Analysis and commentary on the poem, on death 



    On death


The pale, the cold, and the moony smile
Which the meteor beam of a starless night
Sheds on a lonely and sea-girt isle,
Ere the dawning of morn's undoubted light,
Is the flame of life so fickle and wan
That flits round our steps till their strength is gone.

O man! hold thee on in courage of soul
Through the stormy shades of thy wordly way,
And the billows of clouds that around thee roll
Shall sleep in the light of a wondrous day,
Where hell and heaven shall leave thee free
To the universe of destiny.

This world is the nurse of all we know,
This world is the mother of all we feel,
And the coming of death is a fearful blow
To a brain unencompass'd by nerves of steel:
When all that we know, or feel, or see,
Shall pass like an unreal mystery.

The secret things of the grave are there,
Where all but this frame must surely be,
Though the fine-wrought eye and the wondrous ear
No longer will live, to hear or to see
All that is great and all that is strange
In the boundless realm of unending change.

Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?
Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?
Who painteth the shadows that are beneath
The wide-winding caves of the peopled tomb?
Or uniteth the hopes of what shall be
With the fears and the love for that which we see?



By Percy Bysshe Shelley





1. Analysis and commentary on the poem


The poem that we are going to comment on is called On death written by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Its date of composition is uncertain, although it is included in Shelley’s early poems (1814, 1815). Furthermore, it was published with Alastor[1], which is considered one of his first major works, in 1816.


First of all, let us consider the metric and versification of the poem. It consists of five stanzas of six lines each one and its rhyme is A B A B C C. Therefore, we find a quatrain + a couplet. It presents an assonant and masculine rhyme (e.g. smile, isle; night, light).  Besides, according to its poetic feet, it shows the iambic tetrameter.

      A useful starting point for this study is to clarify who and to whom the poem is addressed. Personally, I think that the poet addresses his writing to the people who is living all the calamities and difficulties that war entails, since he wrote it in a period of conflicts and wars, as I will comment later on. Actually, we see that he, in the second stanza, refers to a human being, a person with these words:


“O man! Hold thee on in courage of soul

Through the stormy shades of thy wordly way”

Second stanza (Lines 7-8)


      Here, the use of the noun “man” does not refer just to males, but it is used without reference to sex. Besides, as we have seen, the author uses the personal pronoun “thee” (l. 7) and the possessive adjective archaic “thy” (l. 8) to refer to the second person singular; that is, to the human race or individual.


      As I have mentioned previously, the poet is expressing his feelings about something that worries everybody: the death, especially, in the period and the society in which he was living since when Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote this poem, several confrontations that caused thousands of deaths were taking place in his country, Great Britain[2]. As a result, he composed this poem, which is presenting that situation of despair. Consequently, we see that his most concern has to do with death, as the title of the poem shows: On Death. In spite the fact that we find a pessimistic tone, mainly in the first stanza, with the use of negative terms like “pale” (l. 1), “cold” (l. 1), “starless” (l. 2), “lonely” (l. 3), “wan” (l.5), we observe, later on, that he talks about death from a realistic point of view.

      To illustrate it, we notice that in the fourth stanza, the poet assumes that when we have died our body will disappear and we no longer will be able “to hear, or to see” (l.10) world’s continuous changes. Furthermore, in the last stanza, he starts a sequence of rhetorical questions about the mystery that lies beyond death.

      Another way of looking at this question would be to consider the use of imagery in this poem. Certainly, the author uses them as an instrument to express his feelings and as a way of reveal the meaning that is in the poem.

      This poem was written around 1815, when there were several conflicts and wars in Great Britain. Due to many factors, especially the wars and the new changes that the Industrial Revolution generated, many artists, including Shelley and the rest of Romantics, were influenced by the ideas and events of these new changes. There were general reproaches against aristocratic, social and political norms that were established at that time[3]. 

      In this poem, Shelley describes his unsatisfaction about life and is aware of how nature determines human activity, using imagery to intensify these feelings.

