One Word is Too Often Profaned: Summary & Analysis

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One word is too often profaned
For me to profane it,
One feeling too falsely disdain'd
For thee to disdain it;
One hope is too like despair
For prudence to smother,
And pity from thee more dear
Than that from another.

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?

One Word is too often Profaned by P. B. Shelley
One Word is Too Often Profaned

Summary & Analysis


      One Word is too often Profaned by P. B. Shelley was written in 1821 and was published in 1824 in Posthumous Poems. Critics have been divided in their opinion as to the identity of the woman who inspired its composition. The names of Mrs. Jane Williams (See Introduction to Jane: The Invitation) and Emilia Viviani have been put forward by most critics as the woman behind this poem. Though Shelley had already met Jane by the time of its composition, he had not yet by most reports, taken a serious note of this plain, domesticated woman. So it is quite possible that he had Emilia Viviani in his mind while writing this poem. At the end of November 1820, Shelley and Mary were introduced to Emilia, a beautiful 19-year old Italian girl. A budding and fluent poetess, Emilia was the daughter of a State dignitary—the Governor of Pisa—who was, despite his wealth, a person mean with money. She was kept 'imprisoned' in a convent school by her tyrannical father and was to remain there until he could find her a husband who would not demand a dowry. Shelley, excited by her talents and suffering, developed a deep admiration for her and wrote Epipsychidion as a compliment to 'this hopeless young girl. The relationship between Shelley and Emilia, however, never extended itself beyond propriety and always remained on the Platonic level. One year later, even before Epipsychidion went to press, Emilia demeaned herself in the eyes of both Shelley and his wife by meekly accepting the husband chosen by her father and then by asking the Shelley's for a large loan to help a friend of hers.


      The word 'love' is so often misused or rather abused, being used for low and vulgar passion, that the poet will not call his feeling 'love'. Common women often disdain the pure devotion of man's heart; but he hopes that the good lady will not disdain his sincere worship of the heart. His feelings need no concealment; for his hope of getting the lady is too much like despair; yet pity from her is more acceptable to him than love from another. (Stanza 1)

      The poet cannot offer the lady what is commonly known as 'love', but he can offer the sincere devotion of his heart, which even the gods do not disdain to accept. As the moth cannot hope to meet the morning, for night and day are in perpetual chase, so also he looks upon her as something heavenly and unattainable, and far away from our miserable world. (Stanza 2)

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      Concept of Love: Shelley's concept of love has nothing to do with sexual passion. He idealized passion and had the romantic habit of using it as a source of his poetic inspiration. He learned to employ his "sexual energy", which nature gives us in superfluous abundance, as the chief instrument for the accomplishment of his ideals. Shelley wanted to live in a Paradise where passion would be always new and fresh. He tried to keep his passion from becoming stale by separating his Paradise from the world as he knew it by a gulf that his imagination could not bridge. Ideal love, as Shelley conceives of it, is therefore something unattainable, something which at once arouses both the desire and the despair. One Word is too often Profaned depicts this kind of love, rather a "worship":

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?

      This conception of love is purely Platonic in that it is completely devoid of sexual passion. The poet himself distinguishes his love from the ordinary sexual love of others: "I can give not what men call love". This concept of an ethereal, noble and sublime love pervades, with no exception, Shelley's entire love poetry.

      Not Shelley's Best: In spite of its immense popularity this lyric has been condemned by many critics as a mere trifle. These critics have pointed out the obscurity of the ideas that the poet has tried to put forth in this poem. The noted critic, Desmond King-Hele has thus given his assessment of the poem: "This poem is one of those anthologists' darlings so damaging to Shelley's reputation. Continual reprinting in anthologies has quite mummified it and 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. The poem is a conceit, like most seventeenth-century love-poems, and may provoke the tetchy rebuke, 'More matter with less art'."

Line By Line Explanation With Critical Comments

      LI. 1-8. One word.....another. The word 'love' has been desecrated by a too frequent and indiscriminate use, and Shelley is not going to add to the process of desecration. But that is no excuse for his beloved to misunderstand and reject his passion under a false sense of dignity. She should not wait for the declaration, but read the poet's feelings with an insight born of reciprocity. The poet's hopes are so pale and despairing that they need not be suppressed by considerations of prudence. Moreover, the poet would be satisfied with pity and sympathy from the lady addressed, which is more valuable than the return of love by any other lady. The despair and disillusionment that underlie this love impart to the poem a kind of chill ardor, a frozen fervor which reaches its inevitable climax in the Platonic ideal of an unattainable spiritual passion.

      LI. 9-16.1 can give.....sorrow. The poet explains the character of his passion which is not love according to human standards. It is worship for an object beyond reach, a yearning, by its very nature, incapable of fulfillment, a self-destructive passion like that of night for morning and it is not akin to the imperfections of our sorrowful earthly existence. Through the veins of Shelley's love there runs subtle ether rather than warm human blood; but his imagination catches fire under the stress of abstraction and the flame burns with an otherworldly intensity which no mere earthly passion could have kindled. These lines show the highly etherealized nature of Shelley's love. It is almost transcendental in its nature. It is elevated far above all carnal touches—an idea? almost unattainable.

      The last four lines crystalline the feelings and beliefs of the Romantic Revival about the meaning of love, religion, romance, art, and poetry. This is indeed one of the most significant Stanzas, not in Shelley's works only, but in all English literature.


      Stanza I. L. 1. one word—i.e. love, too often profaned—by being applied to sentiments that stimulate love, but are in reality far away from it. profaned—abused; desecrated. L. 3. one feeling—the worship; offering of love, falsely—wrongly; unjustifiably, disdained—condemned. L. 5. One hope...despair—The prudent man does not entertain hopes that have little chance of being realized. L. 6. For prudence...smother—The hope of love becomes pangs of despair for the prudence of his beloved who suppresses her feelings to reciprocate, smother—pacify. L. 8. Than that from another—That grammatically stands for pity; but here it should mean 'love'. The 'one word', 'one feeling', 'one hope', and 'that' are the same, viz. love. Obviously Shelley defers the mention of the word, Love, to the second Stanza.

      Stanza II. L. 9. can give not—Shelley cannot give comforts and pleasures of life. L. 11. worship—sincere devotion or adoration of his heart, heart lifts above—sincerity of devotion purifies the human heart and raises it to divinity. L. 12. Heavens reject not—even Heaven accepts such sincere devotion and love. L. 13. desire of the moth—Shelley's love is too much like despair, the object of his love (Mrs. Williams) is as unattainable as the star is to the moth, which always rushes towards light. L. 14. night for the morrow—the union of the day and the night. L. 15. something afar—the ideal of love is beyond human beings' reach. L. 16. sphere of our sorrow—this world of pain.

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