Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...©
Setting: The Lake District
Wordsworth sets the poem in the morning at Esthwaite Lake in the Lake District
of northwestern England. The scenic region–a short drive inland from the
Irish Sea–is in Cumbria County, between Morecambe Bay on the south and
Solway Firth on the north. The Lake District
extends 25 miles east to west and 30 miles north to south. Among its attractions
are England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike (3,210 feet), and Esthwaite
Lake and other picturesque meres radiating outward, like the points of
a star, from the town of Grasmere. Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy,
moved to Grasmere in 1799. After Wordsworth married in 1802, his wife resided
there also. The family continued to live there until 1813. The Lake District
was the haunt of not only Wordsworth but also poets Robert Southey, Samuel
Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas De Quincey. Wordsworth wrote “Expostulation
and Reply" in 1798 at Alfoxden House, near Bristol, before he and his sister
relocated to Grasmere.
Matthew: Friend of
the poet. He asks William why he is sitting near the lake daydreaming when
he should be reading books to enlighten himself.
William: The poet,
William Wordsworth. His reply to Mathew's question is that he is
enlightening himself–simply by allowing nature to stimulate him.
of Work and Publication Date
and Reply" is a lyric poem that expresses a principle of the Romantic Movement
(or romanticism)–namely, that nature and human intuition impart a kind
of knowledge and wisdom not found in books and formal education. (A lyric
poem presents the deep feelings and emotions of the poet rather than telling
a story or presenting a witty observation.) Wordsworth wrote the poem in
1798 while he was living with his sister, Dorothy, at Alfoxden House, near
literature, romanticism was a movement that championed imagination and
emotions as more powerful than reason and systematic thinking. “What I
feel about a person or thing," a romantic poet might have said, “is more
important than what scientific investigation, observation, and experience
would say about that person or thing." Intuition–that voice within that
makes judgments and decisions without the aid of reason–was a guiding force
to the romantic poet. So was nature. Romanticism began in the mid-1700's
as a rebellion against the principles of classicism. Whereas classicism
espoused the literary ideals of ancient Greece and Rome–objectivity, emotional
restraint, and formal rules of composition that writers were expected to
follow–romanticism promoted subjectivity, emotional effusiveness, and freedom
of expression . “I want to write my way," the romantic poet might have
said, “not the way that writers in ancient times decreed that I should
write." In English literature, Wordsworth and his friend, Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, were pioneers in the development of the Romantic Movement.
“Expostulation and Reply"
tells of a brief encounter between the poet and his friend Matthew. Why,
Matthew asks in his expostulation (an attempt to reason with a person in
order to turn him away from a course of action), does Wordsworth spend
so much time at the lake, musing, when he could be reading books to educate
himself? Wordsworth, one of the leaders of the Romantic Movement in literature,
replies with an answer that reflects his philosophy: Nature nurtures the
mind with a wisdom of its own. A man has only to sit passively in its presence,
and it will stimulate his senses in profound ways. The idea that nature
is a teacher is the theme of the poem and one of the tenets of the Romantic
Movement in literature. (See also the summaries beneath
the text of the poem, below.)
Scheme and Meter
The last syllables in the
first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, as do last syllables of the
second and fourth lines of each stanza. The meter of the first three lines
of each stanza is iambic tetrameter,
with eight syllables (four iambic feet) per line except when an extra syllable
occurs at the end of a line. (An iambic foot consists of an unstressed
syllable followed by a stressed syllable.) The extra syllable at the end
of a line constitutes a foot, turning an iambic-tetrameter line into an
iambic-pentameter with catalexis. The
meter of the fourth line of Stanzas 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 8 is is iambic
trimeter, with six syllables (three iambic feet) in the line. The meter
of the fourth line of Stanzas 3 and 7 is iambic tetrameter with catalexis
occurring in the fourth foot. The following graphic presentation illustrates
the rhyme scheme and meter of Stanzas 1 and 3:
following graphic presentation illustrates the rhyme scheme and meter of
Stanza 3, with catalexis in the second and fourth lines:
that OLD |
... ..2......... ....3.............4
of HALF |
.....Lines 1-3: Four feet (iambic tetrameter)
you THUS |
.....Line 4: Three feet (iambic trimeter)
..2....... .. ....3.................4
.....Line 1: Four feet (iambic tetrameter)
.....Line 2: Five feet (iambic pentameter)
with catalexis (1 syllable in fifth foot)
.....Line 3: Four feet (iambic tetrameter)
.....Line 4: Four feet (iambic tetrameter)
with catalexis (1 syllable in fifth foot)
By William Wordsworth
Text and Summaries
"Why, William, on that old
Thus for the length of half
Why, William, sit you thus
And dream your time away?
"Where are your books?--that
Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! up! and drink the spirit
From dead men to their kind.
Summary, Stanzas 1-2
asks a simple question: Why is William wasting his time daydreaming?
asking another question, Matthew tells William that books then presents
the expostulation (an attempt to reason with a person in order to turn
him away from a course of action):
Books contain wisdom (light) passed
on (bequeathed) to people who would otherwise be uneducated (forlorn and
blind). Get up and read (drink) the ideas (spirit) that wise men wrote
and published (breathed) before they died.
"You look round on your
As if she for no purpose
As if you were her first-born
And none had lived before
One morning thus, by Esthwaite
When life was sweet, I knew
To me my good friend Matthew
And thus I made reply:
"The eye--it cannot choose
We cannot bid the ear be
Our bodies feel, where'er
Against or with our will.
Summary, Stanzas 3-5
continues the expostulation, telling William that Mother Earth has a purpose
for him, implying that he should act to fulfill it. After all, he is not
the first person on earth. He can take a step toward his goal by learning
from books written by those born before him.
poet reports the poem's setting, reveals his feeling that life is going
well, identifies the man who spoke to him, and announces that he will reply.
person sees, hears, and feels what is around him, whether he wants to or
not. In other words, nature is speaking to him.
"Nor less I deem that there
Which of themselves our
That we can feed this mind
In a wise passiveness.
"Think you, 'mid all this
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will
But we must still be seeking?
"–Then ask not wherefore,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey
And dream my time away,"
Summary, Stanzas 6-8
addition--a person's intuition, his God-given inner voice--also speaks
to him, feeding his mind as nature does. Thus, a man can learn passively,
poet now asks a question: Do you think that people must always seek knowledge
in books even the the totality of nature and intuition are forever speaking
to them? The implied answer is no.
thus should not ask why he is sitting on a stone, dreaming. For he is listening
to nature and intuition--and therefore learning in his own way.