In 24 lines, Shelley takes on the poetic form of the extravagant Oriental love poem. The first-person persona has been dreaming of her (or his) beloved. She awakens and follows her feet to her beloved’s window. She feels like a nightingale with a song to sing. She feels herself faint in the grass, calling out for her beloved to pull her up into his embrace.
The first thing to address is the speaker’s voice. Is the speaker male or female? Arguments have been made on both sides. There is not a lot to go on; recall that Shelley was also something of a nonconformist when it came to sexual practices both in and out of marriage. The evidence seems to weigh on the side of the speaker being female. There is a comparison to a female nightingale (“it dies upon her heart”), although the nightingale is a general symbol for poets, who usually were male. Taking a traditional view of gender, moreover, note the tone of submissiveness and helplessness, even though this is the way a male lover would also feel about his beloved. The question is open, but let us call the speaker “she” for now.
This young Indian girl wakes from dreaming about her lover, finding a mysterious “spirit” in her feet, which causes her to wander to her lover’s window. She is overcome with love for her mate, comparing herself with the song of the saddened nightingale, and she collapses outside of his window, imploring him to come out and rescue her, to lift her up and hold her close to him, saving her from her lovesickness.
This love poem is a break from Shelley’s more contemporary themes of revolution, nature, and philosophy. Mimicking what was seen as an oriental style of love poems, Shelley enters the poetic world inspired by love and desire. Setting the aromatic scene with “Champrak [pine] odours” and the dreamy night with “winds that are breathing low” and “stars that are shining bright,” Shelley sets a mood much different from what we are used to in Shelley’s poetry.
Thus, should we expect that the whole poem is a metaphor? In “A Defense of Poetry,” Shelley describes a poet as a nightingale: “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” This description of the poet suggests that, as we are used to thinking, the first-person persona of the poem is a stand-in for Shelley himself. If Shelley is the lover, who is the beloved? For Shelley as poet, the beloved is usually nature or nature’s spirit or the spirit of reason. But we know almost nothing of the beloved. The beloved has a “chamber window” and has some ability to come out to save the speaker, lift him/her up, and kiss him/her, and the beloved seems to have its own “heart,” but otherwise the beloved is completely unknown. The lover, however, experiences the beloved in his/her imagination and dreams.
There is still a case to be made, at any rate, that this is not meant to be a thoughtful poem. It could be a bawdy poem disguised in romantic sentiments, especially considering the traditional pun of “dying” meaning sexual climax. Shelley was known for his ribald temperament, and the third stanza of this poem could be interpreted as a description of the fervor of lovemaking. Perhaps the “chamber window” and the “grass” refer to the female anatomy, and when the poet “arises” in the first stanza it is a reference to the male anatomy.