(Paper) “The Poetic Feminine: Questions of spiritual gender in Percy Shelley’s Alastor & John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul”



The Poetic Feminine:

Questions of spiritual gender

in Percy Shelley’s Alastor

& John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.

Table of Contents


Pregnant with Anxiety

They whose souls are far more pregnant than their bodies, conceive and produce that which is more suitable to the soul… Whosoever, therefore, from his youth feels his soul pregnant with the conception of these excellencies, is divine; and when due time arrives, desires to bring forth; and wandering about, he seeks the beautiful in which he may propagate what he has conceived.

            From Plato’s “Symposium” as translated by Percy Shelley.[1]

If Percy Shelley allowed himself a moment of complete honesty and psychic clarity, I believe he would admit to deep personal anxieties about gender, specifically his own. Alastor, in my mind his most striking poem, demonstrates the depth of these anxieties, the thoroughness of his inability to face them, and the underlying spiritual reality from which these problems arise.

Whether or not Shelley would allow himself the sort of introspective clairvoyance necessary to face his own complications – at least consciously – I have no doubt he would have found incredible benefit from John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. Here is a poem written by a man confined to the most constricting of gendered social roles – that of a friar – and here also is a man writing from the depths of his heart about desire and love. While Shelley might have objected to the good fray’s Catholicism, I do not think he could have objected to his poetry. Although Dark Night does not have the same anxieties as Alastor, its inner spirit comes from a similar place. In fact, it is precisely the lack of anxiety in Dark Night that would have both troubled Shelley and fascinated him, provoking him to search for the peace that John of the Cross seems to possess but that was certainly lacking in Shelley’s own life.

Both Shelley and John of the Cross were poets by nature, and yet both wrote prose about their poems. The problem with their prose – other than in both cases the style of their poetry is clearly superior – is that it attempts to analyze the non-analytical, to categorize that which should not be categorized in the first place. There is certainly value to their other writing, in Shelley’s case the preface to Alastor and in John’s case the exegesis of Dark Night in the book of the same name. However, my concern is these men as poets. Poetry is unique in its ability to express unconscious concepts that are otherwise inexpressible. The unconscious mind works in images, and the image-crafting of poesy lends itself almost supernaturally to the expression of unconscious and pre-conscious realities. My concern here is with them as poets because my concern is also with them as psyches. Prose shows the front of the man with his best foot forward. Poetry exposes the inner workings, which is (or should be) the real interest of literature. I believe Shelley himself would support this reading since he and his wife Mary Shelley believed their inner life would become manifest in their art.[2]

I believe it is perfectly justified to read both Alastor and Dark Night as autobiographical, although it is not necessary. Given Shelley’s own wanderlust and his eventual death at sea (reminiscent of verses 296-390 of the poem), and given John of the Cross’s own spiritual enlightenment, this interpretation is not a stretch. However, the biographical details of either poet are unimportant; what is important is Shelley-as-poet and John-as-poet, that is: their deep inner psychic life irrespective of the facticity of time and space.




The Veiled Maiden of Alastor

When all becomes silent around you, and you recoil in terror—see that your work has become a flight from suffering and responsibility, your unselfishness a thinly disguised masochism… do not then anesthetize yourself by once again calling up the shouts and horns of the hunt, but gaze steadfastly at the vision until you have plumbed its depths.

Dag Hammarskjöld, “Markings”

The entire conversation about gender anxieties in Alastor revolves around Shelley’s famous image of “the veiled maiden.”[3] The wandering poet, dispossessed and restless, travels the world in contemplation of the rhythms of nature. Coming to the valley of Cashmire, he lays down to rest beside “a sparkling rivulet.”[4] There under a leafy bower

He dreamed a veilèd maid
Sate near him, talking in low solemn tones.
Her voice was like the voice of his own soul
Heard in the calm of thought;[5]

The vision is of the poet’s unutterable desires. It awakens him to “hopes that never yet/ Had flushed his cheeks” “of divine liberty,/ Thoughts most dear to him.”[6] The dream expresses the most obscure ‘veiled’ part of his psyche.

