouds. Soft mossy lawns

Beneath these canopies extend their swells,

Fragrant with perfumed herbs, and eyed with blooms

Minute yet beautiful. One darkest glen

Sends from its woods of musk-rose, twined with jasmine,

A soul-dissolving odour, to invite

To some more lovely mystery. Through the dell,

Silence and Twilight here, twin-sisters, keep

Their noonday watch, and sail among the shades,

Like vaporous shapes half seen; beyond, a well,

Dark, gleaming, and of most translucent wave,

Images all the woven boughs above,

And each depending leaf, and every speck

Of azure sky, darting between their chasms;

Nor aught else in the liquid mirror laves

Its portraiture, but some inconstant star

Between one foliaged lattice twinkling fair,

Or painted bird, sleeping beneath the moon,

Or gorgeous insect floating motionless,

Unconscious of the day, ere yet his wings

Have spread their glories to the gaze of noon.

         Hither the Poet came. His eyes beheld

Their own wan light through the reflected lines

Of his thin hair, distinct in the dark depth

Of that still fountain; as the human heart,

Gazing in dreams over the gloomy grave,

Sees its own treacherous likeness there. He heard

The motion of the leaves, the grass that sprung

Startled and glanced and trembled even to feel

An unaccustomed presence, and the sound

Of the sweet brook that from the secret springs

Of that dark fountain rose. A Spirit seemed

To stand beside him—clothed in no bright robes

Of shadowy silver or enshrining light,

Borrowed from aught the visible world affords

Of grace, or majesty, or mystery;—

But, undulating woods, and silent well,

And leaping rivulet, and evening gloom

Now deepening the dark shades, for speech assuming,

Held commune with him, as if he and it

Were all that was,—only... when his regard

Was raised by intense pensiveness,... two eyes,

Two starry eyes, hung in the gloom of thought,

And seemed with their serene and azure smiles

To beckon him.

                                             Obedient to the light

That shone within his soul, he went, pursuing

The windings of the dell.—The rivulet

Wanton and wild, through many a green ravine

Beneath the forest flowed. Sometimes it fell

Among the moss, with hollow harmony

Dark and profound. Now on the polished stones

It danced; like childhood laughing as it went:

Then, through the plain in tranquil wanderings crept,

Reflecting every herb and drooping bud

That overhung its quietness.—"O stream!

Whose source is inaccessibly profound,

Whither do thy mysterious waters tend?

Thou imagest my life. Thy darksome stillness,

Thy dazzling waves, thy loud and hollow gulfs,

Thy searchless fountain, and invisible course

Have each their type in me: and the wide sky,

And measureless ocean may declare as soon

What oozy cavern or what wandering cloud

Contains thy waters, as the universe

Tell where these living thoughts reside, when stretched

Upon thy flowers my bloodless limbs shall waste

I' the passing wind!"

                                             Beside the grassy shore

Of the small stream he went; he did impress

On the green moss his tremulous step, that caught

Strong shuddering from his burning limbs. As one

Roused by some joyous madness from the couch

Of fever, he did move; yet, not like him,

Forgetful of the grave, where, when the flame

Of his frail exultation shall be spent,

He must descend. With rapid steps he went

Beneath the shade of trees, beside the flow

Of the wild babbling rivulet; and now

The forest's solemn canopies were changed

For the uniform and lightsome evening sky.