      The first lines suggest a feeling of sadness and impotence. It is expressed with adjectives like “pale”, “cold” and “moony” (l. 1), or with expressions such as “starless night” (l. 2), which paints a picture of darkness, danger and fear in front of the unknown. Besides, in the third line, the idea of a “lonely and sea-girt isle” emphasizes the feeling of solitude and helplessness in a dangerous world. My own view of this is that it represents the society of that time; that is the human being, alone, surrounded by “water”, i.e. by anything, with any comfort and any help, facing the difficulties and troubles that wars entail.

      It seems to me that the expression “a starless night” (l. 2) is full of connotations. On one hand, “starless” could be associated with emptiness, a lack of hopes and a loss of strength and vitality, as if all aspirations and desires in a human being had disappeared. On the other hand, a “starless night” could represent human soul, which is empty of hopes and dark because of the emptiness and the lack of “light” that someone needs to keep going in life. Actually, people at that time had to face really hard struggles and most of them, eventually, lost their courage, falling into a situation of resignation, fatalism, discouragement and darkness, or what is the same, metaphorically, into a “starless night” (l. 2).

      Similarly to the idea expressed above, there is one significant line in the first stanza that I would like to focus on:

“Is the flame of life so fickle and wan

That flits round our steps till their strength is gone”

First stanza (Lines 5-6)


Again, we perceive that idea of loss of “light”, of vitality and of “strength” that is needed to be able to face all the adversities that we find in life. Moreover, this line shows the pessimistic attitude of the poet in front of life, as he claims, from my point of view, that joyful moments in our lives are so infrequent that they go as quick as the fleetingness of a flame. Here, definitely, we appreciate a clear metaphor.


The use of imagery that the poet makes can be illustrated with more examples. In particular, the image of the “stormy shades” (l. 8) as well as the “billows of clouds” (l. 9) again points to the obstacles and misfortunes that human being has to confront in certain moments of his life.

What is more, the image of “hell and heaven” (l. 11) is also very relevant. On one hand, the “hell” could be associated with the world, the society of the time, where to live becomes a complicated and undesirable task. On the other hand, “heaven” would be the state of grace, calmness and peace, a place that everybody would like to visit and experience after dying, especially when someone is suffering, as the people that the poet refers to in his poetical text or the poet himself.


The third stanza presents a clear metaphor, in which the world is considered our “nurse” and our “mother”:

“This world is the nurse of all we know,

This world is the mother of all we feel”

Third stanza (Lines 13-14)


 In this sense, the poet suggests that we are protected by the world, as nurses and mothers take care of their children; that is, of us. However, there is not the slightest evidence to justify such a claim because if the world is supposed to look after us, why are there so many helpless or abandoned people?

Afterwards, in the same stanza, the poet introduces a meaningful image: “nerves of steel” (l. 16). “Steel” is usually associated with something tough, strong, resistant. Therefore, if we attribute this quality to our nerves, it means that we pluck up courage, that we are strong enough to face life’s difficulties, although there are really hard hits that cannot be faced and death is one of them. In consequence, the “steel of our nerves” is “melted” and all our strength goes. In other words, most of us are afraid of death and even if we have a strong attitude in front of adversities, we fall down with the arrival of death.

Similarly, the author employs, in the fourth stanza, another image that can be considered of interest to us. He refers to the eye with the adjectives “fine-wrought eye” (l. 21). “Fine” implies to have good eyesight and “wrought” is used to express firmness, emphasizing the situation of vigilance of human being just in case any danger, risk or peril crosses his path. In this sense, having an observant view you can act with a great foresight. But what the poet wants to show is that when we die, this “fine-wrought eye” disappears and we no longer are able to see neither what is happening in the world nor its constant changes.

Now, let us consider some other figurative devices that we find in this poem.  For instance, in the first line, we appreciate an accumulation and enumeration of adjectives to describe “the smile”: “pale”, “cold” and “moony”. I wonder if Shelley means to suggest that the smile of human beings showed their sadness and suffering because of their misfortune situation.

We also observe alliteration in lines 5 and 6 with the repetition of the consonants “f” and “s” in words such as ”flame”, “of”, “life”, “fickle”, “flits” and “is”, “so”, “flits”, “steps”, “strength”, “is”. All this repetition of consonants in nearby words goes to show Shelley’s lyrical ability, as it gives the poem a certain melody. In fact, Shelley was considered “among the finest lyric poets of the English language”[4].