It is universally agreed that the veiled maiden of his dream is none other than a reflection of his own soul. The evidence leaves little room for another interpretation. For instance, the imagery of parted quivering lips used at several instances to describe the poet – “his lips/Parted in slumber” – recurs with her: “her parted lips/ Outstretched, and pale, and quivering eagerly.”[7] She speaks with a voice “like the voice of his own soul”; she herself is a poet.[8] As one article says:

The veiled maid quite perfectly acts as that object promising the ultimate completion of the self. However, far from being this perfect compliment, the veiled maid is described in terms that suggest she is nothing more than a reflection of the Poet’s own sense of self-identity.[9]

The vision is essentially narcissistic. As the poet receives it, he communes with an image of his own soul according to his inmost sense of self. The maiden is veiled because she is an unconscious reality; although she is constructed from his own poetic identity, he does not consciously recognize it as himself. Rather, he engages his own inner ‘muse’ as something other to him. He separates out his masculine role as wanderer from this interior feminine identity. While his external life is characterized by the socially sanctioned role of male Romantic Poet, his inner life is characterized by a sort of poetic womb, a sensible sensitivity and spiritual receptivity that threatens this outer facade.[10] The use of a veil indicates there is more than meets the eye, that the outer fabric conceals a different reality beneath.

The poet’s reaction to this vision marks the turning point of the entire poem. Up until this point, the poet has been engaged in an outward gaze upon the world. Thus far his wandering has been characterized by sensitivity to the heartbeat of the universe. The vision promises to be a fulfillment of this self-forgetfulness and self-discovery. He has allowed his roots to sink into the elemental earth, and now he is ready to bear fruit. The veiled maiden comes to him as an inner spiritual awakening. Her poetic whispers grow and grow until she is overtaken by her own poetic production. She is lost in the fire of spiritual motherhood.

                                    –wild numbers then
She raised, with voice stifled in tremulous sobs
Subdued by its own pathos: her fair hands
Were bare alone, sweeping from some strange harp
Strange symphony, and in their branching veins
The eloquent blood told and ineffable tale.[11]

The maiden becomes a perfect instrument of nature and truth. She is intimately connected to the earth through the motherhood of poetry, and the universe plays through her like wind through “some strange harp.”

As the maiden’s quickening of creative power reaches an all-encompassing crescendo, the poet feels the threat of her inevitable deluge. Yes, his heart is one with hers – their single heart is simultaneously overcome with a  “bursting burthen” of “excess” [12] – but he cannot afford to acknowledge their union. Her overwhelming creative power threatens to break through his small hypermasculine self-image, so he looks upon her as an intimidating Other rather than as himself. Rather than allow her growing impulse to recreate everything, he switches the locus of power to his masculine self and essentially imprisons her.

He accomplishes this by sexualizing her. Her “beamy bending eyes,” “outspread arms,” “parted lips,” which he should have recognized as his own, he objectifies and makes the victim of his most masculine trait: his erotic desire.[13]

He reared his shuddering limbs, and quelled
His gasping breath, and spread his arms to meet
Her panting bosom:–she drew back awhile,
Then, yielding to the irresistible joy,
With frantic gesture and short breathless cry
Folded his frame in her dissolving arms.[14]

The imagery is that of sexual overpowering; he spreads his arms to seize her, and she draws back reluctant. She never embraces him willingly, but yields, relinquishing her own autonomy. As he embraces her, she is used up. She dissolves in his arms, and he is left alone without vision.

Now blackness veiled his dizzy eyes, and night
Involved and swallowed up the vision;[15]

The poet’s reality is changed after waking from the dream. He has lost his original childlike gaze upon the world. Now the operating imagery is mostly of reflection and mirroring. Bereft of his ideal self by his own self-objectification, he spends the rest of the poem searching for an ideal lover to complete him. Since this ideal lover is in fact fashioned in the image of his own soul, he spends his life bereft of real human companionship, always searching for a way to locate his autoerotic fantasy outside himself.

Despite his denial about the true nature of the veiled maiden, the poet nevertheless cannot help but expresses his true desires in symbolic imagery. While the act of his odyssey purports a journey to subjugate his ideal feminine self to his male sexuality, another nighttime phantasm comes to him as he keeps “mute conference/ With his still soul” that rewrites his desire.[16] His sleep is interrupted by a “passion” which

                               –As an eagle, grasped
In folds of the green serpent, feels her breast
Burn with the poison, and precipitates
Through night and day, tempest, and calm, and cloud,
Frantic with dizzying anguish, her blind flight
O’er the wide aëry wilderness: thus driven
By the bright shadow of that lovely dream,
Beneath the cold glare of the desolate night,
Through tangled swamps and deep precipitous dells,
Startling with careless step the moon-light snake,
He fled.[17]

He is driven ever onward by this feeling of suffocation, and in this imagery his true desire reveals itself. As Caralyn Bolte points out in her psychoanalytic analysis of the poem, in this metaphor the poet does not identify with the phallic image of the snake but with the motherly image of the eagle. The masculine component of his soul is clearly grappling with the feminine, but here he switches the side he identifies with. It is no longer clear that his deepest desire is really to “sublimate the female in order to privilege the male.”[18] He has a deep anxiety about curtailing his feminine self which expresses itself as a feeling of spiritual strangling.

