To A Lady With A Guitar: (With A Guitar, To Jane) Summary & Analysis

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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 turned 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 tracked your steps, and served your will;
Now, in humbler, happier lot,
This is all remembered not;
And now, alas! the poor sprite is
Imprisoned, for some fault of his,
In a body like a grave;—
From you he only dares to crave,
For his service and his sorrow,
A smile to-day, a song to-morrow.

The artist who this idol wrought,
To echo all harmonious thought,
Felled a tree, while on the steep
The woods were in their winter sleep,
Rocked 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 all of love; and so this tree,—
O 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 enamoured tone
Sweet oracles of woods and dells
And summer winds in sylvan cells:
For it had learned all harmonies
Of the plains and of the skies,
Of the forests and the mountains,
And the many-voiced 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,—
All this it knows, but will not tell
To those who cannot question well
The Spirit that inliabits 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 our beloved Jane alone.

Summary & Analysis


      See the Introduction to To Jane: The Invitation. Shelley in appreciation of Jane's singing quality, gave her a guitar as a gift. This poem was intended to be a 'piece of make-believe' to accompany this gift. It is cast in the form of an address by Ariel, the "fine spirit" of Shakespeare's Tempest, to Miranda, the daughter of Prospero. Ariel is, of course, Shelley; Miranda, Jane Williams. Ferdinand in the poem stands for Jane's husband, Edward Williams. Edward Trelawny, who was introduced to Shelley in the last year of the poet's life, found Shelley in the pine forest near Pisa, sitting beside a fallen tree and gazing into the dark mirror of one of the pools, with books and papers scattered round. He picked up a fragment and later observed: "It was a frightful scrawl; 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 him he answered 'when my brain gets heated with thought, it soon boils, and throws off images and words faster than I can skim them off. In the morning, when cooled down, out of the rude sketch as you justly call it, I shall attempt a drawing." This process of poetic creation accounts for the intensity of feeling that has inspired this as well as all other poems by Shelley.


      The Poet Describes Himself as Ariel. The services of the spirit to Miranda did not end with guiding the ship of Miranda safely to Naples, as told in the excellent verses of Shakespeare's drama; the spirit feels it his duty and pleasure to act as the protecting angel of Miranda through all her successive re-births on the earth. It is the spirit Ariel who guides her over the sea of life from her birth. In this particular link of the chain of their many re-births, the spirit is confined within the body of the poet (Shelley) and will be satisfied with a smile or a song from the lady (Mrs. Jane Williams), who was Miranda in one of her many existences.

      Then the Poet Gives a History of the Guitar. The timber of which the guitar was made was yielded by a tree which stood and dreamt of love for ages on the storm-swept Appenine. While standing there it learned all harmonies of the plains and of the skies, of the forests and the mountains, of the birds and bees, and even the mysterious music of the spheres. The guitar made of such a material lays bare its soul of music only to the touch of expert hands; though it yields sweet music to the touch of expert hands, its most divine and sublime notes can be called out only by the lady Mrs. Williams, to whom it is now offered.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

      The Poet's Devotion to Jane: The poem, like the others addressed to Jane, is intended to bring out Shelley's great devotion to her. He employs a few characters from his favorite play, Shakespeare's Tempest, to give expression to his devotion to and Platonic love for Jane. He names himself Ariel, the guardian spirit of Miranda, who is Jane Williams. He refers to Edward, Jane's husband, as Ferdinand to imply that they are the lovers in the real sense of the term and he himself only an attendant to them. His only happiness lies in being able to serve his Miranda "from life to life" and to guide her "O'er the sea of life", right from her nativity. He is full of admiration for Jane's singing faculty in appreciation of which he is offering her a gift, a guitar. But the poet is not doing so on his own. The 'permission and command' of Prince Ferdinand has prompted the poet's action. The poem thus offers a glimpse into the unique relationship among the poet, Jane and Edward. Shelley's love for Jane is devoid of any amorous character; it grows from intense admiration and is based on the purest kind of friendship. The poet does not want to intrude into the normal 'course of love' between the wife and the husband. He is content to live near them and obey his Miranda's command. The bond existing among the trio is above any kind of meanness. By referring to Jane as "Our beloved Jane," Shelley has perhaps sought to keep Edward very much in the picture.

