Expostulation and Reply by William Wordsworth cover image

Expostulation and Reply by William Wordsworth: Detailed Analysis

William Wordsworth has always been an admirer of nature. His poems find their inspiration in natural beauty. Things such as clouds, trees, flowers, mountains, sunshine, etc that are often ignored get their due appreciation in Wordsworth’s lyrical poetry. Expostulation and Reply is one such poem where Wordsworth is asked what he finds in nature that is so important. We get the question and the answer all in one poem. 

The poem Expostulation and Reply was written in the year 1798 and was published in his book “Lyrical Ballads”. This poem is presented in the form of a question and an answer. Wordsworth is asked about his seemingly “wasteful” activity of spending his time sitting on a rock and observing the world around. Why does he do that? What possibly could he gain from it? All these questions are answered. 

More importantly, the poem takes a philosophical turn at the end that sends a beautiful message about how we perceive the world, and what we know about knowledge, wisdom, and everything in between. Let’s first take a look at the poem and then we’ll get to the meaning and summary. 

"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? 

"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. 

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

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: 

"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. 

"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. 

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

"--Then ask not wherefore, here, alone, 
Conversing as I may, 
I sit upon this old grey stone, 
And dream my time away,"
- William Wordsworth

Summary and Meaning

The poem should be seen in two parts; the first three stanzas are when the poet’s friend “Matthew” speaks. The rest of the poem is the reply that he gets from the poet. So the first part is formed like a question that describes the scene, and the second part is the reply to that question. 

Wordsworth’s friend, Matthew, asks him why he sits for half of the day on a dull gray rock doing nothing when instead he should be inside, reading. From the question, we get to know that Wordsworth sits passively, doing nothing, just watching everything around him. This perplexes his friend as he considers it “dreaming your time away”. He does not understand why the poet spends all his time daydreaming. 

His friend considers reading as the only way of getting enlightened. Reading and learning from the books inside the house is the only way of getting knowledge, and wisdom, and serving a purpose. He says that people who do not read are lost and metaphorically blind. Books have the wisdom of the people who are gone for the people who will be gone soon. 

Then he gets a reply from the poet. We also get to know where this incident happened. It was by the Esthwaite lake, and from what the poet says, he was having a great time sitting beside the lake. So what does Wordsworth have to say about his sedentary daydreaming session? He educates him and gives him a lesson about wisdom, and we get to see the philosophical side of the poem. 

Wordsworth says that there are powers that are beyond his or anyone’s control. These powers will create an impression on us, will enter our minds, and teach us a few things. He says that the world is speaking all the time, and nature is showing all the time. How is it not possible that we won’t be able to see or hear anything if we sit passively, trying to see or hear it? 

He says that there is wisdom far greater than the one found in the books, and instead of constantly seeking it, one should try just sitting passively, and let the world, let nature show and teach wisdom. If we are too busy looking for it in the books, we’ll never be able to see or feel it. All we need to do is sit around quietly, and just listen to the silence. 

Analysis of the Poem 

“Why, William, on that old gray stone,

“Thus for the length of half a day,

“Why, William, sit you thus alone,

“And dream your time away?

The first stanza is very easy to understand. Someone is asking Wordsworth why he spends half of his day sitting alone on a gray doing nothing but just wasting his time. The sentence “dream your time away” shows that the poet is lost in his thoughts, dreaming with his eyes open. 

“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.

Instead of sitting and doing nothing, this person asks Wordsworth where his books are and then tells him the importance of books. He says that books are the light that prevents us from being lost and blind, metaphorically. Books give us knowledge and wisdom so that we can choose the right path, and be able to see what’s best for us. It gives us the ability to become useful to the world. 

These books are written by men who came into this world way before, learned from experience, and then wrote books to guide us and help us live in this world. The knowledge from them is the spirit that is meant for us. He also says that we are also destined to become “their kind” which means they too will die. 

“You look round on your mother earth,

“As if she for no purpose bore you;

“As if you were her first-born birth,

“And none had lived before you!”

This person is confused as to why Wordsworth is looking at the world in such a lost and confused way. This is where we get to the concept of “what’s already full cannot be filled”. This person asks Wordsworth why he acts like he does not know what to do. As if he is the first person to walk this earth. 

He says that men before him have lived, and they have learned a lot. So all we need to do is listen to what they said and wrote to understand what we should do5

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:

This stanza tells us who this person is and where the incident took place. Wordsworth was sitting by the lake Esthwaite, on a very pleasant day and in a very happy mood. It is then that his friend Matthew came and asked what he was doing.  

“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.

Now we get to the answer that Matthew received. Wordsworth starts by saying something very philosophical. He says that the eyes are meant to see, you cannot choose what you want to see and what you don’t. The same goes for the ears and our bodies. Our senses are here to sense things around us. Whether we want to sense them or not is not under our control. 

“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,

Just like that, he believes that there are powers in the world that would create an impression on us, and influence us. Our minds can only feed on these powers, this knowledge if we are passive. Notice how he uses the word “wise” passiveness. This means that do not just sit and loiter around. But we can only listen to these powers if we sit quietly and try to listen without getting distracted. 

“Think you, mid all this mighty sum

“Of things for ever speaking,

“That nothing of itself will come,

“But we must still be seeking?

Wordsworth says that all the mighty sum of wisdom and knowledge is in nature, always talking to us. Then how can we not learn from it? Rather we try to chase knowledge from books, try so hard to seek it, and yet never lend nature an ear, or take a look at what it might have for us. Nature is speaking all the time, all we need to do is just stop our pursuit of knowledge for a second and listen to it.

“—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,

“Conversing as I may,

“I sit upon this old gray stone,

“And dream my time away.”

The last stanza answers Matthew’s question clad in the coat of expostulation. Wordsworth says that he is conversing with nature, trying to listen to the wisdom and knowledge that flows forever in the ether. This is where he gets his wisdom, and it is far preferable to sit on an old gray stone and dream his time away than to pursue knowledge in books.

The Theme of the Poem

The theme of Expostulation and Reply is the nature of wisdom, knowledge, enrichment, nature, education, and life. The poem talks about the type of education one should aim for.

While it does not say that the traditional form of education is worthless or useless. But one must never forget the power of being out in the open, taking the fresh air in your lungs, and learning from nature herself. There is so much floating in the air. Years of wisdom, and sweet, nurturing essence. We just need to sit passively with a passionate heart to take it in.

Literary Devices in the Poem

Here are all the literary devices used in the poem. 

Metaphor: Here are the metaphors of the poem:

“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.

Alliteration: The examples of alliteration includes: 

Why, William, on that old gray stone

Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed

You look round on your mother earth

The eye—it cannot choose but see;

Think you, mid all this mighty sum

Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme of Expostulation and Reply is ABAB

Enjambment: Here are the examples of enjambment used in the poem:

“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.

“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,

“Think you, mid all this mighty sum

“Of things for ever speaking,

“That nothing of itself will come,

“But we must still be seeking?

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