” To….” ( One Word Is Too Often Profaned ) by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The poem was first published in London in 1824 in the collection Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley by John and Henry L. Hunt.  The poem, One Word Is Too Often Profaned, is short, like “To A Lady, With A Guitar,” and was written for Jane Williams. It exemplifies Shelley’s real and deep devotion for Jane Williams, with whom he had a close bond. Jane Williams had a significant impact on Shelley, and the narrative of their connection is fascinating. He elevates her to a lofty position in the poem and offers her his worship.

Summary of ” To ….”

In One Word is Too Often Profaned , Shelley refuses to use the word “Love” to characterise his connection with Jane. He claims that because this word has been so frequently profaned or overused, he will not use it to describe this connection. He goes on to add that the use of this word may be rejected by Jane herself, and that his sentiments for her are too pure to be disdained unjustly.

He employs the word “pity,” claiming that Jane’s pity is more valuable than any other woman’s love. At this time, he begins to elevate Jane’s stature over that of other women throughout the world. Shelley uses the word “worship” to characterise his devotion for Jane. He claims that his admiration for Jane is both uplifting and moral (and the heavens reject not).

He describes the nature of his devotion: it is the devotion of a moth to a star, or the devotion of the night to the following morning. He describes his devotion as something that exists beyond the realms of material existence and conflict (the sphere of our sorrow).

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Shelley claims that he cannot offer her what is commonly referred to as love because the word “love” has become devalued and vulgarised. But he can give her the emotion of worship that uplifts him and that God does not reject. His adoration for her is analogous to the moth’s unattainable desire for the star. He yearns for her as much as the night yearns for the day to arrive. He offers her his passionate devotion, living in a world of suffering, and asks her whether she will take it.

The poem employs a mix of anapests and iambs in its metrical feet. Each couplet has three accents on the first line and two accents on the second line.

Like most seventeenth-century love poems, the poem is a conceit, and it may elicit the ‘tetchy’ criticism, “More matter with less art.” This critic is implying that, while the poetry looks to be gleaming and appealing on the surface, it contains very little substance or significance. One is inclined to concur with this assessment because, except from the phrase “The desire of the moth for the star,” which is commonly attributed to Shelley’s unrealistic and unreachable goals, the poem is truly a little.

On this poetry, Desmond King-Hele has this to say: “This poem is one of those anthologists” darlings so damaging to Shelley’s reputation. Continual reprinting in anthologies has quite mummified it” — deadened it; taken away its life and soul – ennui is the standard reaction when encountering it again. The poetry has a glossy texture to prevent scratches, yet the ill-mannered cur that does scratch discovers nothing under the surface sheen.

Analysis of   ” To ….”

Although Percy Shelley does not specifically address Jane Williams’ musical abilities in this poem, it is known that “To…” is one of a series of poems written in her honour that highlight her abilities as an inspiration for the author.

Percy Shelley refuses to term his sentiments love in this poem because of the pragmatics this word has gained over time, as if it were unstable and frequently exploited by others. As Shelley indicates, his affections for Jane are above love, possibly even divine — “And the Heavens reject not” —, something that can be recognised by the heavens and so take on a godlike nature that is unsuitable for such a “profane” environment as Earth. The poem illustrates Shelley’s understanding of the impossibility of his relationship with Jane, which is repeated in the lyric “I can give not what men call love” and by the imagery that follows, such as “the desire of the moth for the star/ (…) The devotion to something afar.” These drawings depict a longing for impossible things, which could be regarded as a parallel for his affections for her, which are designed to be maintained in a utopian sphere. In his work, The.Semiotic Echoes in Percy Shelley’s Poems to Jane Williams (1999), Paul Vatalaro asserts that

Shelley regards Jane as a mother figure, noting that the poet “believes Jane initiates a scenario reminiscent of the early relationship which occurs between a mother and her infant” (p. 72), and that her music transports him to “an other-worldly paradise characterised by unity and intimacy” (p. 72).

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The poem is well written. Its flexible, songlike rhythm and verbal formality combine in two stanzas of considerable eloquence and elegance. While the use of anapaests lightens the metre, the pattern of three and two-beat lines with masculine and feminine endings emphasises a control of the medium equivalent to the emotional control declared.

The sentence-subjects in the opening stanza are not exactly oppositional, and their link is highlighted by parallel grammatical patterns. The subjects are “word” and “feeling,” “hope,” “prudence,” and “pity.” The word that is “too often profaned” is deliberately kept, only to be revealed at the start of the second line, “I can give not what men call love…” It is an odd sentence, implying insufficiency rather than moral restraint while loftily asserting the superiority of the love that stays physically unspoken.

The negatives that constitute the first and third line endings in the second stanza appear to give a touch of coercion to the argument. Shelley’s atheism does not prohibit a reference to the Heavens and the assurance that his love would find approbation there. These Heavens, without a doubt, belong to the classical rather than Christian tradition.

The poet’s comparison of love to “[t]he desire of the moth for the star.” is intriguing. It now appears to strike a bombastic note, but the images it produces are surprisingly poignant. The final lines appear to be a humbler, plainer, and more poignant suggestion of the poet’s unhappiness than attained elsewhere. Overall, the poem is a striking representation of the sickness of “what men call love.” It is more complicated than I first believed, and less reliant on the Romantic tradition in which it is usually situated.

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