Many commentators on Benjamin Britten's life and music have remarked on his preoccupation with the public/private dichotomy that the artist constantly confronts. It was an issue that also informed much of the poetry produced between the 1790s and the 1820s that Britten set at intervals throughout his astonishingly creative life, from schoolboy settings of Shelley to his courtly Birthday Hansel of 1975, a setting for tenor and harp of poems by the fiercely republican Robert Burns commissioned by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday. As this last work abundantly testifies, there are paradoxes at work here, to the resolution of which this essay is primarily dedicated. It is well to bear in mind that poetry and music are often irreducibly private, and that even when they are publicly performed or shared something of that privacy is preserved. This was abundantly clear to William Wordsworth, whose occupancy of the Laureateship is consequently all the more interesting. Indeed, one might legitimately argue that Wordsworth was one of the most public of private poets, just as Britten was a determinedly private public musician.
This is a rich subject, and in order to begin to contain it this essay will concentrate on three English poets from the Romantic era – Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley – to whom Britten's musical sensibility gave further voice, giving the lion's share of its argument to his encounters with the first two. Britten responded emotionally and hence musically to Wordsworth and Blake in a way that goes to the core of his ethical and religious thinking. Although Britten made more settings of Shelley, they are of less telling significance psychologically than is his responsiveness to Wordsworth and Blake, and consequently the essay will briefly concentrate on his use of lines from Queen Mab, interpolated into the libretto of Owen Wingrave, showing in the process how Britten's pacifism was less political than Shelley's critique of militarism, and also more profoundly moral. The interpretation of Britten's settings of Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley offered here will also place his engagement with all three poets in their cultural contexts, demonstrating that Britten's place in the cultural landscape of his time was both more contested and more challenging than many modern critics allow.