Close Reading of P.B. Shelley's "To Wordsworth"

Pei Pei Liu '04

To Wordsworth

Poet of nature, thou hast wept to know
That things depart which never may return;
Childhood and youth, friendship and love's first glow
Have fled like sweet dreams, leaving thee to mourn.
These common woes I feel. One loss is mine
Which thou too feel'st, yet I alone deplore.
Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter's midnight roar;
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and battling mutitude;
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Songs consecrate to truth and liberty
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

--Percy Bysshe Shelley

Harold Bloom defines daemonization as "movement towards a personalized Counter-Sublime, in reaction to the precursor's Sublime." Shelley uses daemonization in "To Wordsworth" to demonstrate that his poetic capabilities exceed Wordsworth's. He does this by first acknowledging and then mockingly employing Wordsworth's poetic contributions to "generalize away the uniqueness of the earlier work" and impose himself as the new leading romantic poet.

Shelley neatly contains the themes from Wordsworth's poetry­"childhood and youth, friendship and love's first glow"­in a one-sentence stanza of iambic pentameter and A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. These first four lines, however, are immediately followed by a short and direct sentence that introduces Shelley's voice and dismisses the uniqueness of Wordsworth's: "These common woes I feel." The word "common" implies the experience is shared, but also mundane. In Shelley's eyes, Wordsworth, whose latest book at this time was considered a critical and creative failure, is now figuratively dead in the poetic world and will never surpass his previous work.

By contrast, Shelley is prospering and will only continue to grow in fame and success. In a move of wicked humor, Shelley equates Wordsworth with one of the "things depart[ed]" for the remainder of the poem, using Wordsworth's own themes to create a mock obituary that effectively proclaims him as good as dead and announces Shelley as the heir apparent. Shelley ostensibly appears to praise Wordsworth for his past works, but he peppers the eulogy with images of transience and weakness ("lone star," "frail bark," "winter's midnight," "blind and battling"), though he disguises them as descriptions of an audience as unappreciative of Wordsworth as of childhood, youth, or love. While these themes of Wordsworth's "fle[e] like sweet dreams" after naturally running their course, Shelley accuses Wordsworth of "deserting" his poetic virtues and ideals. Yet even this barb is subtle­"deserting" can also refer to true death­and in keeping with Wordsworth's theme, allowing Shelley to fulfill the role of mourner as Wordsworth did in his own poems. It is this skillful imitation and manipulation of Wordsworth's great poems that best showcases Shelley's own talents and proves the most pointed usurpation of the poet who has lost his touch and might as well be dead.

References

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "To Wordsworth." Romanticism: An Anthology, Ed. Duncan Wu. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998. 823.

 

Pei Pei Liu is an honors Special Major in English Literature and Education. She enjoys working with students and their writing through the Writing Associates Program and hopes to continue her work with students, writing, and literacy. This paper was written for Professor Betsy Bolton's English 33: The Romantic Sublime.