“Arethusa” a Poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I am not an avid poetry reader, though I do enjoy poetry when I happen upon it. On rare occasion a poem is even born from my own pen or typing fingers.

I discovered the following poem, in part, while watching Roman Holiday, a film featuring Audrey Hepburn as a runaway princess and Gregory Peck as newspaper reporter Joe Bradley.

In the film, Princess Ann is all whacked-out on sleeping pills and recites a bit of “Arethusa” to Joe, insisting that the poem is by Keats… while he says it’s by Shelley. The Princess and the reporter have a funny little argument about it, and in the end you really never know who is correct, unless you happen to be familiar with the poem. Which I wasn’t. So, I wanted to know if it was princess or reporter who would be awarded the literary honor of winning that little argument. Also, I was interested to read the rest of the poem. It’s quite lovely, and worth a read.

I find it fascinating that people once regularly practiced memorizing lengthy prose and (according to movies at least) could spout out a sonnet for any occasion. In a world where my brain now ceases to store phone numbers thanks to my iPhone, it seems a good goal to at least have one ode to something knocking about in the ol’ gray matter. I’m on a mission to choose… should it be Arethusa?

Arethusa arose
From her couch of snows
In the Acroceraunian mountains,—
From cloud and from crag,
With many a jag,
Shepherding her bright fountains.
She leapt down the rocks,
With her rainbow locks
Streaming among the streams;—
Her steps paved with green
The downward ravine
Which slopes to the western gleams;
And gliding and springing
She went, ever singing,
In murmurs as soft as sleep;
The Earth seemed to love her,
And Heaven smiled above her,
As she lingered towards the deep.


Then Alpheus bold,
On his glacier cold,
With his trident the mountains strook;
And opened a chasm
In the rocks—with the spasm
All Erymanthus shook.
And the black south wind
It unsealed behind
The urns of the silent snow,
And earthquake and thunder
Did rend in sunder
The bars of the springs below.
And the beard and the hair
Of the River-god were
Seen through the torrent’s sweep,
As he followed the light
Of the fleet nymph’s flight
To the brink of the Dorian deep.


‘Oh, save me! Oh, guide me!
And bid the deep hide me,
For he grasps me now by the hair!’
The loud Ocean heard,
To its blue depth stirred,
And divided at her prayer;
And under the water
The Earth’s white daughter
Fled like a sunny beam;
Behind her descended
Her billows, unblended
With the brackish Dorian stream:—
Like a gloomy stain
On the emerald main
Alpheus rushed behind,—
As an eagle pursuing
A dove to its ruin
Down the streams of the cloudy wind.


Under the bowers
Where the Ocean Powers
Sit on their pearlèd thrones;
Through the coral woods
Of the weltering floods,
Over heaps of unvalued stones;
Through the dim beams
Which amid the streams
Weave a network of coloured light;
And under the caves,
Where the shadowy waves
Are as green as the forest’s night:—
Outspeeding the shark,
And the sword-fish dark,
Under the Ocean’s foam,
And up through the rifts
Of the mountain clifts
They passed to their Dorian home.


And now from their fountains
In Enna’s mountains,
Down one vale where the morning basks,
Like friends once parted
Grown single-hearted,
They ply their watery tasks.
At sunrise they leap
From their cradles steep
In the cave of the shelving hill;
At noontide they flow
Through the woods below
And the meadows of asphodel;
And at night they sleep
In the rocking deep
Beneath the Ortygian shore;—
Like spirits that lie
In the azure sky
When they love but live no more.


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