Hush, hush! tread softly! - Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism of Hush, hush! tread softly! 

The poem’s speaker and his beloved symbolise young love which is opposed by the jealousy of old age. There is plenty of personification to suggest the willing complicity of the surroundings:

  • The house itself is asleep and no leaf trembles
  • Nature is seen to be on the side of the young lovers. The Moon has discreetly left the sky so that no light falls on the lovers’ escape attempt. Keats observes that this is either because she is prudish and does not want to witness the lovers escaping to enjoy the fruits of love – or because the Moon is ‘complaisant’, that is refusing to illuminate the lovers because it approves of what they are doing
  • The rose appears to echo the loss of Isabel’s chastity, going from being ‘shut’ to warmed and ‘full-blown’
  • The dove and its ‘soft twin eggs’ symbolise the consummation of the lovers’ relationship and the new life which will spring from it
  • Even the ‘latchet’ to the gate seems to know what is appropriate and makes no sound to awaken the ‘jealous old bald-pate’.

Investigating imagery and symbolism of Hush, hush! tread softly!...

  • What is the effect of all the personification in the poem?
  • What is the effect of all the Nature imagery?
  • How does the use of imagery help to shape your responses to the young lovers and to the jealous old man?


The dominant theme is that of energetic young love seeking fulfilment by escaping from the clutches of jealous old age. The motif is a familiar one in literature, perhaps most famously in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but common also in Chaucer (e.g. The Miller’s Tale, The Merchant’s Tale).

Another theme is that of ‘Nature’. What the lovers are doing seems not only natural but also endorsed by nature. The leaves, water, moon, rose all seem to be on the lovers’ side, adding to the impression that the speaker and his beloved are right in what they are doing and that ‘old bald-pate’ is arid, seeking to thwart the lovers’ wishes out of a sense of vengeful jealousy.

At its most fundamental, the poem is about life versus death. Escape means life in all its warm, romantic passion – leading to marriage and children. However, to be caught in the attempt means the death of their potential and a fate as sterile as that of Isabel’s jealous guardian.

Investigating themes of Hush, hush! tread softly!...

  • What evidence can you find to support the idea that the poem celebrates the energy of young love?
  • To what extent do you think that nature is an important theme in the poem?
  • ‘At its most fundamental the poem is about life versus death.’ Do you agree with this view – or do you think it loads too much significance on what is really a light-hearted poem?
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