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.