To A Lady, with a Guitar by Percy Bysshe Shelley

As the title of the poem, To A Lady, With A Guitar, by Shelley, itself shows that the poem is addressed to Mrs. Jane Williams whose companionship greatly pleased Shelley and to whom he presented a guitar. This poem was a ‘piece of make-believe’ to go with his gift of the guitar to her.  Here he imagines himself and his friends (Edward Williams and Jane Williams) to be characters from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. Edward Williams is imagined as Ferdinand and Jane Williams as Miranda. Shelley himself becomes Ariel. Shelley  wrote  this poem in the Pine Forest near Pisa. His friend, Trelawny, found him there one day, sitting beside a fallen tree and gazing into one of the pools, with books and papers scattered round.

Trelawny picked up  a fragment bout he later recorded the following observation: ‘It was a frightful scroll; words  smeared out with his finger, and one upon the other, over and over in tiers, and all run together in most admired disorder…..On my observing this to Shelley, he answered: “When my brain gets heated with thought, it soon boils, and throws off images and words faster than I can skin them off’. This scroll was the poem, With A Guitar, To Jane, in which Shelley mixes the playful with the poignant. The guitar which Shelley gave to Jane Williams is now in the Bodleian Library. The projection of himself into the character of Ariel, a kindly spirit committed to the service of Ferdinand and Miranda (that is, Edward and Jane Williams) is a pretty conceit.

The name Ariel chosen here by Shelley for himself, together with the phrase “ineffectual angel” used by Mathew Arnold for him, has done much to perpetuate the legend of Shelley as an ethereal writer of fragile lyrics. It is only an expression of Shelley’s sentiment of devotion to Jane Williams whose singing he very much appreciated and whose company had a soothing and calming effect on him in his restless moments.

 

To A Lady, with a Guitar Analysis

ARIEL to Miranda: Take

This slave of music for the sake

Of him who is the slave of thee;

And teach it all the harmony

In which thou canst and only thou

Make the delighted spirit glow

Till joy denies itself again

And too intense is turn’d to pain.

 

For by permission and command

Of thine own Prince Ferdinand

Poor Ariel sends this silent token

Of more than ever can be spoken;

Your guardian spirit Ariel who

From life to life must still pursue

Your happiness for thus alone

Can Ariel ever find his own.

 

From Prospero’s enchanted cell

As the mighty verses tell

To the throne of Naples he

Lit you o’er the trackless sea

Flitting on your prow before

Like a living meteor.

 

When you die the silent Moon

In her interlunar swoon

Is not sadder in her cell

Than deserted Ariel:

When you live again on earth

Like an unseen Star of birth

Ariel guides you o’er the sea

Of life from your nativity:

Many changes have been run

Since Ferdinand and you begun

Your course of love and Ariel still

Has track’d your steps and served your will.

 

Now in humbler happier lot 35

This is all remember’d not;

And now alas the poor Sprite is

Imprison’d for some fault of his

In a body like a grave¡ª

From you he only dares to crave

For his service and his sorrow

A smile to-day a song to-morrow.

In the poem, To A Lady, with a guitar, Shelley offers the gift of a guitar to Jane whom he calls Miranda, giving the name Ariel to himself. He calls the guitar a “slave to music”, while he calls himself a slave of Jane. Jane has the capacity to produce intensely joyful tunes from this guitar. Ariel offers this guitar to Jane as a token of his deep affection for her. He feels for her an affection which cannot be expressed in words. He has taken the permission of Jane’s husband (whom he calls Prince Ferdinand) to give her this present. He tells Jane that he has served her as her guardian spirit through many lives.

In very life that she has lived, (and she has lived a number of lives), he has tried to make her happy because, only by so doing, could he himself be happy. The first service that he rendered to her was to have attended upon her when she and Prince Ferdinand made a voyage  from Prospero’s island to the city of Naples where she was to be married to Ferdinand. Since that time, Ariel (or Shelley) has always attended upon them in the course of their many lives on earth. Every time Jane died, Shelley felt sadder even than the moon which felt grief-stricken at her death. Every time she appeared on earth, Shelley attended upon her in the course of her life. This time Ariel, who was a spirit before, has appeared in a human shape to serve her. All that he expects from her is an occasional smile and an occasional song.

The artist who this viol wrought

To echo all harmonious thought

Fell’d a tree while on the steep

The woods were in their winter sleep

Rock’d in that repose divine

On the wind-swept Apennine;

And dreaming some of autumn past

And some of spring approaching fast

And some of April buds and showers

And some of songs in July bowers

And all of love; and so this tree

Oh that such our death may be!

Died in sleep and felt no pain

To live in happier form again:

From which beneath heaven’s fairest star

The artist wrought this loved guitar;

And taught it justly to reply

To all who question skilfully

In language gentle as thine own;

Whispering in enamour’d tone

Sweet oracles of woods and dells

And summer winds in sylvan cells.

 

For it had learnt all harmonies

Of the plains and of the skies

Of the forests and the mountains

And the many-voic¨¨d fountains;

The clearest echoes of the hills

The softest notes of falling rills

The melodies of birds and bees

The murmuring of summer seas

And pattering rain and breathing dew

And airs of evening; and it knew

That seldom-heard mysterious sound

Which driven on its diurnal round

As it floats through boundless day

Our world enkindles on its way:¡ª

All this it knows but will not tell

To those who cannot question well

The spirit that inhabits it:

It talks according to the wit

Of its companions; and no more

Is heard than has been felt before

By those who tempt it to betray

These secrets of an elder day.

 

But sweetly as its answers will

Flatter hands of perfect skill

It keeps its highest holiest tone

For one beloved Friend alone.

In the above stanzas, Shelley goes on to give a fanciful account of the manner in which this guitar was wrought and the melodies which a musician can produce from it. There were many trees growing on the mountain-range called the autumn, some of spring, some of April buds and showers, and all of love, a musician cut down one tree and, obtaining some wood from it, he wrought this guitar. The musicians filled the guitar with such music that it could produce all kinds of sweet sounds that are heard anywhere. It could reproduce the sound the sounds of fountains, of streams, of the ocean, of birds, and spheres. However, the nature and extent of the guitar’s response to anyone who played on it would depend on the degree of skill which the player possessed. To expert fingers, this guitar could even open up musical secrets of olden times. But the guitar reserves its highest and holiest music for the skillful fingers of Shelley’s beloved friend, Jane.

As has already been said above, this poem is pretty conceit. Borrowing the names of certain characters from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, Shelley calls himself Ariel, giving the name Miranda to Jane and her husband as a  pair of lovers, and himself as Jane’s guardian spirit. Shelley also imagines that Ferdinand and Miranda (that is, Edward and Jane) have lived through many lives and that he (Ariel) has attended upon them and guarded Jane’s happiness throughout those various lives. All this is a fanciful way of the poet imagines, that, each time, Jane died, the moon was so grief-stricken that it   retired into a dark cell, but that Ariel’s grief was even greater than that of the moon.

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