William Wordsworth: The Tables Turned (1798)

BugsInTheNews is a VIEWER-PARTICIPANT WEBSITE. This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 11 October 2011, was last revised on 8 July 2012. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 12:10(02).

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The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (7 April 1770 – 23 April 1850), in company with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 1772 – 25 July 1834), is said to have launched the Romantic Age in English literature. We are told that Age began in 1798 with the joint publication, by these two, of the book Lyrical Ballads. At the time, Wordsworth was 28, and Coleridge 25.

Their object was a new paradigm, poetry readable and understandable by the common man. Thus their poems were penned, as Wordsworth put it, in “the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society … adapted to the purpose of poetic pleasure.” And so, in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, the world was introduced to two of the most famous and best loved examples of all their creative efforts, then and forever. This, of course, proved their experiment a huge, and somewhat surprising, success. So fearful had they been of public reprimand for sallying forth into new and untamed territory, they’d left their names off the title page. That omission was corrected in later editions.

The Tables Turned was the 19th poem presented in the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, and contains eight four-line stanzas of interlocking rhymes in ballad form (in iambs having four beats in lines 1 and 3, and three beats in lines 2 and 4). In the title is revealed the poet’s central theme: the common belief, that one learns best by book-reading, is folly. He then asserts the opposite view, that book-learning cannot compare with practical experience, particularly that involving the world of Nature:

THE TABLES TURNED

AN EVENING SCENE ON THE SAME SUBJECT

          UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
          Or surely you'll grow double:
          Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
          Why all this toil and trouble?

          The sun, above the mountain's head,
          A freshening lustre mellow
          Through all the long green fields has spread,
          His first sweet evening yellow.

          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.

          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.

          She has a world of ready wealth,
          Our minds and hearts to bless--
          Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
          Truth breathed by cheerfulness.                             

          One impulse from a vernal wood
          May teach you more of man,
          Of moral evil and of good,
          Than all the sages can.

          Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
          Our meddling intellect
          Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
          We murder to dissect.

          Enough of Science and of Art;
          Close up those barren leaves;
          Come forth, and bring with you a heart
          That watches and receives.

                                      William Wordsworth    1798.

Here the poet tells his friend to quit his books in favor of mountains, green fields, and woodlands, replete with all their creatures and impulses. There lie wealth, health, lessons of good and evil, and excellent exercise for not only the intellect but all the senses. Quite apart from the limitations of the written page (he spurns them as barren leaves), the four dimensions of Nature offer an unlimited capacity for teaching and learning.

Oh, we may protest that books still have their place, but Wordsworth says nothing whatever of that. And despite the irony of the poet — who is after all a writer — scoffing at his own creation, one is left to wonder if, given the choice, he might have turned from books altogether to bask thereafter in the light of Nature alone…

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