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Last Updated on September 24, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309

Nature Is the Best Teacher

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The speaker implores his friend—in fact, the reader may be the friend he speaks to—to put down her books and come outside, because there is "more of wisdom" in the songs of the birds outside than there is in any book. The speaker personifies the birds and even the sun, as if to convey the idea that everything in nature is purposeful and wise; the bird is not a "mean" preacher but a wise one, and the sun freshens the fields with "His first sweet evening yellow." Nature stands with her "ready wealth" to bless their hearts and minds, breathing truth with a cheerfulness not to be found elsewhere. Nature is the best teacher, far better than other people, and far better than books.

The Limits of Book Learning

According to Wordsworth's speaker, nature can tell us "more of man" and more about good and evil than books written by "all the sages can." Books merely encourage our "meddling intellect," which misshapes and deforms all the beauty to be found in the world. The pages of books are like "barren leaves," dead rather than living, especially compared to the living leaves outside. Book learning, the speaker asserts, is not the most effective way to understand truth and beauty.

Intellect versus Experience

The speaker claims that "We murder to dissect" the things that we try to understand. In order to take them apart, we must first kill them—either literally or figuratively. This is what happens, the speaker says, when people study and read about something for too long, going over and over the material, trying to understand it fully: they end up "killing" the subject that they seek to understand. Rather than study the "barren leaves" of books that only contain dead things, it is best to go outside and experience the living natural world.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360

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.