Percy Shelley, “Love’s Philosophy”


John Kerr’s Tuesday Verse

Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy

J.M.W. Turner, "The Bay of Baiae with Apollo and the Sibyl" (1823)

J.M.W. Turner, "The Bay of Baiae with Apollo and the Sibyl" (1823)

“The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean, 
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion; 
Nothing in the world is single; 
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle. 
Why not I with thine?— 

See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another; 
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother; 
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea: 
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”

A cheeky seduction poem, “Love’s Philosophy” (1819) gives us a speaker who attempts to use his wiles to capture the heart of a love interest: “look around at the world,” he says to his unnamed, hoped-for lover. “Everywhere, you see things coming together, unifying in matter and spirit. Isn’t it a crime against our nature not to do the same?” 

However, the poem doesn’t just showcase Shelley’s playful side (as well as his gift for lyricism). It demonstrates the immense influence that all things natural had on many writers of this time. Nature wasn’t embraced by Romantic writers merely because it looked pretty and allowed people to forget the grind of their daily lives; rather, the natural world was often seen as a system that contained important lessons for how human beings lived their lives. When Shelley looks at nature in this poem, he sees cooperation and reconciliation between living things (like flowers), objects (mountains and skies) and elemental forces (sunlight). Living naturally, the poem concludes, means seeing ourselves as a part of this system and applying its lessons to how we live with others. This is what Shelley means by “love’s philosophy.”

Jon Kerr is a recently graduated from the University of Toronto with his PhD in English literature with a specialization in the Romantics. He is currently at Mount Alison University in New Brunswick, Canada on a post doctoral fellowship.