Grey rocks did peep from the spare moss, and stemmed

The struggling brook: tall spires of windlestrae

Threw their thin shadows down the rugged slope,

And nought but gnarlèd roots of ancient pines

Branchless and blasted, clenched with grasping roots

The unwilling soil. A gradual change was here,

Yet ghastly. For, as fast years flow away,

The smooth brow gathers, and the hair grows thin

And white, and where irradiate dewy eyes

Had shone, gleam stony orbs:—so from his steps

Bright flowers departed, and the beautiful shade

Of the green groves, with all their odorous winds

And musical motions. Calm, he still pursued

The stream, that with a larger volume now

Rolled through the labyrinthine dell; and there

Fretted a path through its descending curves

With its wintry speed. On every side now rose

Rocks, which, in unimaginable forms,

Lifted their black and barren pinnacles

In the light of evening, and its precipice

Obscuring the ravine, disclosed above,

Mid toppling stones, black gulfs and yawning caves,

Whose windings gave ten thousand various tongues

To the loud stream. Lo! where the pass expands

Its stony jaws, the abrupt mountain breaks,

And seems, with its accumulated crags,

To overhang the world: for wide expand

Beneath the wan stars and descending moon

Islanded seas, blue mountains, mighty streams,

Dim tracts and vast, robed in the lustrous gloom

Of leaden-coloured even, and fiery hills

Mingling their flames with twilight, on the verge

Of the remote horizon. The near scene,

In naked and severe simplicity,

Made contrast with the universe. A pine,

Rock-rooted, stretched athwart the vacancy

Its swinging boughs, to each inconstant blast

Yielding one only response, at each pause,

In most familiar cadence, with the howl

The thunder and the hiss of homeless streams

Mingling its solemn song, whilst the broad river,

Foaming and hurrying o'er its rugged path,

Fell into that immeasurable void,

Scattering its waters to the passing winds.

         Yet the grey precipice and solemn pine

And torrent, were not all;—one silent nook

Was there. Even on the edge of that vast mountain,

Upheld by knotty roots and fallen rocks,

It overlooked in its serenity

The dark earth, and the bending vault of stars.

It was a tranquil spot, that seemed to smile

Even in the lap of horror. Ivy clasped

The fissured stones with its entwining arms,

And did embower with leaves for ever green,

And berries dark, the smooth and even space

Of its inviolated floor, and here

The children of the autumnal whirlwind bore,

In wanton sport, those bright leaves, whose decay,

Red, yellow, or ethereally pale,

Rivals the pride of summer. 'Tis the haunt

Of every gentle wind, whose breath can teach

The wilds to love tranquillity. One step,

One human step alone, has ever broken

The stillness of its solitude:—one voice

Alone inspired its echoes;—even that voice

Which hither came, floating among the winds,

And led the loveliest among human forms

To make their wild haunts the depository

Of all the grace and beauty that endued

Its motions, render up its majesty,

Scatter its music on the unfeeling storm,

And to the damp leaves and blue cavern mould,

Nurses of rainbow flowers and branching moss,

Commit the colours of that varying cheek,

That snowy breast, those dark and drooping eyes.

         The dim and hornèd moon hung low, and poured

A sea of lustre on the horizon's verge

That overflowed its mountains. Yellow mist

Filled the unbounded atmosphere, and drank

Wan moonlight even to fulness: not a star

Shone, not a sound was heard; the very winds,

Danger's grim playmates, on that precipice

Slept, clasped in his embrace.—O, storm of death!

Whose sightless speed divides this sullen night:

And thou, colossal Skeleton, that, still

Guiding its irresistible career

In thy devastating omnipotence,

Art king of this frail world, from the red field

Of slaughter, from the reeking hospital,

The patriot's sacred couch, the snowy bed

Of innocence, the scaffold and the throne,

A mighty voice invokes thee. Ruin calls

His brother Death. A rare and regal prey

He hath prepared, prowling around the world;

Glutted with which thou mayst repose, and men

Go to their graves like flowers or creeping worms,

Nor ever more offer at thy dark shrine

The unheeded tribute of a broken heart.

