“Expostulation and Reply” by Wordsworth, illustrates conflict between book learning and experiential knowledge. Which form of learning does the poem support?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, his poem "Expostulation and Reply" is "paired" with "The Tables Turned" ("subtitled 'An Evening Scene on the Same Subject'...”). The first poem confronts a topic, and the second continues the "considerations" supplied in the first poem.

In this posting, the first poem—"Expostulation and Reply"—is the focus, and it describes a debate Wordsworth and his friend Matthew had with regard to which is better: "book learning" or "experential knowledge" (learning by doing, or experiencing the world one lives in)?

The speaker beginning the poem is Matthew, who asks why William Wordsworth is sitting on a rock thinking, and doing nothing else.

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?

The question, then, is why Wordsworth is wasting half a day sitting and dreaming when he should be reading. Matthew goes on to state that it would be better for Wordsworth to study the words of scholars old and/or dead, rather than looking to nature for his answers.

Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed

From dead men to their kind.

You look round on your Mother Earth…

Wordsworth listens to what his friend has to say, and then responds in a way that indicates that Wordsworth finds more value in learning from nature than from books. He notes that no matter how hard one tries, he or she cannot help but experience—through the senses—the "words" nature speaks to those who "listen."

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.

Wordsworth argues that experiential learning cannot be avoided. Wisdom can come while one is passive (perhaps thoughtful and reflective) rather than simply by reading books. As time passes, nature will continue to speak, and he asks his friend if he really thinks that man can learn nothing by listening to the world...that no answers are to be found and so man will need to continually search for answers? He is saying that all one needs to know comes from nature, which will answer questions so that we do not need to continually search for them.

Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum

Of things for ever speaking,

That nothing of itself will come,

we must still be seeking?

Wordsworth ends the poem by advising Matthew not to bother asking again for the poet finds all he needs right where he sits, rather than delving into the world of books written by men long dead.


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