What is more, we find assonance in the second stanza, particularly in lines 9 and 10: “billows”, “clouds”, “around”, roll” and “wondrous”. This repetition of vowel sounds in a short passage of a verse gives a musical quality of a song to the poem, as it happens with the alliteration exemplified above.


Another interesting figure is the use of synonymy along the poem. For instance, adjectives like “pale” (l. 1)  and “wan” (l. 5); nouns such as “grave” (l. 19) and “tomb” (l. 28) or other adjectives as “wondrous” (l. 10, 21) and “great” (l. 23).


We also appreciate an isocolon in the third stanza, which shows a clear parallelism in successive clauses: 

This world is the nurse of all we know,

This world is the mother of all we feel”

(Lines 13 and 14)

Moreover, the repetition of the same structure in the example above also presents an evident anaphora, as both sentences begin with the same words “This world is the…”.  Then, what Shelley attempts is to emphasize words. In addition, another isocolon is found in the fourth stanza: “All that is great and all that is strange” (l. 23).

 We also notice this figure in the last stanza, when the poet is asking himself a series of questions, repeating, at the beginning of three successive lines the same word: “who”, and the same structure (question form + verb + direct object + complements):

Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?

Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?

Who painteth the shadows that are beneath […]?”

Last stanza (L. 25, 26 and 27)


It is also significant the repetition of the preposition “of” along the poem. It appears in almost all lines of the poem: “flame of life” (l. 5), “courage of soul” (l. 7), “shades of thy wordy way”, “billows of clouds” (l. 9), “light of a wondrous day” (l.10), “universe of destiny” (l. 12), etc. Personally, I think it is used to express and emphasize the nature, condition or quality of something.

Another figure to consider is the antithesis that appears in the second stanza: “hell and heaven” (l. 11). They are opposite terms that are contrasted in order to create on the reader a feeling of contradiction or incompatibility. Besides, there is an expression in the same stanza that could also be considered an antithesis: “sleep in the light” (l. 10), as the author is contrasting two ideas: the idea of darkness that “sleep” denotes and the idea of light.

The expression “O man!” that appears in the second stanza (l.7), could be regarded as an apostrophe, since it is addressed to a person not present, i.e. to the human being in general. Or maybe, it also could be addressed to the poet himself, showing his state of suffering, as a kind of lament. 

Furthermore, we observe the presence of two polyptotons. Firstly, we find the noun “life” (l. 5) and the verb “live” (l. 22), and, secondly, we see that the poet uses the adjective “fearful” (l. 15) and the verb “fear” (l. 22). In both cases, we observe the repetition of words derived from the same root.

In the last stanza, we perceive a series of rhetorical questions that could be considered aporias, as they are unsolvable questions. That is, the poet introduces them in order to create a specific effect on the reader. He does not really want them to be answered. In fact, they incorporate the reader into the poem and make him to reflect on life after death.

 I would like to remark a fact that has attracted my attention. It is the continuous use of verbs of sense along the poem. To illustrate it, we find “feel” (l. 14, 17), “see” (l. 17, 22, 30) and “hear” (l. 22). It shows the sensitivity of the poet, who emphasizes his emotions and feelings using this type of verbs.


Another interesting point to talk about is the use of connotative words that give us negative and positive feelings. In this sense, we find words that give the poem a sense of darkness and it helps the author to express his interior feelings. They are terms such as “starless” (l. 2), “stormy shades” (l. 8), “sleep” (l. 10) –which could be related with the “eternal sleep” of a dead person-, “soul” (l. 7), “the billows of clouds” (l. 10), “shadows” (l. 27) and “caves” (l. 28). In fact, all these words reflect the author’s feelings towards life’s difficulties and adversities.

However, there are some words that contrast with this darkness: “beam” (l. 2), “dawning” (l. 4), “morn” (l. 4), “light” (l. 4 and 10), “flame” (l. 5) and “life” (l. 5). Then, we could ask, why does the author use all this terms related to light? It is probably because the poet wants to show us that we actually need to look at other’s faces to check that we are not alone, as it has been said in class. Light give us a sense of life; contrary to darkness. In other words, where there is light, there is life, whereas where darkness is present, death is nearby.

