“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.”
William Wordsworth, in “Expostulation and Reply,” imagines a conversation with his friend Matthew, who offers the above rebuke for William’s penchant to “sit… alone/And dream your time away.”
Wordsworth’s defense is one that many may find resonance with, appealing as he does to our innate responses to the beauty of the created order, our intuitive sense of what may be sought and known through our own reflections.
“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.”
Unlike the reading of stale books, of those dead words, sitting in contemplation, we allow the impressions to come to us unbidden, to absorb them, to allow our intellect and affections to apprehend and from that apprehension to re-imagine and re-express.
To Matthew’s rebuke, then, Wordsworth may offer the last word:
“…ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away.”
I imagine, often, that Wordsworth’s response may be one commonly finding agreement (or at least sympathy) among our students. To simply explore nature, to allow impressions to come, to put away the stale old relics of the past for the current, the modern, to find themselves.
Wordsworth’s rebuke is certainly one which could have more nuance; he creates a dichotomy between the reading of books and the experience of nature, between the consideration of the past and the impression of the present. Were it more nuanced, it would be considered well.
Yet again, in my experience, it is often precisely this lack of nuance that makes Wordsworth’s view so attractive to our students (and often to ourselves). Wordsworth, though, unknowingly gives us the solution, not in his own voice, but in his much-disparaged attempted caricature of Matthew.
Matthew does not simply call Wordsworth to the study of books, but includes this reason and rebuke:
“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!”
Wordsworth’s desire for the immediate ignores the long tradition of men and women who likewise considered nature and their surroundings. Far from calling Wordsworth from his desire to explore and see, Matthew (I’m extending here from what words we have) lays claim to the view that our present is only sensible in view of our past, that we so often wrongly name and categorize, that we need to be able to have our vision (and our virtue) shaped by those who have gone before. This we do to rightly move from the consideration of books to the consideration of the world, a right affection for what we find.
As Christians, surely we know this to be true. After all, we are inheritors and stewards of the greatest wisdom of the ages, handed down to us in a “stale old book,” yet one in which we find the very marrow of life and which gives to us from its richness the vision to see and affections to rightly relate to ourselves, our neighbors, our world.