Shelley Sunday: ‘To Mary —‘ (‘Revolt of Islam’ Dedication)


(From Dedication of Revolt of Islam)
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

So now my summer-task is ended, Mary,
And I return to thee, mine own heart's home;
As to his Queen some victor Knight of Faery,
Earning bright spoils for her enchanted dome;
Nor thou disdain, that ere my fame become                            _5
A star among the stars of mortal night,
If it indeed may cleave its natal gloom,
Its doubtful promise thus I would unite
With thy beloved name, thou Child of love and light.

The toil which stole from thee so many an hour,                      _10
Is ended,--and the fruit is at thy feet!
No longer where the woods to frame a bower
With interlaced branches mix and meet,
Or where with sound like many voices sweet,
Waterfalls leap among wild islands green,                            _15
Which framed for my lone boat a lone retreat
Of moss-grown trees and weeds, shall I be seen;
But beside thee, where still my heart has ever been.

Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass.                _20
I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep. A fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why; until there rose
From the near schoolroom, voices that, alas!                         _25
Were but one echo from a world of woes--
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.

And then I clasped my hands and looked around--
--But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground--                  _30
So without shame I spake:--'I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannise
Without reproach or check.' I then controlled                        _35
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.

And from that hour did I with earnest thought
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore;
Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn, but from that secret store                         _40
Wrought linked armour for my soul, before
It might walk forth to war among mankind;
Thus power and hope were strengthened more and more
Within me, till there came upon my mind
A sense of loneliness, a thirst with which I pined.                  _45

Alas, that love should be a blight and snare
To those who seek all sympathies in one!--
Such once I sought in vain; then black despair,
The shadow of a starless night, was thrown
Over the world in which I moved alone:--                             _50
Yet never found I one not false to me,
Hard hearts, and cold, like weights of icy stone
Which crushed and withered mine, that could not be
Aught but a lifeless clod, until revived by thee.

Thou Friend, whose presence on my wintry heart                       _55
Fell, like bright Spring upon some herbless plain;
How beautiful and calm and free thou wert
In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain
Of Custom thou didst burst and rend in twain,
And walked as free as light the clouds among,                        _60
Which many an envious slave then breathed in vain
From his dim dungeon, and my spirit sprung
To meet thee from the woes which had begirt it long!

No more alone through the world's wilderness,
Although I trod the paths of high intent,                            _65
I journeyed now: no more companionless,
Where solitude is like despair, I went.--
There is the wisdom of a stern content
When Poverty can blight the just and good,
When Infamy dares mock the innocent,                                 _70
And cherished friends turn with the multitude
To trample: this was ours, and we unshaken stood!

Now has descended a serener hour,
And with inconstant fortune, friends return;
Though suffering leaves the knowledge and the power                  _75
Which says:--Let scorn be not repaid with scorn.
And from thy side two gentle babes are born
To fill our home with smiles, and thus are we
Most fortunate beneath life's beaming morn;
And these delights, and thou, have been to me                        _80
The parents of the Song I consecrate to thee.

Is it that now my inexperienced fingers
But strike the prelude of a loftier strain?
Or, must the lyre on which my spirit lingers
Soon pause in silence, ne'er to sound again,                         _85
Though it might shake the Anarch Custom's reign,
And charm the minds of men to Truth's own sway
Holier than was Amphion's? I would fain
Reply in hope--but I am worn away,
And Death and Love are yet contending for their prey.                _90

And what art thou? I know, but dare not speak:
Time may interpret to his silent years.
Yet in the paleness of thy thoughtful cheek,
And in the light thine ample forehead wears,
And in thy sweetest smiles, and in thy tears,                        _95
And in thy gentle speech, a prophecy
Is whispered, to subdue my fondest fears:
And through thine eyes, even in thy soul I see
A lamp of vestal fire burning internally.

They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth,                       _100
Of glorious parents thou aspiring Child.
I wonder not--for One then left this earth
Whose life was like a setting planet mild,
Which clothed thee in the radiance undefiled
Of its departing glory; still her fame                               _105
Shines on thee, through the tempests dark and wild
Which shake these latter days; and thou canst claim
The shelter, from thy Sire, of an immortal name.

One voice came forth from many a mighty spirit,
Which was the echo of three thousand years;                          _110
And the tumultuous world stood mute to hear it,
As some lone man who in a desert hears
The music of his home:--unwonted fears
Fell on the pale oppressors of our race,
And Faith, and Custom, and low-thoughted cares,                      _115
Like thunder-stricken dragons, for a space
Left the torn human heart, their food and dwelling-place.

Truth's deathless voice pauses among mankind!
If there must be no response to my cry--
If men must rise and stamp with fury blind                           _120
On his pure name who loves them,--thou and I,
Sweet friend! can look from our tranquillity
Like lamps into the world's tempestuous night,--
Two tranquil stars, while clouds are passing by
Which wrap them from the foundering seaman's sight,                  _125
That burn from year to year with unextinguished light.


2 thoughts on “Shelley Sunday: ‘To Mary —‘ (‘Revolt of Islam’ Dedication)

  1. To me that is about the darkness and loneliness of depression that Mary doesn’t free him from but becomes the shining light, that with a smile or a touch can heal a broken lost soul, but from his isolation he has a window to the beauty of a world that so many pass through but never see. She became the doorway, the escape route form his lonely existence.You can smile, laugh, dance and sing, people around never see the inner turmoil, the sadness so easily hidden within, but just sometimes comes one extraordinary person who throws light into the darkest corners, who takes the pain and doesn’t dismiss it, but holds it, embraces it, and loves it as a part of the whole. They can recognise that that pain is also caused by the beauty of the inner being. There is no way to thank someone who opens that door or shines the light, but they are easy to love without condition, without criticism because it’s a reflection of the love they give to you. It’s like a two way mirror you both see the reflection but it is externalised and seen by others around. why oh why do american spellchecks want to put Z where it should be S

    • I love reading your thoughts on this, Pete. I think you’ve really hit it here. That seemed to be how Shelley often viewed Mary, particularly before the deaths of Clara and William (two of their children who died very young, leaving Mary particularly grief stricken for years – their first baby together also died, a few years before this, at only a few weeks old). Shelley wrote this sad little poem in one of his notebooks a year or so after William’s death:

      My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
      And left me in this dreary world alone?
      Thy form is here indeed—a lovely one—
      But thou art fled, gone down a dreary road
      That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode.
      For thine own sake I cannot follow thee
      Do thou return for mine.

      — Shelley himself plummeted into depression after William’s death (he was two years old), but he seemed to be able to carry on before Mary could. I can’t even begin to imagine the grief over a child’s death, particularly as a mother.

      I also love stanza 12 where Shelley writes about Mary’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft – I think his words to Mary about her mother are especially moving (I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Mary Wollstonecraft, she was a great writer, great feminist, she died a few days after giving birth to Mary from childbirth complications).

      I also love this line:
      I would fain
      Reply in hope–but I am worn away,
      And Death and Love are yet contending for their prey.

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