Featured Poem: Lift Not the Painted Veil by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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This week’s Featured Poem comes from Percy Bysshe Shelley. Lift Not the Painted Veil is a popular poem in Shared Reading and here a member of our London team shares her reflections.

Lift Not the Painted Veil is a mysterious poem. When reading it in Shared Reading groups the starting focus is always the question: what is ‘the painted veil which those who life call Life’?

Is it some façade that we pretend is true rather than seeking a more authentic life (glossy magazines and tabloid papers spring to mind, ‘unreal shapes’, ‘colours idly spread’). Or is it the veil between life and death, and behind it is whatever happens after we die (‘the chasm, sightless and drear’)? This intrigue can lead to wonderful discussions, particularly when exploring ‘Fear and Hope, twin Destinies’, whether we always have both, and whether you would be willing to give up hope if it meant you never felt fear.

For me, though, it’s the second section that I find most moving; some tender-hearted man has lifted the veil to find things to love, but ‘found them not, alas!’ His story seems beautiful and tragic, and I am left wondering whether he regrets lifting the veil – it meant that he could see more clearly, and be ‘a bright blot upon this gloomy scene’, – or whether the tragedy of being the only one among ‘the unheeding many’ was too difficult.

Shelley’s advice in the title is to leave well alone, and maybe he’s speaking from experience, and yet I’m left wanting to find out for myself, and keen to avoid being one of the ‘shadows’ whose lives might be easier but seem somehow less.

Groups that have read the novel The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham tend to leave this poem to the very end of the book, and it is wonderful to make the connections between the poem and Kitty’s early, frivolous life, and her journey towards some other, more authentic life. I’ve also read it with Frankenstein, as the Creature is very sympathetic to the reader (for some time at least), and his is that tragic experience of yearning to love and be loved, and yet finding nothing.

Lift Not the Painted Veil

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

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