>A Disturbingly Distracting Confluence of Philosophy and Percy Shelley

>Here is a forum post I made to my Composition III class today, on the poem and analysis we were assigned to post a paragraph on. Obviously, I had a lot to say about it because it literally blew my mind, and this is where the distracting confluence of philosophy and Percy Shelley comes into play. The actual text from the textbook has been copied and pasted from their website below my post, for the purposes of context.

Thesis, organization, the bright man’s dilemma:

     Stephanie Huff’s thesis is a strong one. It doesn’t stand alone, but consists of more than the clause pointed out on page 146; the entire introduction paragraph serves as an in-depth analysis of Shelley’s poem, as all good theses are meant to do. It describes in perfect, summary detail the interpretation which Huff has chosen to take away from the poem. She begins by explaining the purpose of the poem: it “introduces us to a bleak world that exists behind veils and shadows.” She then lays out her interpretation in a nutshell in the next sentence. She then points out in the last sentence, the second clause of which is identified as the thesis statement, the purpose and methods which the author employed to bring about this interpretation in her mind. The purpose: to address the absence of truth, to “expose the counterfeit nature of our world.” The means: the use of “metaphors of grim distortion and radiant incandescence” Here, the mechanics of Huff’s analysis are laid bare without the benefit of her philosophical prose – she has chosen to assert that the point of Shelley’s poem was to call out the false nature of the world we perceive through the use of two metaphors which are repeated throughout its scant – yet sufficient – fourteen lines.

     The thesis is well-supported as she focuses on the metaphors of grim distortion. The following two paragraphs refer to the “painted veil” and the “unreal shapes” which are seen through it. Then she addresses the function and method of reality, depicted in Shelley’s poem as mimicry using “colours idly spread.” She moves on to the final grim metaphor, the fear and hope that are obscured as mere shadows. Then, in parallel with the poem, Huff addresses the single ray of hope which is threatened with extinguishment in Shelley’s gloomy landscape: the one who “is portrayed with metaphors of light.” She shows how the metaphors of his “lost heart,” his “splendour among shadows,” and his status as “a bright blot. . . [u]pon [a] gloomy scene” are important in the context of the piece. She then describes his position as tenuous, which indeed it seems to be after reading her interpretation. Her final line is, as it should be, a simple restatement of the thesis. One more time, she asserts that these metaphors reveal the counterfeit nature of the world.

     As much as a tear-down of Stephanie Huff’s analysis reveals the building-block nature of her organization and how it lends strength to her thesis, these things are not so obvious in a single reading because they’re finished off with the profundity of her philosophical interpretation. She says of the bright man: “[t]his one person, though bright, is not. . . enough to. . . create real change. The light simply confirms the dark falsity that comprises the rest of the world.” Her interpretation of the bright man, then, comes to us in terms of some of the oldest philosophical questions in recorded history: what is good? What is evil? Could evil exist without good? Might it be true to say that there must be at least a grain of goodness which defines the opposite of evil, that we may know evil? This is an old argument, and Huff points out that Shelley has taken it and turned it around, focusing not on the bit of evil that must exist in order for humanity to understand what is good; but, in Shelley’s view, the bit of truth that must exist in order for humanity to understand the chasm of falsity that exists in the world. The bright man’s existence, then, must be guaranteed for the sake of all existence, and yet nonetheless he is always endangered; for him to be swallowed up is the end of existence itself as everything becomes false. The bright man’s death is the death of all.

The following text has been reprinted without permission from the companion website to the Norton Field Guide to Writing, 2nd Edition, at http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/write/fieldguide/model_essays.asp#10. Please don’t sue me.

Literary Analysis
Sonnet: “Lift Not the Painted Veil
Which Those Who Live”
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave 5
Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it—he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve. 10
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Metaphor and Society in Shelley’s “Sonnet”
In his sonnet “Lift not the painted veil which those who live,” Percy Bysshe Shelley introduces us to a bleak world that exists behind veils and shadows. We see that although fear and hope both exist, truth is dishearteningly absent. This absence of truth is exactly what Shelley chooses to address as he uses metaphors of grim distortion and radiant incandescence to expose the counterfeit nature of our world.

