Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem ‘Alastor’ begins as an exploration of the ideal in landscape and womanhood, but soon becomes a quest for the supernatural spirit that transcends earthly ideals. The main character of the poem, a solitary poet, pursues ‘the winding of the cavern’ downstream to the sea, where his life ends. His quest apparently fails in its desire to find some corporeal manifestation of his ideals, but not without a realisation that such ideals do exist abstractly in the intellect.
How is the theme of water presented?
‘Alastor’ reflects Shelley’s fascination with water, an interest that ultimately led to his death. W B Yeats wrote that ‘from Shelley’s return to England rivers and streams and wells, flowing through caves or rising in them, came into every poem of his that was of any length, and always with the precision of symbols’. At one point in the poem the poet sits passively in the boat he has made while it is driven downstream by a wave; this echoes the incident in early 1816 where Shelley and Byron were caught alone in a squall on Lake Geneva and calmly waited for the storm to pass, though Shelley could not swim.
The poem was composed at the house Shelley rented near Windsor, and was inspired by an excursion up the Thames with Thomas Love Peacock, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) and Charles Clairmont.