Another interesting point to comment on would be the whole expressions used in fourth stanza by the poet. When we read it, we notice the sadness and the deception of the author, as if the idea of leaving this world would disturb him since it would incapacitate him of being a witness of the world unlimited changes. In other words, it could be considered a kind of lament for the separation of man from the divine forces of nature. To illustrate it, we find, for example, in lines 21- 24:

“Though the fine-wrought eye and the wondrous ear

No longer will live, to hear or to see

All that is great and all that is strange

In the boundless realm of unending change.”

Fourth stanza


According to the symbolism used in this literary work, it is important to consider some terms that could be related with the main topic of the poem: the death. For instance, we could conceive words such as “brain” (l. 16) or “frame” (l. 20) as symbols of death since they are parts of our body that disappear when we die. In fact, it is said in an interesting web page that “human skulls and human skeletons are frequent symbol of death, found in many cultures and religious traditions”[5]. Other symbols of death could also be the synonyms “grave” (l. 19) and “tomb” (l. 28).



Personally, I feel that the poet is expressing his impotence in front of death. He talks about our most fearful destiny: the death and he does it from a realistic point of view.

It seems to me that the power of nature is so strong that the poet feels small and unable of avoiding that dreadful fact which is death. He talks about it as an inevitable reality. He feels alone in a “cloud” world where survive becomes a difficult task. But at the same time he encourages people who are in an obscure or complicated situation as he is. He wants these people to move over from the darkness in which they are and see the world from a positive perspective. This is reflected, especially, in the second stanza:


“O man! Hold thee on courage of soul

Through the stormy shades of thy lordly way,

And the billows of clouds that around thee roll

Shall sleep in the light of a wondrous day”

Second stanza (l. 7, 8, 9 & 10)


Furthermore, he agrees on letting the destiny to make our way but giving to human being the freedom that is deserved.

In the third stanza, he considers the world as our “nurse” (l. 13) and our “mother” (l.14). This means that everything we know and everything we feel is due to the knowledge and feelings that the world, i.e. our “mother”, has given to us.

In the same stanza, he mentions the main topic of the poem: the death. Certainly, he knows that it is, inevitably, our destiny, as he mentions in the previous stanza. However, he guesses that it is a terrible hit to anyone’s brain, even if it is made of “nerves of steel” (l. 16), which means that human being tries to harden himself in front of the idea of death. In other words, we try to refuse any thought about it, about losing everything: “all that we know, or feel, or see” (l. 17). In particular, the poet talks about life as if it was an illusory enigma. Moreover, he thinks about what will happen to us when we have died: we will disappear, our body, our eyes, our ears, but the world will continue changing. Assuming that, he regrets not being able to observe and be a witness of what will happen in the world after we die.

Finally, he makes himself a series of questions about death and the shadows of it. If I understand the poet rightly, he is reflecting upon the sense of life and the secret things that are hidden in the shadows of death. He is curious of destiny and makes some rhetorical questions in order to clarify his ideas of “what is to come” (l. 26). Although he is afraid of death, he wants to know everything about it. That is his greatest mystery.


After having analysed and commented on the poem, I can assert that it is a poem that was influenced by different factors of Shelley’s society, as it was written in a period of conflicts and wars: the American War of 1812 and the War of Napoleon I of France[6], which was persistent. Both occurred in the same year. Therefore, we can imagine that, at the end of them, Great Britain was completely devastated and the number of deaths would be desolating. It is important to bear in mind that it was the people and not their social superiors who actually fought in the wars.

Moreover, Shelley lived all new changes that the Industrial Revolution generated. In fact, almost every aspect of daily life and human society was eventually influenced in some way by this revolution. For instance, there were changes in agriculture, manufacturing and transportation due to the introduction of machineries, canals and railways. Besides, the urbanization and the movement of the population from the rural areas to the cities were also significant.

Although all this events and some other personal tragedies affected Shelley’s writings, he continuously showed his fortitude and originality. 

Percy Bysshe Shelley belongs to the Romantic Movement, which was originated around the middle of the 18th century in Western Europe. As it is defined in several sources, he is “one of the major English Romantic poet and considered among the finest lyric poet of the English language”[7].

