Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Explication of "To _____"

          The poem “To_____” by Percy Shelley is a love poem that demonstrates the difference between the public idea of love and what it is to truly love on a personal level. The poem takes us from a critique of how love is treated in the world around the speaker to the practically religious devotion of real love. The direct relationship between the speaker and the addressee is established as early as the title. The speaker is communicating to their lover, speaking to them and asking them to accept their love directly. Of course, the exact identities of the speaker and the addressee are unknown to the reader of the poem, perhaps allowing the themes on love to be more universal. The poem may also feel more universal through the absence of any specific time or setting, aside from using nighttime as a metaphor. Through distinctions in diction, sentence structure, images, and sound, the two stanzas of the poem are separated into a cynical critique on what men call love and a description and offering of real, honest love.

          The first stanza focuses on the public, negative side of love as the speaker sees it in his world; the diction reflects this more negative viewpoint. Love as a word and feeling is said to be “profaned” and “falsely disdained.” This strong language gives the idea that love has become stained and ruined as a result of ill-use, so the speaker refuses to identify their feelings as love. We see other negative, lowly words in the first stanza, such has “despair” and “smother.” All of these words establish the critical tone of the first stanza, attacking society for, in a way, killing the word “love.” This lowly view of love is especially important in contrast to the quite literally elevated language of the second stanza, in which the speaker is constantly looking up as to God when contemplating their lover.

          The second stanza is about the beauty and the passion of actually experiencing this real love, which the diction reflects. Several words in this stanza suggest that true love is a religious experience, such as “worship,” “Heaven,” and “devotion.” The love the speaker feels for their lover is akin to man’s devotion to God. The language in this section is more positive than in the previous one, involving looking up and forward at something beyond this world that abuses love. “The heart lifts above,” “the moth” looks to “the star,” and devotion is given to something far away “From the sphere of our sorrow.” This stanza seems to pull us out of the impurities put forth in the first stanza, showing us a personal love that is beyond that. As the speaker offers a higher love, the reader sees a figurative elevation through word choice. 

          It’s also notable that while the first stanza consists of more generalities, it is only in the second stanza that we see figurative language and imagery. These features contribute to the positive, religious sense of romantic love. One example of the figurative language is the metaphor of “The desire of the moth for the star.” This suggests first an instinctual feeling the speaker has for the addressee, since a moth does not really choose to seek light. It also gives us an image of looking up at something far off; the moth down close to the earth craves something far greater than itself, like mankind looks to heaven, and like this lover looks to the object of their love. 

          In the meter and general form of the poem, we don’t as clearly see the distinction between the two stanzas. The contrast is mainly developed through sentence structure, word choice, and sound. The poem consists of two eight-line stanzas, both of which follow a quatrain rhyming pattern, ABABCDCD, even though the poem isn’t split into four-line stanzas. The poem uses mostly true rhyme in both stanzas but also uses slant rhyme with “despair” and “dear.” As far as meter, the poem uses alternating lines of iambic trimeter and iambic dimeter. This means that each pair of lines consists of a three-foot line followed by a two-foot line. While not every line strictly follows this pattern, it is still the basis for the underlying rhythm of the poem. In this way, the poem is regulated by a particular pattern that is consistent in both stanzas. These features of rhythm and regularity could contribute to an overarching tone of reflection and an expected quieter tone attributed to a poem for a lover. The poem also frequently uses enjambment, where one thought is continued across multiple lines, which also creates this reflective, flowing tone, particularly in the second stanza.

          Sentence structure is important in “To_____” as it demonstrates the shift from generalities about love in the world to a personal statement of devotion. The first stanza uses repetition in the sentence structure. The first two lines are “One word is too often profaned/ For me to profane it.” This structure of “one ____ is too ____ for ____” is repeated for the first six lines of the poem. This rigid sentence structure contributes to the more general ideas addressed in the first stanza and the more critical tone. The speaker is more regimented, so it feels less emotional. When this pattern drops in the second stanza, the poem immediately feels more personal and emotional. The speaker seems to be swept away by their devotion for the addressee. The last stanza is actually all one sentence, creating a much softer tone and a stanza that flows. The second stanza is less orderly, and therefore expresses the reality of this feeling that the speaker can’t call “love.”

          Sound also contributes to the shift in tone, creating a harsher first stanza and a softer second which appeals directly to the speaker’s lover. The consonants in the first stanza are more often mutes than in the second. This refers to consonant sounds that stop the breath, creating a sound that doesn’t flow but has a choppy effect. Some examples from the first stanza include the “p” sound in “profaned,” “prudence,” and “pity” and the “d” sound in “disdained,” “despair,” and “dear.” This, paired with the word choice and the regimented sentence structure, contributes to a sharper tone in the first stanza. The speaker is contemplating something negative about the world and making a critique; mute consonants contribute to this tone. Certainly in comparison to the second stanza, the sounds in the first stanza contribute to a faster, slightly sharper reading. 

          The second stanza, on the other hand, uses mainly semivowels, liquids in particular. Semivowels are consonants that can be protracted and do not stop the breath like mutes. Liquids, which are used frequently in the second stanza, are a subcategory of semivowels so named because of the fluidity of their sound. Some examples of liquids in this stanza are the “r” sound seen in “desire,” “star,” “morrow,” “afar,” “sphere,” and “sorrow” and the “m” sound in “men,” “moth,” “something,” “from,” and “morrow” again. Some other semivowels used more in this second stanza are “s,” “h,” and “w.” This contributes to a stanza that on the whole reads as softer and slower than the one preceding it. This softer tone is consistent with what might be expected of someone speaking to their lover, as this stanza offers devotion to the addressee directly. The stanza flows in part because of the liquids; the sounds are more drawn out and run into one another. One example of this is the word “morrow,” in which all of the consonants are semivowels, two of which are liquids. This word is soft and the sounds seem to blur and flow together, which is very different from a word like “disdained” in the first stanza. In this way, the sounds used in the poem indicate the shift between the first and second stanza.

          The end of the poem discusses the speaker’s love as “the devotion to something afar/ From the sphere of our sorrow,” creating a final image of complete religious devotion to the object of love. The speaker demonstrates to the addressee what it truly means to love, free from the spoiled idea of love presented in the first stanza. “To_____” establishes the speaker’s love as something far beyond earthly limits, beyond how men abuse the word, and beyond “the sphere of our sorrow.”

Return to the poem: "To _____" by Percy Bysshe Shelley