Literature

A Short Analysis of William Wordsworth’s ‘Expostulation and Reply’

‘Expostulation and Reply’ is the ideal poem for a schoolchild to throw back at their teacher, when that teacher accuses them of being idle or not ‘doing anything’ simply because they’re not reading books at that moment.

In this poem, Wordsworth stages a conversation between his boyhood self and his schoolmaster, who believes that books provide the only means of gaining philosophical wisdom. The young Wordsworth, by contrast, believes that we can learn about the world simply by sitting and allowing ourselves to be passive receivers of the many phenomenon found in the natural world.

‘Expostulation and Reply’ is thought to have been written on or around 23 May 1798. The poem, which is not one of Wordsworth’s best-known, was included in Lyrical Ballads, the collection he co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, later the same year. In ‘Expostulation and Reply’, Wordsworth recounts a ‘metaphysical’ discussion he had with the essayist William Hazlitt, at Alfoxden, where Wordsworth was staying at the time. Hazlitt was his visitor.

The best way to analyse ‘Expostulation and Reply’ is probably to go through the poem, stanza by stanza, offering a kind of summary as we go.

Expostulation and Reply

‘Why, William, on that old gray stone,
‘Thus for the length of half a day,
‘Why, William, sit you thus alone,
‘And dream your time away?

‘Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
‘To beings else forlorn and blind!
‘Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
‘From dead men to their kind.

In the first two stanzas of ‘Expostulation and Reply’, someone addresses Wordsworth as the poet sits on a grey stone for ‘half a day’, alone, dreaming away the hours. Perhaps surprisingly, Wordsworth isn’t reading (‘Where are your books?’), even though the wisdom contained in books, according to the speaker, is a ‘light’ which is bestowed upon us humans, who are lost (‘forlorn’) and unenlightened (‘blind’) without it.

The speaker entreats Wordsworth to get up from the stone and shove his nose in a book, which he likens to drinking in the spirits of the dead and departed, through their words. (Here we might observe that ‘drink the spirit’ carries the secondary meaning of drinking intoxicating liquor; but the speaker is thinking of more airy ‘spirits’, i.e. ghosts, or the souls of the dead.)

‘You look round on your mother earth,
‘As if she for no purpose bore you;
‘As if you were her first-born birth,
‘And none had lived before you!’

Wordsworth (the speaker continues) appears to look around at the world as if it was devoid of any meaning or point. Wordsworth seems reluctant to learn about the wisdom of the ancients: it’s as if no great thinkers or philosophers had ever lived, let alone put down their wise thoughts in books so that future generations might read them!

One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:

Now Wordsworth sets the scene – somewhat belatedly, four stanzas in. However, the effect of this is that the speaker’s opening words to the poet come at us direct, as if they have surprised us as much as they’ve surprised the poet, sitting there alone on his stone.

Esthwaite lake (more properly, Esthwaite Water) is a small body of water in the Lake District. Although the actual conversation which inspired the poem took place in Somerset, where Alfoxden or Alfoxton is located in the Quantock hills, Wordsworth moves the scene to his beloved Lakes.

Similarly, ‘Matthew’ doesn’t exist: in reality, the person who engaged Wordsworth in this debate was Hazlitt, as already mentioned, but Wordsworth is conflating Hazlitt with a schoolmaster who had taught the poet, combining them to create a fictional composite character named ‘Matthew’.

‘The eye – it cannot choose but see;
‘We cannot bid the ear be still;
‘Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
‘Against, or with our will.

Wordsworth replies to ‘Matthew’ by saying that, wherever we are and whatever we do, we are sensing the world around us: our eyes and ears respond to our environment, whether we consciously will them to do so or not. We are absorbing influences and responding to stimuli all the time, receiving impressions from the Earth, from nature, from the sky and the birds and everything else.

‘Nor less I deem that there are Powers
‘Which of themselves our minds impress;
‘That we can feed this mind of ours
‘In a wise passiveness,

Wordsworth argues that by sitting on his rock alone, in his state of ‘wise passiveness’, he is better able to ‘feed’ his mind with useful inspiration. There are ‘Powers’ within nature which Wordsworth does not consider or ‘deem’ lesser than bookish learning.

‘Think you, mid all this mighty sum
‘Of things for ever speaking,
‘That nothing of itself will come,
‘But we must still be seeking?

Wordsworth questions the idea that we must always be actively seeking knowledge: it continually comes to us, thanks to ‘this mighty sum’ of nature which is always ‘speaking’ to us, as powerfully as do those philosophers in books which Matthew touts as the sole route to wisdom.

‘—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
‘Conversing as I may,
‘I sit upon this old gray stone,
‘And dream my time away.’

Wordsworth concludes his ‘reply’ to Matthew’s ‘expostulation’ (in other words, his protest or argument) by telling Matthew not to ask him why he’s sitting alone on his stone and ‘dreaming’ his time away: he was ‘conversing’ with nature even before Matthew came along and engaged him in conversation.

‘Expostulation and Reply’ recalls the ballad form that we find in many of the poems contained in Lyrical Ballads. Although its metre (of which more below) is slightly different from traditional ballad metre, the quatrain form and use of iambic metre recall the ballad: a democratic song designed to be sung and danced to, and the commonest form of poetry among rustic folk who couldn’t read books. So it’s especially suitable for this poem, which pits Matthew’s defence of bookish learning against Wordsworth’s more intuitive, experiential approach to the world of nature. The poem also recalls the ballad in that its final stanza recalls the first:

‘—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
‘Conversing as I may,
‘I sit upon this old gray stone,
‘And dream my time away.’

Recalls:

‘Why, William, on that old gray stone,
‘Thus for the length of half a day,
‘Why, William, sit you thus alone,
‘And dream your time away?

The ballad metre is seen in that first stanza quoted above, and throughout the poem: Wordsworth rhymes his quatrains abab whereas traditional ballads tend to be rhymed abcb, but we get the alternate rhymes and the use of iambic tetrameter (in the first three lines of the stanza) and trimeter (in the final line of each stanza) which we also find in earlier ballads. Iambic metre involves a light stress followed by a heavy stress, i.e.

Why, WILL-iam, ON that OLD gray STONE,
Thus FOR the LENGTH of HALF a DAY,
Why, WILL-iam, SIT you THUS a-LONE,
And DREAM your TIME a-WAY?

Iambic metre is especially good for conveying ordinary speech, and so it is particularly useful for this poem, which – like another lyrical ballad, Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’ – involves the poet conversing with someone else.

One Comment

  1. Lawrence Mack Hall

    Thanks again!