         When on the threshold of the green recess

The wanderer's footsteps fell, he knew that death

Was on him. Yet a little, ere it fled,

Did he resign his high and holy soul

To images of the majestic past,

That paused within his passive being now,

Like winds that bear sweet music, when they breathe

Through some dim latticed chamber. He did place

His pale lean hand upon the rugged trunk

Of the old pine. Upon an ivied stone

Reclined his languid head, his limbs did rest,

Diffused and motionless, on the smooth brink

Of that obscurest chasm;—and thus he lay,

Surrendering to their final impulses

The hovering powers of life. Hope and despair,

The torturers, slept; no mortal pain or fear

Marred his repose, the influxes of sense,

And his own being unalloyed by pain,

Yet feebler and more feeble, calmly fed

The stream of thought, till he lay breathing there

At peace, and faintly smiling:—his last sight

Was the great moon, which o'er the western line

Of the wide world her mighty horn suspended,

With whose dun beams inwoven darkness seemed

To mingle. Now upon the jaggèd hills

It rests, and still as the divided frame

Of the vast meteor sunk, the Poet's blood,

That ever beat in mystic sympathy

With nature's ebb and flow, grew feebler still:

And when two lessening points of light alone

Gleamed through the darkness, the alternate gasp

Of his faint respiration scarce did stir

The stagnate night:—till the minutest ray

Was quenched, the pulse yet lingered in his heart.

It paused—it fluttered. But when heaven remained

Utterly black, the murky shades involved

An image, silent, cold, and motionless,

As their own voiceless earth and vacant air.

Even as a vapour fed with golden beams

That ministered on sunlight, ere the west

Eclipses it, was now that wondrous frame—

No sense, no motion, no divinity—

A fragile lute, on whose harmonious strings

The breath of heaven did wander—a bright stream

Once fed with many-voicèd waves—a dream

Of youth, which night and time have quenched for ever,

Still, dark, and dry, and unremembered now.

         O, for Medea's wondrous alchemy,

Which wheresoe'er it fell made the earth gleam

With bright flowers, and the wintry boughs exhale

From vernal blooms fresh fragrance! O, that God,

Profuse of poisons, would concede the chalice

Which but one living man has drained, who now,

Vessel of deathless wrath, a slave that feels

No proud exemption in the blighting curse

He bears, over the world wanders for ever,

Lone as incarnate death! O, that the dream

Of dark magician in his visioned cave,

Raking the cinders of a crucible

For life and power, even when his feeble hand

Shakes in its last decay, were the true law

Of this so lovely world! But thou art fled

Like some frail exhalation; which the dawn

Robes in its golden beams,—ah! thou hast fled!

The brave, the gentle, and the beautiful,

The child of grace and genius. Heartless things

Are done and said i' the world, and many worms

And beasts and men live on, and mighty Earth

From sea and mountain, city and wilderness,

In vesper low or joyous orison,

Lifts still its solemn voice:—but thou art fled—

Thou canst no longer know or love the shapes

Of this phantasmal scene, who have to thee

Been purest ministers, who are, alas!

Now thou art not. Upon those pallid lips

So sweet even in their silence, on those eyes

That image sleep in death, upon that form

Yet safe from the worm's outrage, let no tear

Be shed—not even in thought. Nor, when those hues

Are gone, and those divinest lineaments,

Worn by the senseless wind, shall live alone

In the frail pauses of this simple strain,

Let not high verse, mourning the memory

Of that which is no more, or painting's woe

Or sculpture, speak in feeble imagery

Their own cold powers. Art and eloquence,

And all the shows o' the world are frail and vain

To weep a loss that turns their lights to shade.

It is a woe too "deep for tears," when all

Is reft at once, when some surpassing Spirit,

Whose light adorned the world around it, leaves

Those who remain behind, not sobs or groans,

The passionate tumult of a clinging hope;

But pale despair and cold tranquillity,

Nature's vast frame, the web of human things,

Birth and the grave, that are not as they were.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude.” 1816. Poetry Foundation.


The poem begins with a lengthy meditation by an unnamed narrator who hymns the supernal beauties of nature and the splendid wonders of “this unfathomable world” (Line 19). Although the narrator admits to searching to touch the deepest mysteries of nature’s “inmost sanctuary” (Line 39), he acknowledges that nature has resisted such explorations, has stayed apart, “unveiled” (Line 39).

