The Romantic movement in literature was a reaction to classicism, which idealised the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome and promoted the values of logic, objectivity, and emotional restraint, as well as a system of formal rules for creating "art" based heavily on the ideas set forth by Aristotle in his Poetics. The Romantics rejected objectivity in favor of subjectivity, logic in favor of emotion, and rules-based art in favor of individual expression. A key tenet of Romanticism was the innate wisdom of emotions and experiences unfiltered by the intellect. Intuition, they argued, was a powerful teacher, who had been ignored too long by the classicist mindset. By opening oneself up to one's intuition, a person could discover profound truths and create things of lasting beauty.
This is the central argument of William Wordsworth's two poems, "Expostulation and Reply," and the sequel, "The Tables Turned." The poet's friend, Matthew, asks him in the first poem why he is idly daydreaming when he ought to be improving himself by reading.
"Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?
Where are your books?"
Matthew is mildly exasperated by the spectacle of his friend "dreaming his time away" by gazing at the countryside, and remarks:
"You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you[.]"
It is the duty of those who have the leisure for education to make good on that leisure and educate themselves as much as possible. This idea goes back to Plato's dialogues, in which the life of the "philosopher" - he who had the time to devote to the pursuit of wisdom - was deemed the happiest life of all. For Wordsworth to be wasting that time and staring into space instead of pursuing wisdom is a dereliction of duty, according to Matthew.
Wordsworth, however, argues that the simple act of "looking round on [his] Mother Earth" is in itself the pursuit of wisdom. All the wisdom of the world is not locked up in libraries, he says; can Matthew truly believe that is the case?
"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 espouses the Romantic view that, by looking and listening without attempting to interpret his sensations, he is absorbing a purer form of knowledge than that which is captured in books. After all, he says,
"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."
Later that day, in "The Tables Turned," Wordsworth takes the opportunity to show Matthew what he meant in their earlier exchange. Matthew is back at the house, reading, as he had previously exhorted Wordsworth to do, and the poet urges him to come outside and learn in a different way.
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.
The ideals of the classical world are all well and good, but there is no need to be wedded to them, and indeed, that is a narrow-minded approach to life. The Romantics were excited by the possibilities of exploring the emotional, the subconscious, and the intuitive - the hidden worlds around and within each person that ordinary observational logic bypasses. Birdsong is a beautiful mystery, and that mystery should be embraced, not reduced to a set of dry facts. The Romantics wanted to break through the intellect's stranglehold on human experience, and get to the pure experience itself:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.
Wordsworth urges Matthew to come with him and learn in a different school of thought, to open his mind to new ideas, or even to silence his mind and allow his heart to do the thinking. The "spontaneous wisdom" nature inspires in man is not something that can be learned in books. Matthew must "close up those barren leaves" if he is to truly understand what Wordsworth was doing when he sat on the "old grey stone", dreaming his time away. Wordsworth captures a core aspect of Romanticism when he says,
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
The sages had their uses, and the Romantics did not reject the wisdom of the past, but they were much more interested in learning for themselves from the world around them, rather than referring to things learned in previous ages. The natural world is full of "ready wealth" for the open mind that "watches and receives." Come out, Wordsworth says to his friend, and experience this with me.
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.