The Prince Regent declared January 18, 1816 an official day of Thanksgiving for all Regency England–to commemorate a Nation’s gratitude that war had ended.
Wordsworth wrote the following poem to mark the occasion:
O Britain! dearer far than life is dear,
If one there be
Of all thy progeny
Who can forget thy prowess, never more
Be that ungrateful Son allowed to hear
Thy green leaves rustle or thy torrents roar.
— Thanksgiving Ode by Wordsworth
Scarcely remembered, this Ode represents the vexing condition gratitude often finds itself in–quickly forgotten before the day is out.
In 1796, Robert Burns, the great pioneer of Romantic poetry, breathed his last, having opened a vast new literary landscape to successors such as Byron, Shelley–and William Wordsworth. Burns’ brother, Gilbert, thought it prudent to write a biography of Robbie before his character as a man should be forgotten. He sent a pamphlet ’round Edinburgh explaining his project and requesting anecdotes that might be used in the biography.
One was directed to the scholar James Gray who, in turn, shared it with Wordsworth.
By this time Wordsworth had achieved no little stature as a composer of the sonnet after Burns’ natural style. Of course, any comments he should care to make would be well-attended to. Indeed, he had already written a poem to comfort Burns’ sons, albeit with a mendacious warning against drinking too much:
Strong-bodied if ye be to bear
Intemperance with less harm, beware!
But if your Father’s wit ye share,
Then, then indeed.
Ye Sons of Burns! for watchful care
There will be need.
— Address to the Sons of Burns, after visiting their Father’s Grave (August 14th, 1803)
When offered the opportunity to enlarge upon the merits of Scotland’s favorite son, the bard of Tintern Abbey entered into the exercise with enthusiasm:
“From the respect which I have long felt for the character of the person who has thus honored me, and from the gratitude which, as a lover of poetry, I owe to the genius of his departed relative, should most gladly comply with this wish.”
— Wordsworth to Gray in A Letter to a Friend of Robert Burns (1816)
A biography of Burns was already in publication, by one Dr. Currie. In it, certain details of the poet’s personal life had been rendered most candidly. To his family’s dismay, Burns’ reputation was beginning to resemble that of his creation, Tom O’Shanter.
Echoing his previous concern, Wordsworth addressed these details minutely–perhaps too much so–in his enthusiasm to clean up Burns’ image:
“His brother can set me right is I am mistaken when I express a belief that, at the time he wrote his story of ‘Death and Dr. Hornbrook,’ he had very rarely been intoxicated, or perhaps even much exhilarated by liquor. Yet how happily does he lead his reader into that track of sensations!”
He was a drunkard, to be sure, but not all the time!
Wordsworth’s gratitude was turned on its head when his Letter found its way into the hands of Blackwood’s and into the glare of the Public’s eye:
“(Wordsworth) has unquestionably written some fine verse in his day; but, with the exception of some poetical genius, he is, in all respects, immeasurably inferior, as an intellectual being, to the distinguished person he so foolishly libels.”
–Observations on Mr. Wordsworth’s Letter, by ‘a gentleman of distinguished literary talents’ (John Wilson, probably) Vol. I (1817)
Happily, Wordsworth’s role as literary critic was forgotten, smothered under the mantle of Britain’s Poet Laureate which was awarded to him in 1843.
Otherwise, he might have been remembered as the perfect example of a Regency ingrate.