Then the narrator begins his tale of a young Poet, now dead, whose brief, solitary life was spent pursuing intimacy with nature’s most secret truths. Wild-eyed and passionate, the Poet leaves home early on and embarks on travels that take him to remote lands, exotic places where he yearns to have communion with nature. He sorts through magisterial visions of open mountains and contents himself with the tiniest elements of this interaction, feeding birds or watching their frantic choreography. He visits ruins of great civilizations, lingering amid the stony piles and shattered memorials, hoping to find in such wreckage access to nature that mocked humanity’s efforts to create something permanent. Along the way, he becomes involved with a stunning Arab woman who worships him. Her attentions, however sensual and enticing, do not excite him, much less deter him from his intended pursuit of nature’s truths.

The Poet’s journey takes him to Kashmir in central Asia (contemporary India). There, he falls into a deep sleep and dreams of a woman of surpassing beauty with radiant hair and glowing limbs, a vision that seems to speak all wisdom in sweet and soothing music. Too soon, however, the vision vanishes, and the Poet is left alone, yearning. He resolves to find her, a woman whom he calls “the spirit of sweet human love” (Line 203). He is frantic, his mind and heart a tempest. He wanders for days, driven by his keen desire. The spectral form haunts him. The world around him no longer interests him, nor do the people he meets along his way who attempt to provide food and shelter to the wanderer with the wide and “crazy” eyes. Arriving along the shores of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Poet eyes a lone swan and laments that, despite the Poet having a song sweeter than the swan’s, the swan has found a home and the security and comfort of a mate. He by contrast is alone and desolate, driven by an urgency he cannot entirely define. For the first time, the Poet considers that perhaps the only way to return to the transcendent vision from his dream may be through the portal of death, not sleep.

Goaded by his restless spirit, the poet impulsively embarks out on the sea in a small shallop he finds along the water’s edge. The tiny boat struggles amid the sea’s whirlwind current as a storm begins, the waves arching menacingly high. The poet holds the helm steady as day falls into night and the waves continue to thunder and convulse. At midnight the storm abates and the moon arises. By that light, the Poet, weary from the sea crossing and now thinking of death as a release, navigates his tiny boat into a cave.

As the boat, seemingly on its own, moves deeper into the cave, the whirlwind waters calm until the Poet finds a quiet harbor to moor the boat, a kind of cove along a lush dell with green banks lined with gorgeous yellow flowers under a now stunning azure sky. He is momentarily intoxicated by the beauty and longs to thread the flowers in his scraggly locks of hair. At that moment, the Poet feels a spirit near. The presence, seemingly standing beside him, beckons him to commune with the natural world all about him, surrender to its energy, and follow the leaping stream at his feet. The Poet hesitates, uncertain where the stream, the “searchless fountain” (Line 507), might lead him. He begins to follow the winding course. As he walks, days fall into days, and the Poet starts to feel the onset of age. Still, he pursues the stream even as the world around him begins to collapse severely into ruin. He arrives at last at a singularly serene and quiet spot. Beneath a low hanging moon in a starless night sky, the Poet understands that death is upon him. Thus, leaning against an old pine, he surrenders the “hovering powers of life” (Line 639). The Poet is gone, his dream “still, dark, and dry, and unremembered now” (Line 671).

The narrator returns to caution that the Poet died wanting, died apart and alone, as much gifted as cursed, yearning for some transcendent truth that in the end eluded him. Whatever stunning visions the Poet found in his inward journey are now lost, as dead and forgotten as he is, those illuminations rendered dark, turned to forbidding and absolute “shade” (Line 712). The Poet’s death then leaves behind not joy or even sorrow but rather a profound despair over how little consequence in the end the Poet’s yearning means within nature’s “vast frame” (Line 719).