Addressing his beloved, the speaker says that he arises from “dreams of thee / In the first sweet sleep of night, / When the winds are breathing low, / And the stars are shining bright.” He says that “a spirit in my feet” has led him—”who knows how?”—to his beloved’s chamber-window. Outside, in the night, the “wandering airs” faint upon the stream, “the Champak odours fail / Like sweet thoughts in a dream,” and the nightingale’s complaint” dies upon her heart—as the speaker says he must die upon his beloved’s heart. Overwhelmed with emotion, he falls to the ground (“I die, I faint, I fail!”), and implores his beloved to lift him from the grass, and to rain kisses upon his lips and eyelids. He says that his cheek is cold and white, and his heart is loud and fast: he pleads, “Oh! press it to thine own again, / Where it will break at last.”
The trancelike, enchanting rhythm of this lovely lyric results from the poet’s use of a loose pattern of regular dimeters that employ variously trochaic, anapestic, and iambic stresses. The rhyme scheme is tighter than the poem’s rhythm, forming a consistent ABCBADCD pattern in each of the three stanzas.
This charming short lyric is one of Shelley’s finest, simplest, and most exemplary love poems. It tells a simple story of a speaker who wakes, walks through the beautiful Indian night to his beloved’s window, then falls to the ground, fainting and overcome with emotion. The lush sensual language of the poem evokes an atmosphere of nineteenth-century exoticism and Orientalism, with the “Champak odours” failing as “The wandering airs they faint / On the dark, the silent stream,” as “the winds are breathing low, / And the stars are shining bright.” The poet employs a subtle tension between the speaker’s world of inner feeling and the beautiful outside world; this tension serves to motivate the poem, as the inner dream gives way to the journey, imbuing “a spirit in my feet”; then the outer world becomes a mold or model for the speaker’s inner feeling (“The nightingale’s complaint / It dies upon her heart, / As I must die on thine...”), and at that moment the speaker is overwhelmed by his powerful emotions, which overcome his body: “My cheek is cold and white, alas! / My heart beats loud and fast...”
In this sense “The Indian Serenade” mixes the sensuous, rapturous aestheticism of a certain kind of Romantic love poem (of Keats, for example) with the transcendental emotionalism of another kind of Romantic love poem (often represented by Coleridge). The beautiful landscape of fainting airs and low-breathing winds acts upon the poet’s agitated, dreamy emotions to overwhelm him in both the aesthetic and emotional realm—both the physical, outer world and the spiritual, inner world—and his body is helpless to resist the resultant thunderclap: “I die! I faint! I fail!”