By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Tables Turned’ is a poem from the 1798 collection Lyrical Ballads, a book co-authored by the two English Romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. ‘The Tables Turned’ is one of Wordsworth’s poems from the collection. In many ways, the poem should be viewed as a companion-piece to the poem which precedes it in Lyrical Ballads: ‘Expostulation and Reply’. Both poems are thought to have been composed at the same time, on or around 23 May 1798.
The best way to analyse ‘The Tables Turned’ is to go through the poem, stanza by stanza, offering a kind of summary as we go.
The Tables Turned
An evening scene, on the same subject
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double.
As the subtitle or note to ‘The Tables Turned’ reveals, Wordsworth considered this poem to be ‘on the same subject’ as ‘Expostulation and Reply’, in which a schoolmaster figure had rebuked the young Wordsworth for sitting passively among nature when he should have had his head shoved in a book, reading the wisdom of other men.
Here, the tables well and truly are turned, sure enough: the poet begins by directing his friend to stand up and stop reading books. He looks haggard (‘clear your looks’; ‘toil and trouble’), perhaps because he’s been overdoing the books and studying too hard.
Wordsworth is worried his friend will ‘grow double’ – a cryptic statement, but perhaps meant to suggest that sitting around reading rather than getting up and out and walking (something Wordsworth loved to do) will lead to the friend putting on weight and ‘doubling’ in size!
The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Here we have a variation on the sentiment Wordsworth put so well in ‘It is a beauteous evening, calm and free’: the sun is mellowing as it begins to set in the sky, bathing all of the green fields in a soft yellow light. The implication is: why would you want to stay inside reading books when it’s such a lovely evening outside?
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
In stark contrast to the view put forward by the schoolmasterly ‘Matthew’ in ‘Expostulation and Reply’, Wordsworth argues that reading books is dull and interminable labour, when actually, if you go out and listen to the song of the linnet – a small bird of the finch family, whose trilling song is indeed musical and pleasant – there’s more ‘wisdom’ contained in that sound than you’ll find in books.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
Now he’s off, Wordsworth starts thinking about the other beautiful songs you can hear birds singing outside: the ‘throstle’, or song thrush, sings in a ‘blithe’ and carefree manner, in contrast to the rather fraught appearance of the friend with his ‘toil and trouble’ and ‘strife’ over his books.
The throstle is, like the linnet, a pretty good ‘preacher’: it can teach us much wisdom about the world, through its beautiful song. Wordsworth entreats his friend to step out into the evening ‘light’ (but also a more metaphorical ‘light’, i.e. mental and spiritual enlightenment or illumination) and let these wonders of nature teach him about the world.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless –
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
Nature, personified as ‘She’ (i.e. Mother Nature) is a rich world that can ‘bless’ our minds and our hearts with an almost religious benediction. The wisdom of nature is spontaneous, rather than ‘dull’ (the word used about those books). It is pure and healthy and true, because nature is lacking in guile (unlike the world of books, we might say, where man may distort or conceal the truth). Nature is cheerful (that birdsong again) and true.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Much Romantic poetry is about impulse over thought, emotion over reason, subjective experience as prized above objective rationalism. So ‘impulse’ is a very Wordsworthian word, reminding us that he is one of the chief exponents (perhaps even the chief exponent) of Romanticism in English poetry.
‘Vernal’ means ‘pertaining to spring’: the wood or forest in springtime, with its impulsive growths and births and chirrups, can tell us more about mankind, and morality, than all of the wise authors of books – those ‘sages’.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: –
We murder to dissect.
Nature, without us interfering in it, is beautiful and sweet, but as soon as we start to meddle in it, we destroy it. ‘We murder to dissect’ is the most famous line from the poem. The line is a condensing of the slightly longer sentiment that ‘in order to dissect something and analyse it, we kill it’.
Here, we might make a link with Keats’s later comment, in ‘Lamia’, about scientists who ‘unweave the rainbow’, i.e. remove the numinous mystery of the rainbow by reducing it to an optical illusion involving the refraction of white light into its constituent colours of the spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet).
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Wordsworth concludes ‘The Tables Turned’ by calling for an end to man’s interference: enough of science and art (including poetry!). Enough of books. The ‘leaves’ (i.e. pages) of a book are ‘barren’, unlike the living leaves on the trees outside. All Wordsworth’s friend needs to bring with him to appreciate nature is a readiness to observe and ‘receive’ the various impressions that nature gives: birdsong, a beautiful sunset, the green fields and woods, and so on.
‘The Tables Turned’, like ‘Expostulation and Reply’, is written in the ballad form: quatrains rhymed abab (strict ballads tend to be in the abcb rhyme scheme, but Wordsworth, in the Lyrical Ballads, favoured the fuller rhyme scheme). The metre is the same as ballad metre: alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
What this means, in short, is that the first and third lines of each stanza contain four iambs (an iamb being a lightly stressed syllable followed by a heavily stressed one) and the second and fourth lines contain three iambs. We can analyse this in, for instance, the second stanza:
The SUN a-BOVE the MOUN-tain’s HEAD,
A FRESH-ening LUS-tre MEL-low
Through ALL the LONG green FIELDS has SPREAD,
His FIRST sweet EVE-ning YEL-low.