A Close Reading of Shelley’s “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 multitude:
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.
                                                                            (1816)

In “To Wordsworth,” Shelley eulogizes the still-living Wordsworth to accuse the older poet of having betrayed his ideals. He makes use of Wordsworth’s own language and ideas to indict him, rejecting his influence and implying that, in this betrayal, Wordsworth has committed symbolic suicide.

Shelley opens his sonnet with an allusion to Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode,” his “That things depart which never may return” (1-2) echoing Wordsworth’s “The things which I have seen I now can see no more” (Ode, 9), even in its diction of “things.” In alluding to Wordsworth’s ideas in words reminiscent of the older poet, Shelley creates an identification between Wordsworth and himself, one solidified in line 5 when Shelley indicates that the feeling of mourning he ascribes to Wordsworth in the preceding sentence Shelley now shares with him: “These common woes I feel” (5). This identification is mutual, for Shelley declares that the loss he feels Wordsworth “too feel’st” (6), aligning the two poets. Hence, it is surprising when the continuation of line 6 drives a wedge of difference between them. Shelley declares that though they both feel the loss, “I alone deplore [it]” (6), breaking the identification as soon as it is established.

This break in identification signals a shift in Shelley’s attitude towards Wordsworth,  encapsulated in his switching from the present tense in addressing Wordsworth in the opening lines (“thou… feel’st”) to the past tense in the remaining eight. Shelley begins the octet with “Thou wert as a lone star,” (7) a second allusion to Wordsworth’s own work—this time to “London, 1802” in which Wordsworth apostrophizes Milton, saying “thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart” (London, 1802, 9). This is not the only parallel between the two poems: both sonnets apostrophize a former poet whom the speaker admires. However, Milton, at the time of Wordsworth’s writing, was dead, while Wordsworth was still alive when Shelley wrote “To Wordsworth.” That Shelley uses the past tense for the living Wordsworth implies that he is as good as dead to Shelley, now that he is no longer the “lone star” and “rock-built refuge … / Above the blind and battling multitude” (9-10).

The structure of the poem itself stresses this symbolic death of Wordsworth. The rhyming couplet, which, in a Shakespearean sonnet, would come at the end, appears in lines 9 and 10, when Shelley describes Wordsworth’s former status as “refuge” to the “multitude.” The couplet, which usually signals the end of a sonnet, here signals the end of Wordsworth himself, driving home that the “Poet of Nature” (1) to whom the poem is addressed died at the point that the man ceased to be a symbol of power and refuge fixed above the masses—at the point he deserted “truth and liberty” (12). That the couplet comes early in the poem reflects Shelley’s belief that Wordsworth’s end as a poet, too, came too early. Unlike Milton’s, it was not coterminal with his physical death, but preceded it by many years.

Shelley, then, implies that Wordsworth, by betraying his ideals, failed to reach the degree of influence that Milton did. In rejecting identification with Wordsworth’s ideas and diction in line 6, Shelley proves that Wordsworth has not influenced him as greatly as Milton did Wordsworth. Believing that Wordsworth betrayed “truth and liberty,” Shelley ultimately rejects Wordsworth’s influence. The final lines cement this rejection as they complete Wordsworth’s symbolic death: though their literal meaning is that having deserted truth and liberty, Wordsworth left Shelley to grieve the end of the old Wordsworth, the inversion Shelley employs allows him to end the poem with “that thou shouldst cease to be” (14), which at first seems to refer to Wordsworth’s actual death, rather than the end of certain of his convictions. With this final line, Shelley renders Wordsworth a “thing depart[ed],” letting him fall victim to his own ideas of transience, implying not only Wordsworth’s death, but figuring that death as a suicide.

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