This image marks the beginning of the poet’s most desperate wandering. He is constantly haunted by the desire to beautify himself and fulfill his “unattained but attainable self” that the maid represents,[19] but he never allows himself the space to acknowledge it.

                                    The Poet longed
To deck with their bright hues his withered hair,
But on his heart its solitude returned,
And he forbore. Not the strong impulse hid
In those flushed cheeks, bent eyes, and shadowy frame,
Had yet performed its ministry; it hung
Upon his life, as lightning in a cloud
Gleams, hovering ere it vanish, ere the floods
Of night close over it.[20]

Unfulfilled, he wanders on, ever searching for that which he will never find outside himself.

It is not clear if even now the poet feels ready to find that lost part of himself and reunite with it, for to do so seems to demand everything.

                                      Shall it sink
Down the abyss? Shall the reverting stress
Of that resistless gulph embosom it?
Now shall it fall?[21]

Can his role as a masculine poet survive the all-encompassing abyss, the oceanic chaos that is his feminine source?[22] The anxieties are palpable, almost sickening.

As he reaches the end of his road, the narcissistic imagery becomes unavoidable.

                                    His eyes beheld
Their own wan light through the reflected lines
Of his thin hair, distinct in the dark depth
Of that still fountain; as the human heart,
Gazing in dreams over the gloomy grave[23]

Like Narcissus, the poet’s gaze is always on himself. He is still searching, and his wandering eyes find rest in his own reflection. As he gazes into the water, the presence of a strange Spirit seems to congeal near him. The Spirit – clearly the same as the maiden – is no longer veiled in “bright robes” or “enshrining light.”[24] Now she is more intimate and ephemeral.

                        –for speech assuming,
Held commune with him, as if he and it
Were all that was; only–when his regard
Was raised by intense pensiveness–two eyes,
Two starry eyes, hung in the gloom of thought,
And seemed with their serene and azure smiles
To beckon him.[25]

He feels correctly that the presence of the Spirit is indistinguishable from himself. Here alone, at the end of his long journey, the maiden returns at last, and he sees her not in a fantastic vision but in the reflection of his own eyes waiting beyond the veil of the water. At last he recognizes on some level that the maiden’s luminescence is “the light/ That shone within his soul.”[26]

After recognizing the veiled maiden in his own reflection, he continues on in a vacant daze. The creative act that caused her blood to heat and limbs to tremble now seizes him. “Strong shuddering from his burning limbs” moves him forward in “joyous madness from the couch/ Of fever.”[27] He is now united with the muse, but the result is tragic. Maybe the consummation came too late, maybe it was too powerful, but the poet undergoes a slow, “ghastly” change.[28] His once bright eyes become “stony orbs.”[29] He ends in death, alone, without love. The quest to rediscover his inner feminine has truly claimed everything. It seems that the poet ends as the snake and not the eagle; rather than flying free, he has devoured himself like the ouroboros.




The Beloved of The Dark Night

Not yet did I love, though I loved to love; I sought something to love, loving to love.

St. Augustine, “Confessions,” 3.1

Alastor opens with the quote from The Confessions that summarizes the issue of narcissism. Augustine, fueled by the innate human desire to love and be loved, starts his journey with a corrupted love that is oriented toward itself. He finds the solution to this circularity in reorienting his desire toward God. John of the Cross has a similar solution.[30]

John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul resonates with the spirit of Alastor on multiple levels. First of all, just as the poet’s inner self is described as a beautiful maiden in Alastor, the soul of the Dark Night is portrayed as a woman – the ‘beloved’ who goes out to seek her lover. Like the displaced poet, the beloved leaves her house and enters the shadowy unknown.

