William Wordsworth: Poetry, People and Place

I’m doing an online course, Future Learn: William Wordsworth, Poetry, People and Place, which has been helping me look at poetry alongside my research into nature writing.  I’ve really been enjoying it and have raced ahead.  One of the things I’ve found very interesting is how I react differently to unseen poetry when I read it and when it is read to me.  As an avid reader of fiction, I tend to skim read and my eyes are darting ahead and providing clues as to where the words are headed.  When poetry, or anything, is read aloud to you, you can’t do this.  This has allowed me to focus more on the words being said and also led to some surprise twists in where the poem is going.

Week 1

This week has been an introduction to Wordsworth and looking at two of his poems; The Tables Turned and Old Man Travelling, neither of which I’d read before.

To help me slow down and ingest the poem, as opposed to my usual fast reading, I’ve been making notes and have written down some of my thoughts and reactions to the poem.  This has also created space for me to play with the ideas that Wordsworth touches on.

The Tables Turned was my favourite of the two.  It is helpful to know that this poem was published alongside a second poem, Expostulation and Reply. In this, Wordsworth depicts a scene where his friend Matthew was imploring him to read and be purposeful instead of sitting on an old grey stone dreaming his time away. Whilst that poem does contain a response, as the title suggests, it is in The Tables Turned that Wordsworth truly expresses himself.

The Tables Turned begins with lighthearted rhyme and a friendly rhythm. It is a jolly start to a poem and suggests that he is not preaching to his friend, indeed within the first three lines he says “my friend” twice. He gentle teases his friend whilst still encouraging him to rise from his books and step out into nature.

This poem has a very clear message, written explicitly in stanza four:

Come forth into the light of things
Let nature be your teacher

But like most poems, there is more to it than that. Throughout the poem, Wordsworth uses metaphor and imagery to weave three ideas of education; that of scholarly learning, that of religions preaching and that of nature as teacher. In the 18th century, when this poem was written, the idea of acquiring knowledge through reading was considered a superior way of learning. It was also an exclusionary one and, as we know from Wordsworth’s prelude, he wanted to write in such a way that his work was open to everyone. In the same way, learning from nature was much more accessible for most people that more formal methods of education. With this in mind, we can see Matthew as old fashioned, as having more traditional views and Wordsworth being on the cusp of new thinking. The use of form and language in The Tables Turned also reflects this idea of seeking to be understood by all.

Yet, and this is perhaps my favourite aspect of the poem, the lines are filled with irony. Whilst claiming to want all to read his poetry and suggesting that nature is the universal teacher, accessible to everyone, it was within books that his own work could be found. This irony is most deliciously expressed in the penultimate stanza:

Sweet is the lore which nature brings:
Our meddling intellect
Mishapes the beauteous forms of things:
– We murder to dissect.

And in analysing this poem, as so many people have, we are dissecting it ourselves.  Other examples of irony in the poem include Wordsworth begging his friend to quit his books (penned by writers such as himself) and declaring enough of science and of art, of which nature is both.

We were asked to consider which lines were our favourite and whilst many people chose the lines arguing that nature should be your teacher, I loved the image of murder, which contrasts strongly with the rest of the images.  I also really like the final stanza:

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives

It is the image of the leaves which chimes so strongly with me. It feels like this stanza is the poem in miniature with the leaves pivoting the reader from books to nature. On the one hand we have dry, brittle leaves of books, dead and crumbling (could this also be the old approach to learning?) and on the other we have the fresh, verdant, life filled leaves of the woodland. It could also be saying to the reader that books, as bits of nature which have been written on, can only contain a fraction of the wisdom that nature itself can teach. It begs the reader to question why they are spending time, and toil and trouble, in their books, dead snatches of nature, when they could be outside experiencing the true wonder of the living nature.

I found the gendered language in this poem interesting. It is not unusual for nature to be spoken of using feminine pronouns (a topic for another day) and in Expostulation and Reply, nature is referred to as feminine, as mother earth. But in The Tables Turned we have masculine birds and a masculine sun until half way through when we see Nature as feminine. From a factual perspective, Wordsworth is correct in talking of male birds singing but this is not normally something poets trouble themselves with. And in today’s convention, in many cultures, the sun is masculine with the moon as feminine. However the change being half way through the poem makes it feel like it could be something more significant than that. It feels like an interesting mirroring of the traditionally masculine book learning and the feminine emotional/experiential learning, or the polarity of scholarly or religious learning and learning from nature, that is to say learning from men vs learning from mother nature.

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