P.B. Shelley, "An Exhortation" (1820)


Chameleons feed on light and air:
   Poets’ food is love and fame:
If in this wide world of care
   Poets could but find the same
With as little toil as they,
   Would they ever change their hue
   As the light chameleons do,
Suiting it to every ray
      Twenty times a day?

Poets are on this cold earth,
   As chameleons might be,
Hidden from their early birth
   In a cave beneath the sea;
Where light is, chameleons change:
   Where love is not, poets do:
   Fame is love disguised: if few
Find either, never think it strange
      That poets range.

Yet dare not stain with wealth or power
   A poet’s free and heavenly mind:
If bright chameleons should devour
   Any food but beams and wind,
They would grow as earthly soon
   As their brother lizards are.
   Children of a sunnier star,
Spirits from beyond the moon,
      Oh, refuse the boon!








In "An Exhortation," Shelley addresses a question that preoccupied his age: what is a poet? In attempting to answer this question, Shelley uses as his primary metaphor the chameleon, the shape-shifting, colour-adjusting reptile. Readers of the Romantics might know that, funny enough, the chameleon was also central to Keats' understanding of the poet. According to Keats, the poet's distinguishing trait was their ability to write convincingly of any life situation, event, or mindset, an (adapt)ability that stemmed from their deep knowledge of human nature.

          The chameleon poet of Shelley's strange little poem is a bit different from Keats's, however. Playing with one of his favourite ancient texts, Plato's Symposium, Shelley claims that the poet shape-shifts their way through life in pursuit of their unattainable goals: love and fame. (Elsewhere in Tuesday Verse, we've explored how, in Shelley's writing, "love" is often depicted as a fraternal power, a bond with humankind at large). The poet will never achieve the love they pursue. However, this can be a good thing for Shelley, since the acquisition of this kind of love can bring "wealth and power"--the things that degrade all of us, but especially the poet. If the poet is destined to wander their way through life in pursuit of ideals that cannot be attained, this process also gives to poetry is most important qualities: creative freedom, integrity preserved from the world's corrupting influences, and truth.

This is our Tuesday Verse series. Commentary comes from Jonathan Kerr, who has recently completed his PhD in English at the University of Toronto with specialization in the Romantics. 

Caption: photo of a chameleon.