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
–ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
–ah, the sheer grace!—
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.[31]

Like the poet, the beloved’s movements are led on by an internal light burning in her heart.[32] She goes out in search of “an intelligence similar to herself” – an Other to love.[33]

The major difference between Alastor and the Dark Night – at least that which most immediately informs Shelley’s anxieties – is whereas in Alastor the poet grapples with accepting his inner anima as his inmost self, in the Dark Night it is presupposed that such is the case. There is never a question in Dark Night that the veiled maiden and the wanderer – the beloved and the poet – are one and the same. There is, even before the poem begins, an acceptance of this spiritual reality.

The result is an entirely different psychological journey. The beloved is practically in raptures as she allows her desire for consummation with her Lover to draw her out into the night.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
–him I knew so well—
there in a place where no one appeared.[34]

The result is very much opposite to the wanderer’s lonely narcissism. The beloved seeks union with the one who is outside herself. Finding him, she loses herself completely –

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.[35]

– and disappears in perfect oneness with him,
transforming the beloved in her Lover. [36]

Her “flowering breast” – that same burning breast of the eagle in Alastor[37] – is now fruitful rather than poisoned. Rather than being prisoner to the poet’s eroticism, her heart is kept a treasure “whole for him” the Lover.[38] She does not belong to herself; her heart overflows with compassion for her Lover.

One might argue that the Dark Night represents an entirely different sort of reality than Alastor. The most obvious difference is the tone; Alastor is a borderline nihilistic account whereas the Dark Night presupposes a certain level of joy and fulfillment. However, as anyone who has a cursory knowledge of John of the Cross’s concept of ‘the dark night of the soul’ knows, the context of the poem is paradoxical. The tone is joyful, but the imagery of ‘the dark night’ represents a particular spiritual experience that is less than inviting. The spiritual ‘night’ is the time of dryness and alienation, what one Carmelite nun calls the moment of ‘impasse.’ She defines impasse as when “there is no way out of, no way around, no rational escape from, what imprisons one… The whole life situation suffers a depletion, has the word limits written upon it.”[39] The dark night of the soul is the point at which one has reached a dead end in one’s sensible relationship with the Divine and one’s self-understanding. In searching for the Other, one finds that the senses are broken – “His inmost sense suspended” as Alastor puts it[40] – and the only option left is abandonment to faith.

There are several points Constance Fitzgerald makes about John of the Cross’s answer to spiritual impasse that I believe are vital to fully grasping the connection between Alastor and Dark Night:

  1. According to John, the spiritual journey is one from narcissistic self-love to love that is oriented toward God and others.
  2. Desire is not destroyed in this process, but transformed and perfected.
  3. Transfiguration’ or inner transformation is not a distant future event, but an ongoing one
  4. The only way to break free of the narcissistic self-questing is to relinquish control through Faith “and trust to the unfathomable Mystery that beckons onward and inward beyond calculation, order, self-justification, and fear.”

The poet of Alastor is certainly on a similar journey from impasse to fulfillment, but his endeavor is strikingly unsuccessful. On each point there is a failure to accept the process.

  1. He never moves from self-love to selfless love. In fact, he only becomes further enraptured with his own reflection as his desire to be a cohesive person intensifies.
  2. In the metaphor of the eagle and the serpent there is a moment of self-realization where he relocates his femininity from a place of eroticism to a place of self-identification. However, he never allows himself to be the maiden; he only ever experiences himself as a reflection. Even in the end when he experiences a sensory unification with the maiden, it is still self-referential and narcissistic rather than organic.
  3. His hope is always for the eventual future consummation of his desire. He is driven forward by horror at his incompleteness rather than a natural movement toward growth. His goal is masculine accomplishment rather than the feminine expression. He puts his hope in doing rather than in being.
  4. He never succeeds in trusting anything but his own volition. While he begins with that which transcends himself – nature and the World – he soon becomes dissatisfied with its blank universality and desires a particular subject similar to himself. Without the Lover who brings together the transcendent and the immanent (to John this is the person of Jesus Christ, who unites the Universal and the Particular through the Incarnation), Shelley is unable to fill the void except through self-deification.

It looks like Shelley is striving toward the same end as John, but he (as poet) never achieves the same joy. The difference is a matter of approach and the dilemma between self-obsession and self-forgetfulness.


The Veiled Self

            ..in thy voice I catch
            The language of my former heart, and read
            My former pleasures in the shooting lights
            of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
            May I behold in thee what I was once,
            My dear, dear sister!

