THE EXPERIENCE OF LOVE (shelley and siken poetry analysis)



Love in these two poems is shown to be a complex and layered abstract; both Siken and Shelley use imagery to explore the difficulties of love. They both use figurative and descriptive language to craft deeply expressive poems. Despite both being award winning poets, they each came from very different backgrounds, lifestyles and even sexualities. They are each speaking from the perspective of someone whose relationship has ended, and both tackle the experience of love differently, in terms of both style and feeling.

Love, as experienced by the speaker of ‘When the Lamp is Shattered’, is cruel and bitter. ‘Love! who bewailest the frailty of all things here, why choose you the frailest?’ This is a man who has felt love, been scorned and left ‘naked.’  He is questioning the very nature of love, calling out into oblivion to finally get some answers about why love picks on the weak, the ones who can’t handle it. This almost coincides with Siken’s interpretation: ‘the entire history of human desire takes about 70 minutes to tell. Unfortunately we don’t have that kind of time.’ He, too, has been scorned by love, and left unhappy. But while Shelley ends his poem a bitter husk of a poet, ‘naked’ in the depth of winter, Siken leaves us on a much happier note. Not only has his unhealthy relationship, ‘the dirtiest thing’, ended, but he has invited forgiveness to ‘quit milling around the house and come inside.’ He is ready to move on from circular thoughts; ready to forgive himself and his ex-lover.

Both poets speak about the power of words. Siken is ‘sorry about… how [he] ruined everything by saying it out loud’. The relationship depicted in this poem is assumed to be homosexual because Richard Siken is; his book ‘Crush’, from which this poem is taken, was awarded the Lambda Literary Award for “Gay Men’s Poetry” in 2005. He does not mention gender in the poem, but the narrator is clearly talking to someone who fills the role of the ‘fairy tale prince’. His illicit, presumably homosexual relationship has ended, and he forced his lover into a realisation he did not want, wasn’t ready for. He ‘ruined’ it, used the ‘same big and little words all spelling out desire’ to confront the issue of their hidden solicitations. Instead of fire he has used his words to, like the biblical ‘dragon’, burn everything down. Shelley’s words have faded. He has not destroyed anything with words; his words, their words, are ‘forgotten’ as ‘the lips have spoken’. His words do nothing but mark the end.

Siken’s homosexuality is potentially important beyond indicating the gender of whoever he was in a relationship with. In his article ‘Love in Contemporary Gay Male Poetry’, Simeon Kronenberg makes the bold statement that it is ‘necessary to separate gay poets from their heterosexual contemporaries’. This is because, he claims, to integrate the two, would be to diminish the meaning of the poems. It is important to read Siken’s ‘Litany’ as homosexual because it explains the difficulties of the relationship the poem explores; however, as an exploration of love it is not important. Siken depicts a relationship that has been hidden and as such disintegrated – not an issue that is only found in homosexual relationships. He does not mention gender, in fact he refers to himself as ‘the princess’ in one instance. Siken is talking about more than just human sexuality in this poem: he is talking about love, and to say that it must be separated from other romance poems because of the author’s sexuality is to diminish it.

Romantic poetry often features God’s glory in some way. As an atheist poet, Shelley turns away from such religious themes and instead talks to the abstract. He uses an apostrophe (‘Love!’) rather than speaking to God as one might expect. Siken, too, despite having ‘come back from Jerusalem’ speaks not to God but to the abstract – ‘Dear Forgiveness’ is invited to dinner, finally, after nearly meeting ‘in high school’ and ‘years later, in the chlorinated pool’. The personification here, of the abstract being invited in, pays homage to Siken’s poetic Romantic predecessors, like William Blake, who uses a similar effect in his poem To the Evening Star. Where Romantic poets might speak of the glory of God’s creation, Shelley has instead approached Nature as almost cruel; ‘the storms rock the ravens on high’, and reason mocks ‘Like the sun from a wintry sky’. Siken, too, talks of nature, but his imagery minimises it still further. He says ‘black sky prickled with small lights’, making something as vast as the night sky, typically viewed in Romantic poetry as majestic, into something tiny and unimportant in the background. Both poets take the concept of God’s glorious nature and subvert it. Siken does this particularly, as even the title can be attributed to organised religion if not God himself; a litany is a series of petitions, for example the Beatitudes in Catholicism.

Personification of the abstract – in this case, the concepts of Love and Forgiveness – is used by each poet to convey their control over their own lives. Shelley cannot control love: it is stronger, more powerful than he is, and he can do nothing but ‘bewail’ his own misfortune. Siken, on the other hand, knows that he needs to ask for Forgiveness, and he invites it in; it is not controlled, but welcomed.

