Expostulation and Reply
(A poem about leisure) William Wordsworth, 1798
I’ve often said that children should be given as much free time outdoors as possible, to work or to play or simply to be, because if all their time is taken up in school, when will they have the time to learn anything? Yes, I know that that sounds like a facetious thing to say, but the poet Wordsworth would have nodded and laughed, and said, “Exactly right!”
It’s one thing to get your learning from books, and that’s fine indeed, but the whole world is also like a book full of mysterious and beautiful things, and the best way to begin to learn how to read that book is to open it somewhere and get lost in it. Seek and you shall find: rocks, streams, wild turkeys in a field of berries, a red-tailed hawk floating along the updraft, and the bluejays crying out their warning, that there’s a hawk nearby. But there are other things you can’t seek, or rather that you can only seek by remaining still and letting them come to you. Think, for example, of the apparent passiveness of someone deep in a prayer of receptivity, of listening. And it’s something similar to such a prayer that the poet Wordsworth holds up for our consideration in this friendly poem, “Expostulation and Reply.”
William is sitting on a stone, doing nothing, when his friend Matthew comes by and reproaches him. Where are his books? How come he’s not learning what men of old have to teach him? Wasn’t there anyone in the world before he came into it? Isn’t he neglecting his duty?
Well, there’s no doubt that Wordsworth read and treasured a lot of old books. He says so, in other poems of his. But it’s the book of the world that meant the most to him, that filled his soul, when he was young, with forebodings of a divine power that moves in and through all things. We can say that that was not a Christian faith, and I think Wordsworth would agree, though he did consider himself to be a Christian, especially as he grew older; but it was perhaps an important and natural prologue to the faith. And as the natural world is made by God, so does it in quiet but persistent and powerful ways reveal something of the might and goodness of God, and in so doing it takes us beyond ourselves and our petty daily concerns. You can’t make money by picking an odd wild flower with no name and smelling it to find out what it is like. You can’t climb the ladder of ambition by sitting on a rock and feeling the breeze in your hair. You cannot move a mob by going off to sunlit solitude and peace.
And those things, too, belong to school in its old sense – to leisure, to being free, to entering into the precincts of the divine.
“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 bequeathed To Beings else forlorn and blind! Up! Up! And drink the spirit breathed 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 choose 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 forever 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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