Summary and Analysis
Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples
The day is warm, the sky is clear, the waves sparkle. Blue islands and snow-topped mountains look purple in the midday light. Buds are ready to blossom. The sounds of the winds, the birds, the waves, and of Naples itself blend in pleasant harmony. Shelley sees the seaweed on the ocean bottom and watches the waves dissolve into light as they strike the shore. He sits alone on the sand, observing the sparkling ocean and listening to the sound of the waves. How pleasant all this would be if there were someone with whom he could share the emotion he feels.
Unfortunately, Shelley lacks hope, health, peace, calmness, contentment, fame, power, love, and leisure. He sees others who enjoy all these and find life a pleasure. It is otherwise with him. He would like to lie down like a tired child and "weep away the life of care" which he has endured and must continue to endure. Death would steal upon him quietly, turning his warm cheeks cold while the waves continued their monotonous rhythm as consciousness grew fainter. Some might mourn his death just as he will regret the departure of this beautiful day to which his melancholy is in contrast. He is not popular, but nevertheless they might mourn his death while disapproving of his life. The end of this day will not bring mixed feelings to him, however. Since it has been enjoyed, it will live on in his memory.
Shelley's state of dejection in "Stanzas" is artistically placed in a sharply contrasting setting that effectively emphasizes the dejection. Shelley implies that no matter how much harmony there may exist between nature and man, man must be in a condition to be able to find pleasure in that harmony. Shelley was far from being in such a condition. Newman Ivey White, the author of the definitive life of Shelley, writes that Shelley was so depressed while in Naples that it is said that he tried to commit suicide (Shelley, Vol. II, p. 78).
Shelley was in Naples from November 29, 1818, to February 28, 1819. Naples in winter offers a pleasantly warm climate. Naples is at its best, so far as weather is concerned, and Shelley and his wife, Mary, should have been happy there. However, Shelley was in poor health and the delightful winter climate of Naples did not help him. The major cause of his dejection was not his health but his wife's estrangement from him following the death of their daughter Clara on September 24, 1818. Mary seems to have felt that her husband was indirectly responsible for the death of the child because he had insisted on making a hurried journey in hot weather to Venice at a time when little Clara was sick. The child died shortly after the Shelley family reached Venice.
Other causes undoubtedly contributed to Shelley's death-wish at Naples. His first wife, Harriet Westbrook, and Mary Shelley's half sister, Fanny Inlay, had committed suicide; the courts had taken from him the custody of his two children by Harriet; friends had turned against him; his poetry was neglected by the public and condemned by the critics, and he was plagued by financial and personal problems. Shelley experienced one of the lowest periods of his life while he was in Naples. His desire to free himself by death from his troubles does not necessarily reveal any moral or character weakness but an understandably profound discouragement at a time when everything seemed to be going wrong. Nature, no matter how beautiful, was of little help.