Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

When Wordsworth chose to employ the ballad stanza, he not only broke with the poetic practice of serious English poetry of the past, he also implied that he held new values. If those values were not (at least in this poem) the values of common folk, they were at least quite different from those common to educated persons in the eighteenth century.

Matthew, the representative of older values, has been identified in part with William Taylor, Wordsworth’s boyhood schoolmaster. Wordsworth once said that this and the poem that preceded it “arose out of conversation with a friend” (possibly William Hazlitt) “who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of Moral Philosophy.”

It is precisely the kind of ideas about moral philosophy found in books that Wordsworth attacks in this poem. In the all-important sixth stanza, Wordsworth asserts that when a person is affected by a perception of beauty in the natural world in springtime (“an impulse from a vernal wood”—a bird song), that person is made immediately and intuitively sensitive to what is good and what is evil. This kind of moral intuition is more to be trusted than judgments made on the bases of philosophical systems.

The seventh stanza describes what such systems do. They reject what can be learned from the pleasing (“sweet”) impulses of nature (“the lore which Nature brings”). Instead, these systems encourage the mind (“Our meddling intellect”) to analyze (“dissect”) the “beauteous forms of things.” This last phrase is somewhat vague; presumably the mind attempts to analyze not only the beautiful impulses from nature but human actions as well. In either case, before the mind can analyze, it must kill: “We murder to dissect.” The action of the logical mind destroys what it touches and defeats its own purpose of discovering moral principles.

Wordsworth criticizes how the logical mind operates upon moral questions. Some readers also take the powerful statements in stanza 7 to apply to the analytical mind in all of its operations. Although elsewhere he expresses different opinions, here Wordsworth seems to have much in common with other Romantic poets, who generally valued imaginative understanding much higher than logical and rational thought.