William Wordsworth And Percy Shelley As Iconic Poets
William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley are iconic poets who continue to be read in the modern world. They are both canonized as classic Romantic’s but what does this mean? The movement of Romanticism began with the French Revolution in the 18th century which heavily influenced the works of writers and poets in relation to their audience and subject matter. Prior to this revolution, poetry was seen as something written for Kings and wealthy men but the French Revolution prompted society to shift their attitudes with regard to the oppressed working classes and as the revolution continued, literature began to expand with free-thinking and a reaction towards enlightenment values was taking shape. Many of the characteristics of the romantic movement are distinguishable within the example poems such as the role of nature and the sublime, the importance of the individual rather than the collective through the use of a technical structure which can be explored to demonstrate meaning, create effect and help to distinguish the voice of the poet.
One of the similarities between Wordsworth and Shelley confirms the character of the idea of the individual which identifies the “idea of the writer as an original genius, an exceptional man ahead of his time possessed by inexplicable, spontaneous visionary inspiration” (Watson/Towheed, 2012, pg 16). This idea is certainly conveyed in both the examples by Wordsworth and Shelley. William Wordsworth is best known for the poetry written during his time living at Grasmere and so this poem entitled Home At Grasmere is written in a first-person narrative with the use of “I, me and we” creating an autobiographical poem creating the effect that the audience reading it are meant to believe that these encounters and subjects are from personal experience. “In the hearts of Mighty Poets;” (1029) contains a caesura to allow for the reader to pause, creating the effect that this is a piece of self-reflection from Wordsworth. The next sequence forms with the use of both enjambment and alliteration exampled by “fixed, fleeting” (1031) and “contemplated, contemplating” (1036) creates a long line which although there are opportunities to pause for breath with commas create faster pace within the poem. The form of William Wordsworth’s extract is a long continuous stanza of words with no breaks which echoes the classical epic poems of Homer. It is written in blank verse which creates the effect of an authoritative voice associated with classic epics. This plays into the characteristics of romanticism in specific, individualism, where the role of the poet is superior to ordinary mortals and plays a priestly role in how he addresses his audience. The language that is used echoes Latin with the use of thou and thy creating prophetic imagery with these words. The reference to “metropolitan temple” (1028) which can be translated as “main church” encourages this spiritual connection between religion and poetry and the tone of the poem echoes a church sermon or prayer in its delivery.
This presentation of the poem is different when analyzing Percy Shelley’s poem To A Skylark. He is known to be a more mysterious poet, his freethinking upbringing shaping his poems which often take a more mythological approach with his subject matters taking on a higher purpose and often as metaphors for the frustrations that he felt in his own personal life. The form of this poem is very musical. It is set out with a simple appearance of 5-line stanzas over many verses giving the poem more of a ballad structure. The rhyming scheme is very simple in each stanza of ABABB and has been written with a trochaic stress pattern in the first four lines moving to an iambic meter for the last line of each stanza with an extra stressed syllable that creates a melodic effect but also each 5 line stanza is a unit of thought allowing for a natural pause to reflect. In the opening caesura of the passage “What thou art we know not;” (30) the voice of the poet is speaking to the Skylark as though it were capable of speech. The imagery present in the opening verse with audible and visual imagery being presented “Rainbow clouds there flow not bright to see” (32). This contrast between sound and sight is present throughout as Shelley invokes the senses in his description of all the beauty of nature which still pales in comparison to the song of the Skylark. The poem is written from an observational point of view for the first half however the voice of the poet does emerge in the second half with reference to “us, we and me”. It is at this point that the switch between observance of the Skylark takes on a more metaphorical tone as the figure of the poet begins to envy the Skylark and the comparisons to the human existence are identified.
Another striking technical tool used within both poems is the use of simile. Percy Shelley’s use of simile in Skylark begins strikingly with the comparison to a poet “hidden in the light of thought” which invokes the same sense of individualism but in a mythical sense rather than a religious context. The effect of this stanza is that the spirit of the Skylark is a poet in disguise and the figure of the poet becomes prevalent here. The poem draws on the spontaneous observance of the Skylark by the use of different similes: a high-born maiden, a glow-worm, a rose: all different images from nature and man however as the poem continues, the imagery that these similes invoke creates the impression that words cannot convey accurately the natural beauty that the Skylarks music can “All that ever was Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass” (60). Wordsworth’s use of simile is similar to draw the comparison between his subject matter and the sublime “verse may live and be even as a light hung up in heaven” (1033)
The use of the sublime is also evident within both poems. One of the most recognizable characteristics of the romantic age was the appreciation for the sublime in nature. “A key concept for eighteenth and nineteenth-century thinking about the imagination. The sublime involves landscapes or situations which elicit from the observer a state of awareness combining fear, admiration and awe” (Allen, 2012, pg 81). Both Wordsworth and Shelley use this theme within their poems. For Wordsworth, the sublime invokes a deeply religious connection with God and the divine inspiration that he grants, it elevates the poet for a grander purpose than normal mortals as they are blessed with words with which they can use to inspire others. The word choices throughout the extract are peppered with biblical word choices and when read aloud reads like a sermon being delivered by a priest. The finishing line itself ends on a dramatic exclamation “Be with me and uphold me to the end!” (1048). The word Amen feels like it is missing from this image of prayer.
In contrast, Shelley demonstrates the sublime through the use of metaphors in contrast to the human experience, the Skylark taking on a greater purpose becoming mythical as it rises out of sight but its voice ever-present as Shelley laments that it is unburdened with the plights that plague humans which gives the imagery of a darker theme giving an envious inner voice to the poet reflecting inner turmoil or doubt. However, the poet also reflects that without pain or sorrow, human beings cannot appreciate joy or happiness. The line “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” (90) creates such powerful imagery and invokes the reader to think of tragedies.
Both poems created the effect of each poet praying for their words to be immortalized and the characteristics of Romanticism are important to the legacies of both poets. William Wordsworth was blessed with a longer life and so therefore subjected his work to revision in keeping with this legacy that he wanted to leave behind. Home at Grasmere and the links with the area have been important in preserving that legacy creating a base with which his readers can identify, visit and relate to in the everyday world. Percy Shelley’s death created a tragic hero which in itself embodies the mysticism of the poet himself, his legacy being left to his wife who built on this reputation constructing her husband’s work into a timeline of his genius so that the character of the poet embodies all of these characteristics as well as his work.