What Do John Lennon and Percy Bysshe Shelley Have in Common?

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Thumbing through the table of contents in my copy of English Romantic Writers, I spotted the sonnet “To Wordsworth” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The title piqued my interest so I figured I’d give it a quick read.

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.

I find it interesting when artists criticize each other. In this poem, Shelley is clearly irked by Wordsworth. Even the tone of the opening line, referring to Wordsworth as “Poet of Nature” has a mocking feel to it.

The main criticism that Shelley casts at Wordsworth is his obsession with the past. Wordsworth longed to recapture the magic and joy of childhood through his poetry, and I can respect that. But Shelley makes a valid point. Wordsworth became so obsessed with nature and childhood that he neglected the present, the future, and adult responsibilities. And what makes it worse is that Wordsworth’s earlier works were “Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,” but then as he gained fame and fortune, he sold out.

I have to say, though, that Shelley does come off as a bit self-righteous. When he claims that “I alone deplore” the common woes, I want to say: “Really? You’re the only one?” If you want to champion the common cause, you need to get down from the pedestal.

ImagineCoverI like both Wordsworth and Shelley, and I respect both of their literary contributions, just as I respect Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Just because artistic paths diverge does not make one artist’s contributions more important than another’s. Still, jabs like this make for interesting reading, just as John Lennon’s song “How Do You Sleep?” is an interesting critique on Sir Paul.

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