The speaker of Shelley’s poem presents bold assertions about the nature of our society. In the opening lines of the poem, he warns the reader to “Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life” (1–2). Here, the “painted veil” serves as a grim metaphor for life. More specifically, the speaker equates the veil with what people like to call life. In this sense, the speaker asserts that what we believe to be pure reality is actually nothing more than a covering that masks what really lies beneath. Truth is covered by a veil of falsehood and is made opaque with the paint of people’s lies.

This painted veil does not completely obstruct our view, but rather distorts what we can see. All that can be viewed through it are “unreal shapes” (2) that metaphorically represent the people that make up this counterfeit society. These shapes are not to be taken for truth. They are unreal, twisted, deformed figures of humanity, people full of falsities and misrepresentations.

Most people, however, do not realize that the shapes and images seen through the veil are distorted because all they know of life is the veil—this life we see as reality only “mimic[s] all we would believe” (3), using “colours idly spread” (4) to create pictures that bear little resemblance to that which they claim to portray. All pure truths are covered up and painted over until they are mere mockeries. The lies that cloak the truth are not even carefully constructed, but are created idly, with little attention to detail. The paint is not applied carefully, but merely spread across the top. This idea of spreading brings to mind images of paint slopped on so heavily that the truth beneath becomes nearly impossible to find. Even the metaphor of color suggests only superficial beauty—”idly spread” (4)—rather than any sort of pure beauty that could penetrate the surface of appearances.

What really lies behind this facade are fear and hope, both of which “weave / Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear” (5–6). These two realities are never truly seen or experienced, though. They exist only as shadows. Just as shadows appear only at certain times of day, cast only sham images of what they reflect, and are paid little attention, so too do these emotions of hope and fear appear only as brief, ignored imitations of themselves when they enter the artificiality of this chasmlike world. Peering into a chasm, one cannot hope to make out what lies at the bottom. At best one could perhaps make out shadows and even that cannot be done with any certainty as to true appearance. The world is so large, so caught up in itself and its counterfeit ways, that it can no longer see even the simple truths of hope and fear. Individuals and civilizations have become sightless, dreary, and as enormously empty as a chasm.

This chasm does not include all people, however, as we are introduced to one individual, in line 7, who is trying to bring to light whatever truth may yet remain. This one person, who defies the rest of the world, is portrayed with metaphors of light, clearly standing out among the dark representations of the rest of mankind. He is first presented to us as possessing a “lost heart” (8) and seeking things to love. It is important that the first metaphor applied to him be a heart because this is the organ with which we associate love, passion, and purity. We associate it with brightness of the soul, making it the most radiant spot of the body. He is then described as a “splendour among shadows” (12), his purity and truth brilliantly shining through the darkness of the majority’s falsehood. Finally, he is equated with “a bright blot / Upon this gloomy scene” (12–13), his own bright blaze of authenticity burning in stark contrast to the murky phoniness of the rest of the world.

These metaphors of light are few, however, in comparison to those of grim distortion. So, too, are this one individual’s radiance and zeal too little to alter the warped darkness they temporarily pierce. This one person, though bright, is not bright enough to light up the rest of civilization and create real change. The light simply confirms the dark falsity that comprises the rest of the world. Shelley gives us one flame of hope, only to reveal to us what little chance it has under the suffocating veil. Both the metaphors of grim distortion and those of radiant incandescence work together in this poem to highlight the world’s counterfeit nature.

Huff focuses her analysis on patterns in Shelley’s imagery. In addition, she pays careful attention to individual words and to how, as the poem unfolds, they create a certain meaning. That meaning is her interpretation.


  1. Seems to mean: don’t try to rejigger or penetrate delusional nature of people’s self-understanding.

    This is also a theme of Eugene O’Neil’s play “The Iceman Cometh.”


    • As though everything we understand is a delusion to others, and truth to ourselves – then don’t try to lift that veil or we might find that we are no brighter than the rest. Thank you for your perspective, Richard.

      – Rob

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