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Expostulation and Reply
By William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Romantic Movement
Summary and Theme
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Meter
Text With Explanatory Notes
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography
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Study Guided Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2007
Revised in 2011..

Type of Work and Publication Date

“Expostulation and Reply” is a 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.) 

The Cottle company published the poem at Bristol, England, in 1798, as part of a collection entitled Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems, which included works by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as well William Wordsworth.

Setting: The Lake District

William Wordsworth sets the poem in the morning at Esthwaite Lake in the Lake District of northwestern England. This scenic regiona short drive inland from the Irish Seais 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.

Characters

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. 
 

What Was Romanticism?

In 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.” Intuitionthat voice within that makes judgments and decisions without the aid of reasonwas 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 Romeobjectivity, emotional restraint, and formal rules of composition that writers were expected to followromanticism 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.

Summary and Theme 

“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.)

End Rhyme

End rhyme occurs in the first and third lines of each stanza and in the second and fourth lines. Most of the rhymes are masculine. Masculine rhyme occurs when only the last syllable of one line rhymes with the last syllable of another line, as line 1 (stone) and line 3 (alone). Feminine rhyme—in which the last two syllables of one line rhyme with the last two syllables of another line—occurs in the second and fourth lines of the seventh stanza: speaking and seeking.

Internal Rhyme

Wordsworth also uses internal rhyme in the poem. Here are examples.

Why, William, on that old grey stone (line 1)
From dead men to their kind (line 8)
One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake (line 13)
But we must still be seeking? (line 28)
Meter

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 of first stanza:

    .......1...... . ..2.......... ....3.................4
    Why WILL..|..iam ON..|..that OLD..|..gray STONE

    .......1....... ... ..2...........  ....3............4
    Thus FOR..|..the LENGTH..|..of HALF..|..a DAY .....Lines 1-3: Four feet (iambic tetrameter)

    .......1....... ..2.......... .....3...............4
    Why WILL..|..iam SIT..|..you THUS..|..a LONE

    .........1........ ..2.......... ....3
    And DREAM..|..your TIME..|..a WAY .....Line 4: Three feet (iambic trimeter)

The following graphic presentation illustrates the meter of the third stanza, with catalexis in the second and fourth lines:
    ........1...... ..2....... .. ....3.................4
    You LOOK..|..round ON..|..your MOTH..|..er EARTH, .....Line 1: Four feet (iambic tetrameter)
    ....1...... ..2.......  ....3...............4.............5
    As IF..|..she FOR..|..no PUR..|..pose BORE..|..you; .....Line 2: Five feet (iambic pentameter) with catalexis (1 syllable in fifth foot)
    ....1...... ..2.........  ....3..................4
    As IF..|..you WERE..|..her FIRST-..|..born BIRTH, .....Line 3: Four feet (iambic tetrameter)
    .......1......  ..     ..2........  ....3.........4
    And NONE..|..had LIVED..|..beFOR..|..you!" .....Line 4: Four feet (iambic tetrameter) with catalexis  (1 syllable in fourth foot)
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Expostulation and Reply
By William Wordsworth
Text and Summaries

1
"Why, William, on that old grey stone, 
Thus for the length of half a day, 
Why, William, sit you thus alone, 
And dream your time away? 

2
"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. 

Summary, Stanzas 1-2

Matthew asks a simple question: Why is William wasting his time daydreaming? 

After asking another question, Matthew 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.



3
"You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you; 10
As if you were her first-born birth, 
And none had lived before you!" 

4
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:

5
"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. 20

Summary, Stanzas 3-5

Matthew 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. 

William 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. 

A person sees, hears, and feels what is around him, whether he wants to or not. In other words, nature speaks to him.



 6
"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. 

7
"Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum 
Of things for ever speaking, 
That nothing of itself will come, 
But we must still be seeking? 

8
"—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may, 30
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away,"

Summary, Stanzas 6-8

In 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, without acting.

The poet now asks a question: Do you think that people must always seek knowledge in books even though the totality of nature and intuition are forever speaking to them? The implied answer is no.

Matthew thus should not ask why William is sitting on a stone, dreaming. For William is listening to nature and intuition—and therefore learning in his own way.


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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration 

As if you were her first-born birth (line 11)
To me my good friend Matthew spake (line 15)
We cannot bid the ear be still; (line 18)
"Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum (line 25)
Anaphora
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth
Metaphor and Paradox
Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind. (lines 7-8)
Metaphor: Comparison of spirit to a liquid and to knowledge
Paradox: Dead men breathing
Metaphor and Personification
Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind! (lines 5-6)
Comparison of progress (implied) to light
Comparison of light to a person. (Only a human can bequeath.)
Personification
You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you
Comparison of earth to a woman
 
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • In your opinion, does a person learn more from nature and his inner voice than he does from books? Explain your answer.
  • Is it true, as Wordsworth says, "That we can feed this mind of ours  / In a wise passiveness? Explain your answer.
  • Write an essay arguing in favor of Wordsworthi's viewpoint. (See Summary and Theme.)
  • Write a poem about a moment you spent alone in a forest, by a waterway or waterfall, on a mountain, in a cave, or in a desert.

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