Analysis

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

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.

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