William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” Lines 116-1214

In John of the Cross there is the potential – probably oversimplified – that writing the soul as feminine is merely a continuation of the mystical tradition of the Song of Songs in which God is the groom and humanity the bride. While this is certainly the case, the passion of the poem begs for a more intimate reading. However, regardless of whether or not the beloved of the poem is identical with how John sees himself before God, what is certainly true is that at least the veiled maiden in Alastor represents a Shelleyan self-image. This indicates gender anxieties that are very real.

The anxiety plaguing Shelley is regarding the nature of poetic creation and the resulting nature of his own soul. Shelley recognizes that poetry is a process more akin to motherhood than fatherhood. The surface anxiety is about the poetic vocation, a calling which in his own social context is decidedly masculine and which demands adherence to a certain manly artistic tradition. This anxiety is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise. Not only does poetry seem like a feminine act, but the place from which that act is produced seems outright female. He feels the need to create a ‘muse’ because to do otherwise would be to admit that the source of the poetry is himself. Even if he admits to divine inspiration as John would probably do, the situation does not improve; if anything, it becomes more vexing. If poetry comes from a divine source, then the poet is a spiritual channel, a womb for mystical seed. Then the anxiety becomes not only about his mother relationship to poetry, but his bridal relationship to the Divine.

This mess of anxieties gets right to the heart of human gender issues. The most simplistic view of gender is that it is a physically-determined reality reducible to primary (and often secondary) sexual characteristics. This sort of sexual materialism does not do justice to the kinds of unease many people feel on the spiritual level. As philosopher Peter Kreeft says under the heading ‘Sex is Spiritual’:

A wholly male soul, whatever maleness means, or a wholly female soul, sounds unreal and oversimplified. But that is not what sexual souls implies. Rather, in every soul there is—to use Jungian terms—anima and animus, femaleness and maleness; just as in the body, one predominates but the other is also present. If the dominant sex of soul is not the same as that of the body, we have a sexual misfit, a candidate for a sex change operation of body or of soul, earthly or Heavenly. Perhaps Heaven supplies such changes just as it supplies all other needed forms of healing. In any case, the resurrection body perfectly expresses its soul, and since souls are innately sexual, that body will perfectly express its soul’s true sexual identity.[41]

Given the depth of his desperation – what strikes me as outright terror – in Alastor, Shelley the poet is dealing with more than mere social anxieties. Certainly the practical piece of the problem is that the Romantic circles in which Shelley moves demand a very particular masculine (animus-driven) self-expression that may or may not be the natural motion of his soul. However, Shelley himself seems keen on keeping his socially accepted masculine role intact, so the problem looks more like an internal conflict and not a case of poet-versus-world. It is above all else an identity crisis.

The operating dilemma here is the tension between personal integration and role-oriented functioning. On one hand Shelley is driven by the basic human impulse to be fulfilled, whole, and cohesive. On the other hand such a cohesiveness seems to demand an abandonment to an inner self that threatens to disrupt his gendered place in society. Since personal integration therefore becomes too frightening a concept, he replaces the goal of internal cohesiveness with a search for his ‘other half.’ He must fill the lack in himself with sexual fulfillment. His search will necessarily be in vain since what he is really looking for is himself, which he will never find in the Other since the Other is, by definition, not himself. The wandering poet ends his days failing in his conquest; he dies united to the inner person that he always was, alone with himself. His victory becomes defeat because he was not able to see the Self as the Self and the Other as Other.

As Shelley’s innermost self is portrayed as a beautiful veiled maiden, why is John’s innermost self shown as a lovely beloved? What causes this common feminization of the soul? Given the sensitive nature of their poetic spirits, I think there are two options (not necessarily mutually exclusive):

  1. Humanity is feminine in relation to the Transcendent/Divine, and the more feminine intuition an individual soul has, regardless of its sex, the more connected it is to this universal reality and to its own participation in it.
  2. The poetic soul (or at least that of Shelley) is primarily feminine at its core, and therefore has a feminine self-image.

Either of these being the case, it is apparent how such an interior life could cause gender anxieties when what is expected of such a person being-in-the-world is that expression which is natural to someone with a masculine inner life and not a feminine one. How can the resulting conflict be resolved? Why is John of the Cross able to write joyfully whereas Shelley seems swallowed by his own unease?


The Divine Lover

If Psyche had not held me by the hand I should have sunk down. She had brought me now to the very edge of the pool…

I was being unmade. I was no one. But that’s little to say; rather, Psyche herself was, in a manner, no one. I loved her as I would once have thought it impossible to love, would have died any death for her.

