In 1813, poet William Wordsworth, tired of being the starving artist, took a government job as stamp distributor in Westmorland. Shelley, among others (Browning wrote of Wordsworth’s decision to work for the government that he had once criticized, “Just for a handful of silver he left us.”), saw this as a form of “selling out” that would ultimately diminish Wordsworth poetic powers, and hence diminish poetry.
The poem “To Wordsworth” is a poetic “back-handed” compliment, written as a lament. The poetic argument is straightforward as is the form. Shelley on the one hand lauds Wordsworth as the great “Poet of Nature” and on the other accuses him of being too worldly and foolish to understand what he is giving up…and what the world is losing.
Discussions in Washington, D.C., of public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts remind us of the historical relationship between power and art. Artists have long courted members of the court – those with power, money, and influence – to fund and support their life and work. The artist needs to eat after all, and feed his or her family. And society needs art to remain civilized. It is a relationship and controversy as old as the arts themselves.
This is the kind of poem that ultimately only a poet as great as Shelley could get away with writing.
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 honored 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.