Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude
Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, written from 10 September to 14 December in 1815 in Bishopsgate, London and first published in 1816. The poem was without a title when Shelley passed it along to his contemporary and friend, Thomas Love Peacock. The poem is 720 lines long. It is considered to be one of the first of Shelley's major poems.
Peacock suggested the name Alastor which comes from Roman mythology. Peacock has defined Alastor as "evil genius." The name does not refer to the hero or Poet of the poem, however, but instead to the spirit who divinely animates the Poet's imagination.
In Alastor the speaker ostensibly recounts the life of a Poet who zealously pursues the most obscure part of nature in search of "strange truths in undiscovered lands", journeying to the Caucasus Mountains ("the ethereal cliffs of Caucasus"), Persia, "Arabie", Cashmire, and "the wild Carmanian waste". The Poet rejects an "Arab maiden" in his search for an idealised embodiment of a woman. As the Poet wanders one night, he dreams of a "veiled maid". This veiled vision brings with her an intimation of the supernatural world that lies beyond nature. This dream vision serves as a mediator between the natural and supernatural domains by being both spirit and an element of human love. As the Poet attempts to unite with the spirit, night's blackness swallows the vision and severs his dreamy link to the supernatural.
Once touched by the maddening hand of the supernatural, the Poet restlessly searches for a reconciliation with his lost vision. Though his imagination craves a reunion with the infinite, it too is ultimately anchored to the perceptions of the natural world.
Ruminating on thoughts of death as the possible next step beyond dream to the supernatural world he tasted, the Poet notices a small boat ("little shallop") floating down a nearby river. Passively, he sits in the boat furiously being driven down the river by a smooth wave. Deeper and deeper into the very source of the natural world he rushes. Like the water's surface supports the boat, the supernatural world "cradles" the mutability both of nature and of man.
As his senses are literally dulled, his imagination helps him sense the spirit's supernatural presence. Instead of perceiving the vision through the senses, the Poet imaginatively observes her in the dying images of the passing objects of nature. The boat flows onward to an "immeasurable void" and the Poet finds himself ready to sink into the supernatural world and break through the threshold into death.
When the Poet reaches the "obscurest chasm," his last sight is of the moon. As that image fades from the Poet's mind, he has finally attained transcendence to the supernatural world. The journey to the very source of nature led, finally, to an immanence within nature's very structure and to a world free of decay and change.
The work was first published in London in 1816 (see 1816 in poetry) under the title Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems, printed for Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, Pater-Noster Row; and Carpenter and Son, Old Bond-Street: by S. Hamilton, Weybridge, Surrey, consisting of the title poem and the following additional poems:
- "O! There Are Spirits Of The Air"
- Stanzas.—April 1814
- "The Pale, The Cold, And The Moony Smile"
- A Summer-evening Church-yard
- To Wordsworth
- Feelings Of A Republican On The Fall Of Bonaparte
- Sonnet From The Italian Of Dante
- Translated From The Greek Of Moschus
- The Daemon Of The World
The epigraph to the poem is from St. Augustine's Confessions, III, i, written between 397 and 398 AD:
- Nondum amabam, et amare amabam, quaerebam quid amarem, amans amare.
The English translation of the Latin is: "I was not yet in love, and I loved to be in love, I sought what I might love, in love with loving."
Shelley also quotes from William Wordsworth's The Excursion (1814) the lines, "The good die first,/ And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust / Burn to the socket!" The line "It is a woe 'too deep for tears'" is a quote from Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality".
- "We rest. A dream has power to poison sleep;
- We rise. One wandering thought pollutes the day;
- We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
- Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:
- It is the same! For, be it joy or sorrow,
- The path of its departure still is free:
- Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
- Nought may endure but Mutablilty."
Reviews were initially negative when Alastor was published in 1816. John Gibson Lockhart of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine wrote the first major positive review in the November 1819 issue. Lockhart wrote that Shelley is "a man of genius... Mr. Shelley is a poet, almost in the very highest sense of that mysterious word."
Leigh Hunt praised Alastor in the December 1816 issue of The Examiner.
The poem was attacked by contemporary critics for its "obscurity". In a review in The Monthly Review for April 1816, the critic wrote: "We must candidly own that these poems are beyond our comprehension; and we did not obtain a clue to their sublime obscurity, till an address to Mr. Wordsworth explained in what school the author had formed his taste." In the Eclectic Review for October 1816, Josiah Condor wrote:
"We fear that not even this commentary [Shelley's Preface], will enable ordinary readers to decipher the import of the greater part of Mr. Shelley's allegory. All is wild and specious,intangible and incoherent as a dream. We should be utterly at a loss to convey any distinct idea of the plan or purpose of the poem."
In The British Critic for May 1816, the reviewer dismissed the work as "the madness of a poetic mind."
Mary Shelley, in her note on the work, wrote: "None of Shelley's poems is more characteristic than this." In the spring of 1815, Shelley had been erroneously diagnosed as suffering from consumption. Shelley suffered from spasms and there were abscesses in his lungs. He made a full recovery but the shock of imminent death is reflected in the work. Mary Shelley noted that the work "was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the recent anticipation of death."
In his biography of John Keats, Sidney Colvin wrote on the influence of Alastor on Keats' Endymion: "It is certain that Keats read and was impressed by Alastor."
Alastor influenced the poetry of William Butler Yeats, whose own work The Wanderings of Oisin was influenced by the Shelley poem.
Critics have spent a great deal of effort attempting to identify the Poet. The most convincing possibility is William Wordsworth, since the poem is framed with direct quotations from Wordsworth's poetry, and Shelley had a deeply ambivalent reaction to Wordsworth's poetry, as witnessed in his sonnet "To Wordsworth."
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- Audiobook recording of Alastor at Internet Archive
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