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The Rift Between Wordsworth and Shelley

Justin McLean studied in-depth critical analysis of literature, poetry, politics and the impact media has had on global culture.

Wordsworth always had an inclination towards the divine is his writing, and all but renounced his life as a poet before he died.

Wordsworth always had an inclination towards the divine is his writing, and all but renounced his life as a poet before he died.

Subjectivity in Nature

A key element in Percy Shelley and William Wordsworth’s work as romantic poets is that their language made concepts more complex than they appeared to be.

Simple thoughts are lacking from both poets. In other words, the poems are subjective.

Subjectivity refers to our individual perceptions and interpretations of phenomena.

There also doesn’t appear to be a single clear focus on poetry because of the persona held by the authors. This is a reflection that nature is complex and must be taken seriously.

Initial Differences

Before examining the differences between the poets, it is important to state their similarities. Both were romantic poets and held radical political views.

Both poets felt their work in poetry attempts to put itself above opposing factions of art and human experience.

Does this succeed? Yes and no, because human language is involved.

Can a poem give you hope? Yes. The poets were highly effective in transcending art and human experience in the form of hope.

Can a poem make you think that you are better than your situation? This was a question both poets attempted to solve. Hope was the focal point of both poets’ earlier works. However, the rift between Wordsworth and Shelley stems from a spiritual and political divide.

Shelley's Lack of Faith

One aspect of Percy Shelley’s work as a poet is that his skepticism regarding human nature has undermined his happiness. He is also critical of the concept of spirituality Wordsworth possessed towards the end of his life.

According to Melvin Rader’s Wordsworth: A Philosophical Approach, the “poet’s spirituality cast a visionary splendor over outward things” (Rader 119). This appears to be in contrast with how Shelley views spirituality. Shelley possessed flexibility of mind, but not in a spiritual sense.

This is prevalent in how Shelley writes about the notion of sleep. In Shelley’s view, dreamless sleep is the only way to be completely detached from the troubles of day-to-day life— something spirituality provides. In Shelley’s poem, Mont Blanc in discusses sleep as “death is slumber” (Shelley 764).

Shelley believes dreamless sleep actually releases humans from an omnipotent, all-knowing force, “For the very spirit fails” (Shelley 764) when one is unconscious from sleeping.

In Mont Blanc, Shelley refers to the “sublime”—a moment when we are unable to respond to what is happening to us. Instead of using spiritual language to explain such phenomena, he only draws the reader to the surface of a revelatory thought, such as the sublime, because a direct encounter with such phenomena would lead to insanity or death.

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Another aspect of Shelley’s work is the idea of logical reduction. This is created by “first establishing the main categories and then determining how the secondary ones are related to” (Cameron 191). This certainly appears to be a more pragmatic approach to life and not relying on an omnipotent creative genius that Shelley accused Wordsworth of later in his life.

Percy Shelley was an atheist throughout his life and was the inspiration for such subversive fiction as Frankenstein.

Percy Shelley was an atheist throughout his life and was the inspiration for such subversive fiction as Frankenstein.


In Wordsworth’s earlier work, he addressed the idea that humans are never wholly happy in our thoughts. People might enjoy themselves in nature temporarily and be happy, but it comes to an end when faced with reality and the realization of one’s own moral flaws.

In “Lines written at Tinturn Abbey”, the line “What man has made of man”, draws a link between humanity and nature.

In the poem, the narrator is revisiting a place he hadn’t been in a long time; it has a calming influence on him, compared to the dirty city he is from.

His photographic memory of the area he is in has reminded him that he has become a good man.

He also discusses the contrast between nature as reality versus an unadulterated nature or pure nature. This correlation has left Wordsworth disillusioned because it reveals that humans always have ulterior motives by trying to better themselves.

The innocent perspective that nature is a peaceful, positive entity is not true because it is unrealistic to maintain.

Another component of the poem is that, we as humans, have no right to lament the human condition because nature can be just as flawed. These are the ideas Shelley can relate to.

However, the poem is written nostalgically, which is important because memories of human experience make us better. Nature can be used as a tool for memory between the character and the relationship.

Poetry as an Absolute Truth

A glaring difference between Shelley and Wordsworth was that Shelley was an atheist.

In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, Shelley makes a religious reference in the “poisonous names with which our youth is fed” (Shelley 767).

This suggests that young people are often coerced into abiding by fear, and cultural myths, such as religion. By saying, “Depart not- lest the grave should be, like life and fear, a dark reality” (Shelley 767), Shelley seems to be uncertain about the afterlife.

No one has ever given a clear explanation to these statements—ideas that religion cannot solve either. Later in the poem, it is revealed that being a poet may be the only way to unravel such mysterious thoughts. By saying “Of studious zeal or love’s delight” (Shelley 767), suggests that Shelley has dedicated his life to poetry and this is his life calling.

Wordsworth and Shelley were two of the four major Romantic poets.

Wordsworth and Shelley were two of the four major Romantic poets.