After reading and studying about the poet and his writings, I have observed Shelley’s fascination with occult issues as death -which is the main theme in our poem-, or other “hidden” aspects related to science or philosophy, or spiritual reality. In fact, his first publication was a gothic novel: Zastrozzi (1810).

In 1815, he wrote Alastor or The Spirit of Solitude which is a verse allegory and one of his first major poem. Actually, the poem we have analysed, On death, was published with this work.

I have found an interesting quotation[8] in which the author claims that “his influences were mostly life experiences”. However, it is obvious that his continuous readings also influenced his writings. In this sense, some contemporary poets that influenced Shelley’s writings were, for example, Wordsworth’s poetry; Byron or Keats, whose death inspired Shelley to write Adonais (1821)[9].

      From his major work, The Revolt of Islam (1817), Shelley drew on the classic tradition.  

Another important fact in Shelley’s life, during this period, was his association with other Romantics, as it is explained more detailed in books such as English literature 1740-1830 and Romantics, rebels & reactionaries. English lit. and its background 1760-1830. There, it is said that Shelley joined Byron, Keats, Peacock, Hazlitt and Hunt, creating a defined literary group based on their revived classical ideas. 

They were the English liberal writers of the post-war period. In consequence, they were less optimistic than their pre-war precursors. Although On death belongs to his early poems, we already appreciate that man is much less considered as the centre of the poem, occupying his place Nature.


In conclusion, it seems to me that Shelley, in the whole poem, shows his apprehensions of death and his own fears of how it will contribute to his disappearance of the world, which will continue changing. Then, he recognises his secondary position in front of the powerful natural world. Actually, everybody has a feeling of fear and restlessness when talking about death and at the same time we regret not being able to see world future changes.

It cannot be denied that death is the greatest mystery in life, in the past and even nowadays. The term “shadows”, which appears in this poem, could be an image of that enigma, as death is something that we cannot imagine and make a clear idea of it, i.e. it has an abstract form in our mind that we would like to visualize but we know that it is impossible. Actually, that is what makes death such a mystery. The question “what after death?” is the most worrying question anyone can ask himself. Certainly, it is a questionable matter as it depends on people believes. It is important to bear in mind that Shelley was against Catholicism. Therefore, he understood death differently from catholic people.

What I am trying to assert is that On death is a poem that reflects about a issue which is and will be of interest forever as death is something that worries everyone.  In this sense, it does not matter if the poem was written in the 19th century, in a period of conflicts and wars, as it has the same value in the present and it will have the same meaning in the future. Indeed, it shows a part of life that always will concern human being: the mystery of death and nature continuous changes.









·  Percy Bysshe, Shelley. Complete Poetical Works. Ed. By Thomas Hutchinson. Updated by G. M. Matthews. New York: Oxford University Press. 1971. 523-24.


·  Benedict, Barbara M., et al. English Literature 1740-1830. Ed. By Thomas Keymer and Jon Mee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2004. 263-280.


·  Butler, Marilyn. Romantics, Rebels & Reactionaries. English literature and its background 1760-1830. New York: Oxford. 1981. 113-138.


·  Matthews, G. M. Writers and their Works. Shelley. Longman Group Ltd. Great Britain. 1970.

·  Battisini, Martina. Sνmbolos y alegorνas. Electa. Barcelona. 2003.
















[1] This poem is available on, (Access date, 18/1107).

[2] I will comment on this point later on, putting the poem in relation with the society and historical moment in which it was published.

[4] Idea directly taken from http: //   (Access date, 14/11/07)

[5] Idea taken from   (Access date, 23/11/07).

[6] All references to society and history are based on the ideas contributed by Benedict, Barbara M., et al. in English Literature 1740-1830; Butler, Marilyn, in Romantics, Rebels & Reactionaries. English literature and its background 1760-1830 and to  (Access date, 22/11/07).

[7]  This definition is directly extracted from

[8] This quotation is extracted directly from a web page in which it is explained Shelley’s poem The Revolt of Islam (1817). Actually, the quotation appears in the preface of this poem.

 Web page: (24/11/07).

[9] Information taken from (Access date, 12/11/07).