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Last Updated on June 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

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William Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” is a poem of eight stanzas of four lines each and follows a regular abab rhyme scheme. It was first published in 1798, in the collection Lyrical Ballads.

The poem’s title—“The Tables Turned”—is a phrase that does not appear in the body of the poem at all. The expression “to turn the tables” typically refers to a reversal of some sort: for a victim to gain the upper hand on their attacker, perhaps, or for the innocent child to know more than the smug adult. In this poem, the speaker simply implores his friend—perhaps the reader themself—to put down their books and go outside, allowing nature to be their “teacher.” The poem begins,

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

The speaker sees that books are causing his friend “toil and trouble” and believes that going outside to see the “first sweet evening yellow” on the green fields, listening to the linnet’s song, and being in the woods will end this trouble and do more for his friend than any book can. It is somewhat ironic that this point is being made by a writer in a book. Wordsworth’s contemporaries would have read this poem in a collection which had been printed in a book, and yet his speaker tells them to put the book down and go outside, because nature is a far better teacher of truth than he ever could be. The writer, then, succeeds in “turning the tables” for his readers; rather than the reader tiring of the writer or the writing, the text itself directly instructs its reader to get “Up! up!” and go outside to experience the “ready wealth” and blessings of nature. The speaker even claims that nature can teach us more about ourselves, about the nature of good and evil, than a book can. The tables have been turned.

While the speaker’s exhortations to “quit your books” are somewhat ironic, they are also in keeping with Wordsworth’s status as a Romantic poet. The Romantics valued individual communion with nature above all, and much of Wordsworth’s work reflects this theme. In “The Tables Turned,” Wordsworth uses vivid imagery of the natural world to persuade his friend to go and experience that world for themself: “The sun above the mountain’s head” spreads its light upon the fields, as though spreading the light of knowledge and understanding before the onlooker; the linnet sings its “sweet,” wise song; the throstle is compared to a “preacher”; and the lushness of the “vernal wood” is contrasted with the “barren leaves” of the book the friend reads. While reading is figured as “barren,” sterile, and lifeless, nature is brimming with life, sound, and beauty; it offers the friend a “ready wealth” of “wisdom,” “health,” “truth,” and “cheerfulness” that cannot be found in books.

The Romantics’ focus on nature was, in part, a reaction to the industrial revolution, and “The Tables Turned” follows in this tradition. While it does not address industrialization explicitly, the emphasis on nature’s pure and simple beauty contrasts sharply with the changes that were sweeping the British landscape in Wordsworth’s day.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

“The Tables Turned” is subtitled “An Evening Scene on the Same Subject,” indicating that it forms a pair with the poem published immediately ahead of it in Lyrical Ballads, “Expostulation and Reply.” A reader should understand one to understand the other.

In “Expostulation and Reply,” William Wordsworth’s friend Matthew, finding the poet sitting on a stone, urges him to quit dreaming and to read those books through which the wisdom of the past sheds essential light on the problems of the present. William replies that while he sits quietly, he feels the force of “Powers” which give his mind a “wise passiveness.” By implication, this passiveness is more precious than the knowledge that can be gained by reading.

“The Tables Turned” is a short lyric poem of thirty-two lines arranged in eight stanzas. It takes the form of an address by a speaker (who most readers will agree is Wordsworth himself) to a friend, the Matthew of “Expostulation and Reply.” The scene is presumably that of the other poem (“by Esthwaite lake”) in England’s Lake District; by its subtitle, “An Evening Scene on the Same Subject,” one may assume that the events of the poem take place later in the same day.

Wordsworth metaphorically turns the tables on his friend, for this time it is Wordsworth who makes the confrontation. The poet’s general argument has not changed: The mind is much better off when it responds to the influences of nature than when it takes on intellectual tasks. The central concern of the poem is to develop this contrast and this argument.

In stanza 1, Wordsworth forcefully yet playfully urges Matthew to stand “Up! up!” lest he “grow double” in the “toil and trouble” of reading. In stanza 2, the poet paints a picture of the glories to be seen in nature as the sun appears above a mountain and gives the “long green fields” their “sweet evening yellow.” From stanza 3 on, nature is embodied specifically in the sounds of birdcalls in the woods—the music of the linnet and the “blithe” song of the throstle (or thrush).

Wordsworth is interested in more than simply giving the reader specific images of nature, however; most of the poem is given over to an argument. The “dull and endless strife” of reading books, the preachers’ wisdom they contain, and even the “ready wealth” they may bring are not so sweet and wise as a bird’s song. The argument becomes more intense in stanzas 7 and 8, where the poet’s objections to books widen to include most kinds of knowledge found in books, especially that “barren” knowledge which comes from rational (perhaps scientific) analysis, by which “Our meddling intellect/ Misshapes the beauteous forms of things—/ We murder to dissect.”

In contrast, Wordsworth urges Matthew, “Let Nature be your teacher” by responding to bird songs, by deriving “Spontaneous wisdom” from them in a state, not of dull toil, but of “health” and “cheerfulness.” The poet states his program for wisdom in stanza 6: “One impulse from a vernal wood/ May teach you more of man,/ Of moral evil and of good,/ Than all the sages can.” Because this is so, Wordsworth ends his poem in stanza 8 by calling on his friend to “come forth” from his books with an alert heart ready to receive nature’s lessons.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326

“The Tables Turned” contains eight quatrains of a specific kind; they are “ballad stanzas.” Such a stanza generally has four lines of alternately eight and six syllables, which rhyme abab. Many of the poems published in Lyrical Ballads are written in this kind of verse. This was the stanza in which many folk ballads were composed, so to choose to write in it signaled that a poet was departing from the usual poetic form of the eighteenth century, the heroic couplet.

The poem begins playfully. The poet remonstrates with Matthew, calling forth a fanciful image of his friend’s growing double over his books with a witty implication that he is behaving like, and perhaps coming to resemble, the witches in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), with his “toil and trouble.” The next three or four stanzas are also light in mood. The poet continues to use the imperative voice to call upon his friend to come away from books, and he uses most of the poem’s vivid visual images in so doing. Most of the poem’s few metaphors (bird as preacher, nature as teacher) occur in stanza 4. In each, the amount of semi-serious and abstract assertion increases: from none in stanza 2 to almost all of stanza 5.

In the climax of the poem, stanzas 6 and 7, the reader finds almost no images, no metaphors. The poet is serious, not urgent or playful. Stanza 6 states the positive side of Wordsworth’s argument. Its language has a grand and prophetic simplicity; its rhythm is appropriately regular and calmly emphatic. Stanza 7 states the negative: It is more cacophonous, irregular in rhythm, and polysyllabic than stanza 6. Its final line (“We murder to dissect”) is the poem’s most forceful in meaning and most dramatic in presentation. The poem ends on a somewhat less intense but hopeful note, as it returns to the imperative to call Matthew forth and to define how he will attain the insights the poet has described.