And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and oh, gloriously she did) it was for another’s sake. The earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming. The pillars on the far side of the pool flushed with his approach. I cast down my eyes.

Two figures, reflections, their feet to Psyche’s feet and mine, stood head downward in the water. But whose were they? Two Psyches, the one clothed, the other naked? Yes, both Psyches, both beautiful (if that mattered now) beyond all imagining, yet not exactly the same.

“You also are Psyche,” came a great voice. I looked up then, and it’s strange that I dared. But I saw no god, no pillared court. I was in the palace gardens, my foolish book in my hand.

C. S. Lewis, “Til We Have Faces,” Part II, Ch. 4

John of the Cross was close friends with Teresa of Avila, his life mentor and fellow reformer of the Carmelite order. Teresa believed that the spiritual life is a journey into the center of one’s soul, which she visualized as a crystal palace with many rooms. At the very center of this palace is a room where God Himself dwells. The Divine is eternally present in the soul and constantly communes with it in absolute love. The spiritual life consists of a deeper realization or ‘entering into’ this inner reality of God’s union with the soul.

In John’s Dark Night, the soul is journeying to that inner place of communion. It is leaving behind the ‘house’ of its body to find the quiet space where the soul is alone with God. This space is the core of the soul’s being, the place from which all things emanate. Shelley, anxious about what he will find in this inner place, tries to occupy a different room wherein his soul communes with its own reflection.

Whereas Alastor is extremely self-conscious, Dark Night is completely self-forgetful. When the beloved exits her house, she does not have to negotiate a self-examination in which she determines that she is the beloved. Rather, the very act of going out to see her Lover makes her the beloved. Shelley feels the need to be united with something outside himself, but since he is unwilling to be the beloved, he continues to search as the Romantic Lover for the ideal object of his affections. He ends up making himself both lover and beloved since he must fulfill both his need to act in a masculine role and his ever-present authentic need to be the beloved. He misses out on the Lover – the Divine – because he must take that role on for himself.

In Dark Night, the beloved does not seek to discover herself but only to find her Lover. In doing so she becomes what she already is. She finds her life in losing it, whereas the wandering poet loses his life in finding it.

John’s answer to Shelley’s anxieties is a surrender to Transcendent love. In poetic terms, John is abandoned to being the instrument of the Divine. He is content to be an Aeolian harp out of love for the wind, whereas Shelley wishes to be the wind but cannot escape being the harp and thus ends up trying to play himself. John’s answer is so tantalizingly simple, it seems too easy. When everything crumbles away, when social and psychic impasse is reached, when there is a standstill and the nature of God and the soul both seem indecipherable, even unpleasant, the only answer can be an abandonment to faith. Faith is a simplicity of being, wherein one rests as one is and trusts that the relationship between oneself and the Divine is immutable. It seems like too great a leap to make such a declaration from experience, but then again: what other option is there? If one is at Shelley’s impasse, if anxieties of identity are overwhelming and the world seems empty of Divinity, does one have another choice? The proof is in the pudding, and it hardly seems possible that one would choose the godforsaken sepulcher of the poet over the eternal consummation of the beloved. The trick is in being able to trust the Divine process, both that it is real and active.

  Sweet divinity,
 delightful Life
in which I will wear a bright garment,
accepting what I lost at my first appearance,
I sigh for you, and I invoke all the virtues.

Hildegard of Bingen, “The Play of Virtues.”



Bolte, Caralyn M. “”Her Cradle, and His Sepulchre”: The Shelleys’ Anxiety of Creation and Identity.” Thesis. North Carolina State University, 2004. North Carolina State University. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

Fitzgerald, Constance, O.C.D. “Impasse and Dark Night.” Living with Apocalypse, Spritual Resources for Social Compassion (1984): 93-116. Baltimore Carmel. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Hussein, T. A. Hind N. “Reflections of the Self and the Less Obvious Others in Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude.” Iraq Academic Scientific Journals. University of Baghdad. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Kavanaugh, Kieran, and Otilio Rodriguez. “The Dark Night of the Soul.” The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Washington, D.C: Institute of Carmelite Studies, ICS Publications, 1991. Print.

Kreeft, Peter. “Is There Sex in Heaven?” PeterKreeft.com. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

Moore, Thomas. Foreword. Dark Night of the Soul. New York: Riverhead, 2003. Online. <http://www.mirabaistarr.com/exerpt1.html&gt;.