Shelley clearly feels wronged by love. The poem questions why love chooses ‘the frailest’ to make victims of. Siken speaks as if he is to blame: he is ‘the dragon’, apologising to his former flame for ‘the bony elbows’ and leaving him ‘bruised and ruined’. He uses the image of the typical fairy tale cast in order to divert from the norm. Siken goes beyond the simple fairy tale, juxtaposing the character archetypes of the princess and the dragon to express his perspective. This reinterpretation of fairy tale values helps explore his own disassociation from conventional roles. Siken’s description of the dragon who thought he was a ‘cotton candy pink’ princess could be said to demonstrate both the narrator and his lover’s mistakenness. Both thought he was something he is not. His description of his lover as the hero demonstrates how he is taking he is blame for the failure of the relationship; this is tempered by the question ‘what more do you want?’ which gives the narration the panicked feel of someone seeking redemption. He tries to fix his mistakes by ‘writ[ing] the future’. Siken’s words explore ‘the repeated image of the lover destroyed’ by intertwining the dispassionate past and emotional present. He speaks of past events with the air of someone who has reached so far beyond them in years that he can barely see the point in recalling them at all. He is both joyful and jaded, humorous and horrible in turns. ‘You want a better story. Who wouldn’t?’ The narrator is speaking to both the reader and the old flame. He feels guilty for the way their story ended, and wants to rewrite the story: ‘in this version you are not/feeding yourself to a bad man/against a black sky prickled with small lights’. But it doesn’t matter how much he would like to rearrange his past, because ‘it doesn’t work, these erasures, this constant refolding of the pleats…I’m sorry it’s such a lousy story’. And it is with this realisation that he can invite Forgiveness in. Where Shelley is still hurting from the fresh wounds of lost love, Siken has moved on far enough that he can forgive himself, not only for breaking the heart of his lover but also for loving him at all. When they were together, they went to ‘Jerusalem where [they] found not what [they] sought,’ but it does not matter now because even though he still hurts, ‘this has nothing to do with happiness’ but with healing.

“When the Lamp Is Shattered” is composed of four stanzas, with an alternating rhyme scheme. This classic pattern is very different to Siken’s poem, which is made up of disjointed lines and complex enjambment. Shelley’s poem’s metrical system vacillates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, both of which find their origins in ancient Greek and Hebrew poetry. The classic nature of the structure reflects the ages old theme of love as a negative influence. This is something which has been written about for almost as long as the form has existed; for example, The East Wind Sighs by Li Shang-Yin, written during the ninth century CE. In contrast, Siken uses broken phrases to explore the complexity of love, the structure making a pattern on the page. Siken goes beyond simply blaming ‘Love’ for his problems like Shelley. Shelley is melancholy and resentful in his poem, and it shows in the repetitive, lyrical feel of the poem. This contrasts with the purposefully chaotic, nonlinear, but reverent nature of Siken’s poem. Shelley is lamenting his situation, while Siken is rapidly coming to the realisation that he is better, now, than he was before.

Percy Shelley’s romantic life was incredibly complex, while Siken’s pales in comparison. This is interesting from a biographical perspective, because Shelley twice eloped with 16-year-old girls; his first wife, Harriet, committed suicide, and in December 1816 he married Mary, the daughter of a close friend, just two weeks after Harriet’s drowning. This over-complicated love life may have led to the inspiration behind ‘When the Lamp is Shattered’; it does not show any of the positive effects of love, only the negative, perhaps because of how he experienced it. Love, in Shelley’s poem, is the root of all of his problems. Siken has reached beyond simply blaming the abstract, and is now ready to both forgive and be forgiven.


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Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out by Richard Siken, Source: Crush (2006) published by Yale University Press.

When the Lamp is Shattered by Percy Shelley – First published 1824

To the Evening Star by William Blake – First published 1783

The East Wind Sighs by Li Shang-Yin

An Essay on the Personification of Abstract Ideas in Poetry. [Part I.]  By Dr. John Aikin (June 1798)

When the Lamp Is Shattered (poem, analysis, commentary, exegesis) Adnax Publications

AQA Critical Anthology

The Repeated Image of a Lover Destroyed: Richard Siken as a Poet of Queer Phenomenology

Visions and Revisions by Adam L. Dressler

Siken’s Fables: Putting on the Wolf Suit Posted on December 6, 2015 by Remi Shaull-Thompson for the Nassau Literary Review

English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism: The Case of Shelley, an essay by Frederick A. Pottle

Richard Siken’s Crush Reviewed by Chloe Stopa-Hunt, YM: New Work in Poetry Issue 5 YM: BODY

FRANKENSTEIN the Afterlife of Shelley’s Circle New York Public Library


3 thoughts on “THE EXPERIENCE OF LOVE (shelley and siken poetry analysis)

  1. Hi. Can you explain ‘The Museum’ by Siken?

    1. Hiya Hari – do you want that as a whole separate blog post?

      1. Its your choice. I’d not mind it as a reply here as well. Or it could be a new post 🙂

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