A person's consciousness, conscience, and ability to think abstractly can be steered in wasteful directions easily, distracting a person from other thoughts and productive actions. The line expresses the power, in some cases the poison, of thought, particularly the kind of "wandering" thought that might lead anywhere--or nowhere.
“It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow, / The path of departure still is free: / Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but mutability.”
Nothing is constant but change. “It” refers to the way a thought or feeling, or just about any mental state, can enter us or abandon us in a moment. Whether we are feeling joy, laughter, pain, or sorrow, the point is the same: emotions pass. Likewise, one day may never be like the rest. The only thing that “endures” is “mutability.”
“Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.”
The subject of this sentence is “thy light alone,” referring somewhat paradoxically to the revelations of intellectual beauty produced by "doubt, chance, and mutability." The inspiration of intellectual thought, using the true light of the world rather than religious superstition, applies reason to bring understanding and glory to an otherwise mundane experience. Joy and purpose in life come from a natural spirit motivated by the active desire to know, which is "life's unquiet dream."
“Its calm – to one who worships thee, / And every form containing thee, / Whom, spirit fair, thy spells did bind / To fear himself, and love all humankind.”
Intellectual beauty is a godlike presence because it encompasses everything we have given meaning to, every form (suggesting the primacy of Plato's "forms" as ultimate ideas). To worship the intellect is to be devoted to a kind of truth that is fearsome to approach and yet, being so purely real, is a kind of love. This pursuit perhaps exceeds the youthful dedication to the merely external reality of the natural world. While others seek calm and comfort from God, Shelley finds the prospect of calm or rest in the goal of intellectual knowledge.
“The everlasting universe of things / Flows through the mind, ...”
This opening clause is crucial to keep in mind throughout the poem. Shelley would later disclose in a letter to Thomas Love Peacock how Mont Blanc awoke him to the sheer, sublime power of nature: “It was composed under the immediate impression of the deep and powerful feelings excited by the objects which it attempts to describe; and, as an indisciplined [sic] overflowing of the soul, rests its claims to approbation on an attempt to imitate then untamable wildness and inaccessible solemnity from which those feelings sprang.” Shelley fences with the power of nature’s ability to create Mont Blanc, pitting against nature the power of his own intellect to perceive Mont Blanc's sublimity and then to articulate its majestic beauty in his own words.
“Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe – not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.”
Shelley (let us use his name as the poetic persona) is humbled in comparison to the colossal mountain, and so is mankind with its follies of government and religion, the various "codes of fraud and woe." The truly great voice of nature, expressed by the magnitude of the mountain, puts to shame and silences mankind's relatively puny attempts to create order. Shelley observes the volume its “great voice” achieves without even having to speak and wonders how he can come close to capturing such wonderment. Many do not understand that nature puts the lie to these human things, but wise and good people perceive it. Some even attempt to "make felt" this reality, as difficult as it is to do so.
“The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:”
The “hand” refers to the sculptor’s hand, an artistic attempt to both imitate and “mock” the King’s “sculptured” passions for his people. The “heart” refers to the King’s heart, which “fed” the King's passions and, in turn, the artist's idea of those passions.
“Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Both the King and his power are mortal, passing away. Nothing lasts forever, especially political power. The once huge Kingdom is now no more than the fallen, shattered pieces of a statue. The earth’s natural “boundless and bare” sands have reclaimed the terrain. The sands also are "level"--not a single brick lies upon another.
"Rise like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number, / Shake your chains to Earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you -- / Ye are many; they are few.
Wake from the prisons of the governed establishment, goes this call to arms, and unite to fight back! Unified, the strong voice of the oppressed will out-roar the tyrannical minorities of the church, court, and government. With this strength, the oppressive "chains" will easily fall like shaking water off of oneself. The morning "dew" figuratively is on the awakened lions, the masses who finally will have their day.
"The old laws of England -- they / Whose reverend heads with age are grey, / Children of a wiser day; / And whose solemn voice must be / Thine own echo -- Liberty!"
The violent oppressors must be vanquished, but not by massacres and anarchy. Unlike the excesses of the French Revolution, the new revolutionaries should not engage in widespread death and destruction, as though they were starting from scratch. Instead, England has a tradition of liberty, with wisdom in its old laws, which persist and generally ought to keep persisting even after the oppressors are vanquished. The wise laws of old will preserve the nation, but not if the anarchists simply destroy everything they find. Instead, the revolutionaries must revere and "echo" England's nearly lost tradition of liberty.
“Those ungrateful drones who would / Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?”
The “drones” are the upper classes of England. Shelley compares the society to a bee colony, where the real “men of England” do all the work while the minority upper class “reaps” all the benefits. The drones are the impotent mean who do not, and probably cannot, do the productive work that the lower classes do. The poet addresses the working classes, telling them that they are keeping the upper classes fed, clothed, and alive for their whole lives, but they are blood-sucking insects who think nothing of draining the very vitality of the working classes.
“And weave your winding-sheet, till fair / England be your Sepulchre!”
