The Romantic Movement
This term, devised after the ‘Romantic poets’, like Keats, Byron and Wordsworth, had died, describes broadly the period from about 1770 to 1830. It was a time of experimentation in literature, marked by less conformist style and greater individuality. Poetry could be regarded as a form of expression for and about ordinary people, rather than being the preserve of a high-born well-educated elite. The French Revolution of 1789 also generated hope and, in literature, innovative ways of expression.
Life is an illusion, and most are clueless people who play along with the backdrop provided. Shelley is playing the role of a wise man giving us the famous warning: innocence and even ignorance may be the best path to stick with, since to be wise is to suffer.
The famous “painted veil” which reveals life in line 1 can be a metaphor for many things: love (as described in line 8), death, or even truth (as described in the final line).
Though this at first seems to take the form of a Shakespearean sonnet (hence the title), which is an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme pattern in iambic pentameter, Shelley gives us a sense of disappointment when the last two lines break that rhyme pattern. This is done to further emphasize the unexpected end result of searching for truth.
W.Somerset Maughan’s classic 1925 novel The Painted Veil is based off the first lines.
In his sonnet “Lift Not the Painted Veil…”, Percy Bysshe Shelley examines life as no more than an illusion. He believes most people are content living behind the opaque curtain provided for them, even though it creates a distorted view of life. Fear and hope are ever present, and truth seems disappointingly absent. We are then introduced to someone who attempts to bring the light of truth to a darkened world, but the effort to permanently pierce through the murky gloom with light seems futile under the smothering veil. The light serves to affirm the shadowed duplicity of the world.
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
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.
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.
—Percy Bysshe Shelley
Try It: A Poetic Response to the Veil
Is ignorance bliss? What do you think would result in exposing the bleak aspects of life to those unaware? How does truth benefit the world in which we live? What place does innocence have within the veil? Write a poem in response to Shelley’s point of view.
Click to get FREE 5-Prompt Mini-Series
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here is a limerick from Monica that made us smile:
One spoiled yellow lab was astute.
She begged at the table for loot.
Dog owner says, “Wait.
People, pick up your plates.”
The humans got booted. Shoot.
—by Monica Sharman
Photo by Jana Allingham. Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Heather Eure.
Browse more writing prompts
Browse poetry teaching resources
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland
Buy How to Write a Poem Now!
Filed Under: Blog, poetry prompt, poetry teaching resources, Veils and Walls, writer's group resources, writing prompt