Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet to ‘One Word Is Too Often Profaned’, belonged to the younger generation of the Romantic poets. The son of a Tory squire, he was born in 1792. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, whence, however, he was soon expelled for publishing a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism.
An ill-advised marriage with a mere school-girl, Harriet Westbrook, led to an open rupture with his family, and Shelley found himself adrift. After the tragic death of his young wife, he married Mary, the daughter of William Godwin, whose influence on his mind was already immense. This second union proved a very happy one, for in Mary he had an intellectual companion and emotional support amid all the trouble arising from quarrels with his relatives, lawsuits about his property and his children, and his own highly strung temperament and fragile health. In 1818 he left England for Italy and in 1822 was drowned while sailing across the Bay of Spezzia.
The poem, ‘One Word Is Too Often Profaned’, is a short one, and was addressed to Jane Williams, like the poem called “To A Lady, With A Guitar”. It expresses Shelley’s genuine and deep devotion to Jane Williams with whom he had a special kind of relationship. Jane Williams exercised a considerable influence on Shelley, and the story of their relationship makes interesting reading. In the poem, he elevates her to a high position and offers her his worship.
Desmond King-Hele has the following comment to offer on this poem: “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 – boredom is the stock response on meeting it again. The poem has a glossy finish to deter scratches, but the ill-mannered cur who does scratch finds little beneath the surface gloss.
‘One Word Is Too Often Profaned’ is a conceit, like most seventeenth-century love-poems, and may provoke the ‘tetchy’ rebuke, “More matter with less art”. What this critic means to say is that, though on the surface the poem appears to be shining and attractive, there is very little matter or meaning in it. One is inclined to agree with this judgment, because the poem is really a trifle except for the line “The desire of the moth for the star” which is often applied to Shelley’s unattainable and impossible ideals.
Analysis of One Word Is Too Often Profaned
One word is too often profaned
For me to profane it,
Shelley means to say that the word “love” is so often misused and abused that it cannot be further abused by his making use of it. The word “love” has been cheapened and vulgarized by being constantly used.
One feeling too falsely disdain’d
For thee to disdain it.
The feeling of worship that a lover offers has often been rejected on false grounds. So false were the grounds on which this offer of worship has often been rejected, that she, Jane Williams, should not reject Shelley’s offer.
One hope is too like despair
For prudence to smother,
Although Shelley hopes that Jane Williams would respond to his sentiment, yet the hope seems to be illusory. His hope is very much like hopelessness, and therefore there is no need for his better judgment to crush his hope. His better judgement tells him that he cannot get the response which he desires. But there is no need for his better judgement to intervene because the hope that he entertains is itself very akin to hopelessness.
And pity from thee more dear
Than that from another.
Shelley says that a feeling of pity from Jane Williams would be more precious to him than the feeling of love from another woman. He has such a high opinion of Jane Williams that even sympathy from her would give him greater happiness than love from another woman. (The word “that” in line 8 stands for love).
I can give not what men call love;
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heavens reject not:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?
Shelley says that he cannot offer to her what is generally known as love, because the word “love” has been cheapened and vulgarized. But he can offer to her the feeling of worship which has an uplifting effect upon him and which even God does not reject. His reverence for her may be compared to the impossible desire of the moth for the star. He impatiently longs for her just as the night is impatient to be followed by the day. Living as he does in a world of sorrow, he offers to her his heartfelt devotion, and he asks her whether she will accept it.