A winding-sheet is what is wrapped around a corpse. The workers of England are digging their own graves and sewing their own burial shrouds, which is a sadly appropriate end to lives that have been lived for the benefit of the upper classes but never for themselves. The message is: Unless a change is made and you begin to stand up for yourselves, your beloved nation will be nothing for you but a grave. Note also the play on "fair," which usually means "beautiful," but here ironically sums up the poem's identification of the deep unfairness of the economic and social system.
“mud from a muddy spring; / Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / But leech-like to their fainting country cling,”
The opening line of the poem refers to King George III, who had become completely senile by this stage in life (probably a form of Alzheimer's, then unknown). The “mud” refers to his son, and the poet is presuming that the apple will not fall from the tree. Recall also the amount of intermarriage among royal families and the resulting higher incidence of genetic disorders; the gene pool among them also is muddied. The rulers are not very enlightened, and they stay devoted to their country like blood-sucking parasites that feed off of their hosts to survive.
“Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay; / Religion Christless, Godless—”
“Golden” refers to the purchasing of laws by those who stand to benefit, not for the betterment of society. “Sanguine” refers to the ideas that the laws are defended with blood, and that they suck the lifeblood of the people. The laws are double-edged; they might seem good, but they lead to ruin. A similar contradiction is present in the rulers' religion: they are Christless, Godless Christians, expressing religious faith while actually subverting their religion's principles.
“I arise from dreams of thee / And a spirit in my feet / Hath led me ...”
The speaker was dreaming of his or her lover and then arose, but then the speaker suggests a loss of agency: somehow a spirit in the speaker's feet took control. The speaker's love is not intellectual but visceral; the speaker's body has taken control.
“The nightingale’s complaint, / It dies upon her heart;-- / As I must on thine,”
Keats wrote his "Ode to a Nightingale" in the same year. It is difficult to say whether Shelley is referring to Keats' poem (either in draft or completion), but the figure of a nightingale for the Romantics represented a kind of poetic muse, even representing the poet, and its song has an air of lament. A complaint is a traditional poetic form, often complaining of the difficulty of life or love. That the complaint dies on the bird's heart suggests that the bird has lost its voice, a metaphor for the poet being overwhelmed by emotion. There is also a traditional pun of death meaning sexual climax, which fits with the following line, suggesting that the speaker desires to be in the lover's embrace.
“Teach us, Sprite or Bird, / What sweet thoughts are thine: / I have never heard / Praise of love or wine / That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.”
The skylark is special and has a wonderful song, making it seem like a supernatural being or "sprite." Because of its ability to fly so high, where its song can be heard and not seen, it has become a poetic emblem of spirit (“sprite”) and joy. Here, the persona wonders what ideas could be behind such a godlike birdsong. Human poetry ("praise of love") seems to fall short.
“We look before and after, / And pine for what is not: / Our sincerest laughter / With some pain is frought;”
The skylark lives in the joy of the present, while humans are hindered in the purity of their thought by either looking backward or forward (in space or time), focusing on what we do not have instead of what we have. Similarly, we lose the purity of happiness by recognizing, as we inevitably do, that it is not complete and lasting; we acknowledge even when we are our highest spirits that we are aware of some degree of suffering.
“Thy extreme hope, the loveliest and the last, / The bloom, whose petals nipped before they blew / Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste; / The broken lily lies—the storm is overpast.”
The poem is an elegy to John Keats, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 26. Shelley in his own voice argues that Keats was central to the future of English poetry and Romantic philosophy, but died far too young. He expresses great sorrow in Keats being “nipped” in the bud, a flower cut down before its natural blooming (before he “blew”/bloomed). The storm involving his death has passed by, leaving Shelley behind.
“So long as fire outlives the parent spark, / Rose, robed in dazzling immortality. / ‘Thou art become as one of us,’ they cry,”
Although many poets might have been lost to the popular mind, their influence is still felt today, at least for a while yet, like a fire that persists after the spark has gone (that is, later poets or even the popular language will carry forth the fire sparked by earlier poets). The dead poets, in the afterlife, rise to greet the deceased Keats. He is now one of them, living after death. Shelley is also suggesting that Keats is like the resurrected Jesus, who in the Christian tradition lives after death and who "became as one of us" in the sense that Jesus is a divine being who lived as a man. The more direct reference is to Genesis, where Adam becomes "like one of us" by learning the knowledge of good and evil after eating the apple, and thus deserving death even as he became in some way more like God. Even in the afterlife, Keats is revered as godlike. This is high praise indeed from Shelley, who apparently was not a Christian but quite willing to use biblical allusions.
“Grief too sad for song;”
Shelley is using the common poet's claim that his subject exceeds anyone's ability to express it. Here, the poet expresses sadness too great to write about, yet (as is usual when using this trope) he is writing about it anyway.
“Wail, for the world’s wrong!”
Nature is wailing, crying out that something is deeply wrong in the world. In the Christian tradition, the "world" is th human world, and the suggestion here is that human society has gone wrong, abandoning its natural moorings, having become separated from nature's reality. On a more basic level, the poet is expressing the common feeling, when one is sad, that the problem is not internal but external, that the world is the problem rather than oneself.
Percy Shelley: Poems Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Percy Shelley: Poems is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.