Shelley Attacks Wordsworth in his Work

The most incriminating poem Shelley composed was about Wordsworth, in the poem, “To Wordsworth”.

The last line is a reflection of how far Wordsworth has fallen as poet. By saying, “Thus having been, than thou shouldst cease to be”, reveals that in Wordsworth’s situation, it might have been better to have not written poetry at all, then to have something great then lose it.

The poem is a reflection that Wordsworth has lost the ability to reflect on his community.

He refers to Wordsworth as if he is dead, using the past tense to describe him.

In relation to his poetry, “That things depart which may never return” (Shelley 744), is a reflection of Wordsworth’s formal radical political views. Shelley refers to Wordsworth as the “lone star” (Shelley 745) because he was the one conscious of the people.

By saying, “One loss is mine” reflects that the two poets should be sharing in this grief of artistic regression.

This is a reflection that there is a divide in both poets’ thoughts because Wordsworth relies on superstition; he spoke about the power in life that nothing is random.

As evidenced by his work, Shelley never delved into the supernatural, but rather wrote political poems. However, this opposition Shelley creates is artificial because politics is part of human nature.

The poet becomes the link between politics and nature.

Wordsworth Denounces Poetry as Useless

Death, justice, liberty and human rights were themes in Romantic poetry that Shelley felt Wordsworth was drifting away from, as he got older.

The initial friendship between Wordsworth and Shelley digressed because Shelley felt Wordsworth’s thinking changed.

Wordsworth’s earlier work gave people hope through poetry and created abstract ideas that were not accepted at the time, according to Shelley. Without Wordsworth’s original ideas, there is no hope.

At the time, it was shocking that a poet would publicly try to humiliate another poet. Shelley does not fully attack all of Wordsworth’s work, but rather felt it became “infected with dullness” (Cameron 352) toward the end of Wordsworth’s life.

Later in his life, Wordsworth found poetry to possess “no utility value” (191 Cameron) and that intelligent people should turn to science or politics, according to Shelley.

Shelley felt that most poetry is corrupted by this idea and people like Wordsworth have become “modern rhymesters” (Cameron 191) to appeal to the general public.

Until the Bitter End

Shelley kept his anti-authoritative beliefs of atheism and the hypocrisy of religion to a month before his death when he stated:

Religion itself means intolerance. The various sects tolerate nothing but their own dogmas. The Priests call themselves shepherds. The passive they drive into their folds. When they have folded you, then they are satisfied, they know you fear them, but if you stand aloof, they fear you. Those who resist they considered as wolves, and, where they have the power, stone them to death. I said, “You are one of the wolves—I am not in sheep’s clothing”. (Cameron 169).

This appears to be the fundamental difference between a poem written by Wordsworth such as “We are Seven” compared to a poem such as “Mont Blanc”.

If spirituality suggests that some things in life are better left unsaid, then Shelley would beg to differ. This is the same passion Wordsworth demonstrated in his earlier work.

In his poem “We are Seven”, Wordsworth gives reference to death by how the girl in the poem continually plays around a graveyard. The irony is that the girl in the poem is too young to know about death. Any child shouldn’t fully comprehend the extreme nature of death, but in the girl’s situation, graves are a part of day-to-day life.

In the poem, there is a contrast between the narrator’s expectations and what the girl is saying; the narrator feels the need to protect the girl.

The simplicity of Wordsworth’s language suggests that death is as equal a part of life as life itself and that what is left unsaid maybe more desirable.

For Wordsworth, the unity between a human and nature is best demonstrated through using nature to explain all human knowledge—either self-knowledge or with others.

One idea that Wordsworth had was that compulsive book reading is good to a certain extent, but if you can’t apply if to the affairs of society and others, it is useless. Once you see yourself as part of something greater or more complex than yourself, it becomes more fulfilling.

This may be why Wordsworth grew estranged from his body of work and what separated him from his intellectual career.

The older he got, the less confident he was in his ideas.

In Defense of Wordsworth

In any form of work, the soul should represent the vocation of the worker. Whatever Wordsworth was dealing with in his internal world was drastically different then his external appearance.

His notion of values may have changed as he got older, but his soul became impenetrable from his critics. The insistent solitude he lived in with society proved that anyone's soul- not just his, shouldn't pertain to intellect or even emotions but rather, the sublime- a theme he explored his whole life.

So many inconstancies with what he wrote became a reflection of something he could no longer relate to- his craft. So it is understandable that towards the end of his life, he was almost ashamed of this duplicity.

In the end, the human soul is infinite. The concept of the soul is what drives the mind to be an artist in the first place. So it is only fair to excuse Wordsworth for his change of beliefs.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on September 16, 2014:

Thank you. You've shed light on what is a fairly dark and complex subject, the relationship between two powerful poets, one especially prone to outbursts and radicalism - Shelley - the other wanting peace and perfection in a spiritualised Nature.

AJ Long from Pennsylvania on August 08, 2014:

Enjoyed reading your discussion of these two great poets. It is always sad to see former associates come to a disagreeable end. Interesting concepts! Thanks Justin McLean!

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