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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Number 306: Percy Bysshe Shelley "The Indian Serenade"

The Indian Serenade

I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sweet sleep of night,
When the winds are breathing low,
And the stars are shining bright:
I arise from dreams of thee,
And a spirit in my feet
Hath led me—who knows how?
To thy chamber window, Sweet!

The wandering airs they faint
On the dark, the silent stream—
The Champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The Nightingale's complaint,
It dies upon her heart;—
As I must on thine,
Oh, belov├Ęd as thou art!

Oh lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;—
Oh! press it to thine own again,
Where it will break at last.

-- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Hap Notes: Of course this is a poem of a spellbound captive of love and sex. Some speculate that the narrator is a woman, some argue that it is a man. There are no particularly direct hints here– people fainted all the time in Shelley's era, both man and woman, must've been all the mercury in the water or something. The singing Nightingale is male, obviously. I tend to favor that the narrator of the poem is a male.

The Champack is a fragrant small tree of India and a relative of the Magnolia. The Champack is often called the white jade orchid or the "Joy" tree because the world famous perfume Joy is made from the flowers. It is said that Joy smells exactly like Champack the way that Chanel #5 is reputed to smell exactly like it's botanical source, Ylang-Ylang. Joy used to be called the most expensive perfume in the world and Chanel #5 is the best selling perfume of all time.

In point of fact there is no creature within a few feet of the Champack that does not get inebriated with the scent. Insects of all kinds career drunkenly around its flowers, banging into each other and falling to the ground. Humans are known to swoon around its intoxicating scent.

My take on this poem is that the narrator could be an Indian Mayfly– besotted with the fragrance of the tree, it searches wildly and passionately for a mate before it dies. And Shelley liked insects, you know. He once said in a letter to a friend, "I think that the leaf of a tree, the meanest insect on which we trample, are in themselves arguments more conclusive than any which can be adduced that some vast intellect animates Infinity."

And you know, Shelley mentions 22 different kinds of insects in his works. The worm and the bee get the most references. Okay, it's not likely that this poem is actually about insects but, still, it could happen.

Those familiar with the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe will immediately recognize the sexuality in the flower of the Champack, as did Shelley, I am sure.

The masthead is a picture of the Champack. And here's a quote of Shelley's from his prose work, In Defense of Poetry, that is worth considering, "“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.”

Here is where we have talked about Shelley before:

and here:

and here:

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