Sunday, 27 May 2012

Portsmouth Point Poetry: Expostulation and Reply

Commentary by George Laver   

For anyone studying, or simply interested in, the Romantic era of English poetry and its associated major works and poets, I believe that William Wordsworth’s Expostulation and Reply provides a tuneful yet comprehensive insight into the minds of writers participating in this most momentous of literary movements.

Romanticism arose in Europe during the late 18th century as a reaction against the prevalent Enlightenment ideals of tolerance, rationality and scientific understanding over superstition and radical emotion as well as being in part a response to the drudgery of the Industrial Revolution. It saw the rise of some of the most significant figures in the history of English poetry, including Percy Shelley, William Blake, Lord Byron and the widely-quoted John Keats. We owe its poetic inception in England almost entirely to William Wordsworth, who, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote the seminal Romantic publication Lyrical Ballads, containing such works as The Rime of the Ancyent Mariner and Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

Born on April 7th, 1770, Wordsworth spent his early years in an ideal atmosphere for the growth of a poetic imagination. Surrounded from an early age by the impressive, mountainous scenery of the Lake District, taught to read by his mother Ann Cookson and educated by his father John Wordsworth in the works of Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare, he developed a strong reverence for nature, further exercised by his 1791 journey to the Alps, which would come to influence the majority of his most highly-regarded pieces.

In 1791, he travelled to France and there met his first major love interest, Annette Vallon, with whom he had his first child, Caroline, in the following year. The unrest between Britain and France forced him to move back to England and it was not until ten years later, after what was likely a period of emotional instability, that he was able to return. During this separation, he travelled to Germany with his close friend Coleridge and his sister Dorothy, experiencing emotions of both artistic inspiration and homesickness. By the time of his return to France, Wordsworth had resolved to marry his childhood friend Mary Hutchinson and did so on October 4th, 1802, living with her and Dorothy, with whom Mary became good friends, in England.

Although he was known throughout the majority of his career for the Lyrical Ballads, he wrote and published many more famous poems including I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud, The World is Too Much With Us and the long poem The Excursion, becoming Poet Laureate after fellow Lake Poet Robert Southey in 1843. This title remained with him until his death from pleurisy in 1850, whereupon Mary Hutchinson published his grand autobiographical work, originally entitled Poem to Coleridge, under the name The Prelude. Wordsworth remains recognized to this day as the forefather of English Romanticism and one of the finest lyric poets of our literature. 

 Expostulation and Reply exemplifies Wordsworth’s intentions upon creating the Lyrical Ballads, putting forward the writer’s argument for education through nature in elegant yet simple and convincing terms.

The piece takes the form of a brief discourse between the writer himself and a friend who, according to the Advertisement for the Ballads, “was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of moral philosophy”, and, as such, creates a pleasing microcosm of the exchange between Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers. William’s retort to Matthew’s questioning is by no means bitter or aggressive; rather, he speaks in a tone fanciful and, to a degree, philosophical, explaining himself not through complex logic or conceit but rather through a poetic exposition of “how things are” and how he, as a poet of his era, models his thoughts and beliefs on this “In a wise passiveness”. The Romantic method of argument, in this case at least, seems to prove the fairer and the more effective.

Expostulation and Reply

“Why, William, on that old grey stone, 
“Thus for the length of half a day,
“Why, William, sit you thus alone,
“And dream your time away?

“Where are your books? that light bequeath’d
“To beings else forlorn and blind!
“Up! Up! and drink the spirit breath’d
“From dead men to their kind.

“You look round on your mother earth,
“As if she for no purpose bore you;
“As if you were her first-born birth,
“And none had lived before you!”

One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:

“The eye it cannot chuse 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.

“Think you, 'mid all this mighty sum
“Of things for ever speaking,
“That nothing of itself will come,
“But we must still be seeking?

“ -- Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
“Conversing as I may,
“I sit upon this old grey stone,
“And dream my time away.”


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