O’Connor, David Kevin. Introduction. The Symposium of Plato: The Shelley Translation. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s, 2002. N. pag. Print.

Plato. The Symposium of Plato: The Shelley Translation. Ed. David Kevin. O’Connor. Trans. Percy Bysshe Shelley. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s, 2002. Print.

Shelley, Mary. “Alastor, Introductory Note, 1839 Edition.” Introduction. Introductory Note to Alastor, 1839 Edition. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

Shelley, Percy. “Alastor: Or, the Spirit of Solitude.” Bartleby.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

–        “Preface.” Alastor: Or, the Spirit of Solitude. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Knarf.english.upenn.edu. University of Pennsylvania. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

Starr, Mirabai. Introduction. Dark Night of the Soul. New York: Riverhead, 2003. N. pag. Online. <http://www.mirabaistarr.com/exerpt1.html&gt;.

Teresa of Avila. “The Interior Castle.” The Collected Works of St Teresa of Avila. Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh. Vol. 2. Washington DC: ICS, 1980. Print.




[1] 208e-209b.

[3] For the full text of the section of Alastor in which the veiled maiden appears, follow this link.

[4] Alastor line 148.

[5] 151-154

[6] 150-151, 159-160

[7] 135-36 (cf. 291, 699); 179-180

[8] 153; 161

[10] Bolte 3, 5. “This desire [to remain in his hyper-masculine poet role] requires him to negotiate not just a set of patriarchal ideals, but also an allusive, primarily male canonical fabric, while simultaneously needing to embrace the creative, feminine side of himself which he sees as the source of all poetry” (Bolte 5).

[11] Alastor 163-168

[12] 174, 181

[13] 177-179

[14] 182-187

[15] 188-189

[16] 224-25

[17] 227-237

[18] Bolte 20-21

[19] David O’Connor, Platonic Selves in Shelley and Stevens, pg. 5

[20] Alastor 411-419

[21] 411-419

[22] Bolte 25-27

[23] Alastor 469-473

[24] 480-481

[25] 486-492

[26] 493-494

[27] 517-519

[28] 533

[29] 536

[30] The significance of John’s view is that it takes the same Augustinian narcisisim – which was clearly on Shelley’s mind – and puts it into poetry. One might argue that Shelley cannot connect to Augustine’s solution because it is philosophical and theological rather than poetic. However, in John Shelley has a kindred spirit that he cannot help but listen to with attention.

[31] Dark Night 1; 2. For the full text of Dark Night, follow this link.

[32] 3

[33] Percy Shelley, Preface.

[34] Dark Night 4

[35] 8

[36] 5

[37] Alastor 229-230

[38] Dark Night 6

[39] Fitzgerald, Constance. Impasse and Dark Night. Later she quotes theologian Belden Lane, who says:

…in a genuine impasse one’s accustomed way of acting and living is brought to a standstill. The left side of the brain, with its usual application of linear, analytical, conventional thinking is ground to a halt. The impasse forces us to start all over again, driving us to contemplation. On the other hand, the impasse provides a challenge and a concrete focus for contemplation. …It forces the right side of the brain into gear, seeking intuitive, symbolic, unconventional answers, so that action can be renewed eventually with greater purpose. (Belden Lane, Spirituality and Political Commitment, 3; qtd. in Fitzgerald).

If this isn’t descriptive of both Alastor and Dark Night, I don’t know what is.

[40] Alastor 156

4 thoughts on “(Paper) “The Poetic Feminine: Questions of spiritual gender in Percy Shelley’s Alastor & John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul”

  1. Pingback: Stark Staring Sane | A Belated Existence

  2. I read Shelley at university, as his feminine epipsyches spoke to me so powerfully… One of the books I read on that subject (“Shelley’s Mirrors of Love”) also went into how Shelley’s (possible) dysphoria led him from being a total atheist as a student to a gradual embracing of Christ, but one conceived very much in feminine terms, and that was the first time I felt the universe was letting me know that I was neither despised nor alone. Not quite a Road to Damascus moment, but definitely a tentative first step towards becoming a Christian.

    If that Peter Kreeft essay you shared on “Sexed Souls” is accurate, and if I am not beyond redemption myself, I am hopeful to one day meet Shelley’s true self, though I can’t imagine what she will have called herself. Nothing goes brilliantly with “Bysshe”…

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