      Use of Conceits: Use of conceits is another feature of this poem. The whole poem, indeed, may be called a pretty conceit in that the comparisons borrowed from The Tempest are far-fetched and unconvincing. Shelley has used a few other conceits in the poem. The idea of Ariel serving Miranda "from life to life" is a simple conceit meant to express the poet's intense devotion to Jane and must not be taken literally to indicate Shelley's faith in the theory of transmigration of souls. The beautiful lines describing the impact of Jane's death on the moon contain a wonderful conceit reminiscent of the metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century:

When you die, the silent Moon,
In her interlunar swoon,
Is not sadder in her cell
Than deserted Ariel.

      The idea of the trees on the Apennine dreaming of lovely things in their winter sleep is another far-fetched image presented in the poem.

      Versification: The versification of this poem has evoked much admiration from the critics. The intense sense of joy that inspires the poem has lent it a spontaneity so necessary for a lyric poem. The skillful use of the Miltonic four-accent rhyming couplet, the simplicity of diction and the spontaneity of expression have combined well to give the poem a charming lyrical quality.

Line By Line Explanation With Critical Comments

      LI. 1-8. Ariel to Miranda....turn'd to pain. Shelley as Ariel is writing to Mrs. Williams, who is his Miranda in this birth. He asks her to accept the guitar, which is the slave of music, for the sake of Ariel, who is an admiring slave to her, bound to act as her protecting spirit from birth to birth. He asks her to infuse into this instrument all that wonderful music of hers to kindle his spirit. In Shakespeare's Tempest Ariel, is the hollow of a cloven pine, had been shut up by the witch Sycorax, for not complying with her evil wishes. Now the imprisonment is in the body of the poet, which shut him up as in a grave; and from thence, he seeks a smile and a song at times in return for his services and the suffering he has undergone for her sake.

      LI. 74-78. And it knew that seldom way. Shelley is describing the tree and its beautiful experience in the forest, before it was cut down to yield timber for the guitar. It had learned all the harmonies of nature on the bosom of which it had been nourished. Not only all the harmonies of nature had entered into the very spirit of the tree but the mysterious music of the spheres, which our soul cannot hear so long as it is wrapped up by our gross body, formed part of its musical experience. He was influenced by the doctrine of the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, that the earth in revolving on its axis along with other concentric spheres produces a kind of musical sound of its own, which harmonizes with the sounds of the other spheres.


      L. 1. Ariel—Spirit, who is Prospero's slave. L. 2. This slave of music,— the guitar, Miranda—daughter of Prospero in Shakespeare's Tempest. L. Of him who is the slave of thee—Ariel, Shelley. L. 7. Till joy denies itself again—too intense a joy becomes almost on ache of the heart; so Wordsworth speaks of 'aching joys'. L. 10. Prince Ferdinand—lover of Miranda. L. 14. From life to life—Ariel has had many incarnations, his present one being that of Shelley; he will be Jane's guardian spirit in all future lives too. L. 18. the mighty verses—a tribute to Shakespeare; the reference is to Prospero's last charge to Ariel to watch over the" royal fleet on its return voyage to Naples. L. 22. meteor—an appearance in the atmosphere like lightning or rainbow; it can also be a streak of light produced by the passage of a meteor. L. 24. her interlunar swoon— the period during which the moon is invisible. L. 30. nativity—hour of birth. L. 32. Ferdinand—Edward Williams, Jane's husband. L. 39. In a body like a grave—Shelley's bodily weakness was constantly before his mind and checked his happiness. L. 43. Idol—used in the Greek sense of 'an image of reality'. Shelley means that the guitar was the image or 'token of more than ever can be spoke' (see lines 11 and 12) namely, his heart's adoration. L. 48. Apennine—long mountain range, also called the "back bone of Italy." L. 49. some—i.e. some trees. L. 57. Heaven's fairest star—Venus, the planet of love. L. 63. enamoured—inflamed with love. L. 64. oracles—in ancient Greece it was believed deities spoke through a priestess; oracle is a shrine in which a deity reveals divine purpose. L. 65. sylvan—living or located in the woods, or forests, formed of woods or trees. L. 75. That seldom-heard mysterious sound—the Pythagorean doctrine that the stars and planets in their motion through the heavens produced harmony the most exquisite, we can imagine—'the music of the spheres.' Plato describes it in the Republic. The 'mysterious sound' is the note produced by the earth's revolution as part of the heavenly harmony. L. 76. diurnal—rotation of the heavens, having a daily cycle. LI. 82-83. It talks, according to the wit of its companions; the quality of the strains that can be evoked from the guitar depend on the genius of the player, wit—intelligence and wisdom. LI. 83-86. and no—people who have learned to play on this instrument on traditional lines can call forth from it only tunes already familiar. It reveals its highest, holiest tone only to Jane. The next poem interprets the poet's meaning.

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