P.B. Shelley, “One Word is Too Often Profaned” (1821)

George Clint,  Jane Williams  (c. 1822).

George Clint, Jane Williams (c. 1822).

"One word is too often profaned
For me to profane it, 
One feeling too falsely disdained
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” was written for Jane Williams, a family friend with whom Shelley had become infatuated toward the end of his life. (Fun fact: Shelley’s boating companion on that ill-fated trip across the Gulf of Spezia was Edward Williams, Jane’s husband. He also drowned when their boat foundered in a storm.) The poem captures both the intensity and necessary secrecy of Shelley’s love: “love” is the “one word” Shelley refuses to use in the opening stanza both because it is often used too freely (and thus degraded) and because it might be dangerous: what if Jane “disdains” his avowal of love? What if there is something “profane” about how Shelley loves? We sense the claustrophobia of the poem, as Shelley struggles to give language to his feelings for a woman with whom he, Mary, and her husband Edward shared a home during the final period of his life.
The compromise, voiced in the poem’s second stanza, is platonic: “wilt thou accept,” Shelley asks Jane, “The worship the heart lifts above | And the Heavens reject not”? Jane becomes something like a muse, as Shelley voices his love in spiritual terms: it is now a form of devotion toward “something afar | From the sphere of our sorrow.”
This is part of our Tuesday Verse series. Commentary comes from Jonathan Kerr, who has recently completed his PhD in English at the University of Toronto with specialization in the Romantics.