Monday, October 04, 2010

A Heart that Watches and Receives

Among the Lyrical Ballads we have an interesting pair of poems, "Expostulation and Reply" and "Tables Turned" that, while not themselves providing a full philosophical argument, nonetheless do present one in summary form. Wordsworth said that they "arose out of conversation with a friend who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of moral philosophy"; the friend in question was almost certainly William Hazlitt. The first poem, "Expostulation and Reply," has two characters, Matthew and William; William is presented as the narrator of the poem. Matthew finds William sitting on an "old grey stone" by Lake Esthwaite, and says that he is just dreaming his time away and should engage in a more constructive study:

"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!"

To this expostulation William replies in fact the sort of thing that he is doing would be done anywhere and it makes sense to do it where the mind can nourish itself best:

"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.

Just as importantly, however, William suggests that it is strange to think that consideration of the whole vast world of nature would amount to nothing:

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

"Tables Turned" forms the sequel to this brief summary of a philosophical conversation between friends; it is the more important, and more famous, of the two. 'Matthew' is here merely addressed, and not named; the whole poem is a counter-expostulation in which the narrator, finding his friends at his books, turns the table, saying he should get up from his books and take up a more constructive kind of study:

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

He makes the same point that had been made by William in the previous poem, albeit in a much stronger and less tentative form:

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Whereas William had only suggested that it would be strange if the "mighty sum of things forever speaking" provided no insight, here we have an insistence that it provides more insight than (to use the phrase from the previous poem) the "spirit breathed from dead men to their kind." The "wise passiveness" of the previous poem in the face of "Powers which of themselves our minds impress" are also found here, as an "impulse" that gives healthy "spontaneous wisdom" and cheerful truth. But the point is not merely stated: an argument is given. Books involve chopping up the world in artificial ways:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

At the heart of poems, of course, is the very Wordsworthian insistence that the human mind and the natural world are well-suited to each other, and that, therefore, the "wise passiveness" of "a heart that watches and receives" is an important element to learning. Nature is not merely a backdrop; it is the essential environment for the healthy development of our minds, since only from Nature's "ready wealth" can we get the full nourishment our minds require. And, note, this is especially important for the development of moral reflection: our capacity for moral reflection needs to work "in the light of things" and needs as its objects "the beauteous forms of things".

I've occasionally seen "Tables Turned" used as an example of Romantic anti-intellectualism. But this is clearly a misinterpretation, even setting aside the fact that 'Romantic anti-intellectualism' usually turns out not to be anti-intellectual at all. The point is not that book-study is useless, because the point at issue in the poem-pair is what provides the most valuable environment for moral reflection and, perhaps more importantly, what is the proper approach to take if you are attempting to improve your habits of moral reflection. The point of "Tables Turned" is that active searching of books for arguments can quickly mire you in purely artificial disputes, leading to shallow habits of moral reflection; the approach that the poet himself advocates, on the other hand, consists of a mind that with "wise passiveness" "that watches and receives" from the "ready wealth" of the world, and thus is not hampered in its moral reflection by the artificiality and, occasionally, mere quibbling, of book disputes; it doesn't stay with the "dull and endless strife," which requires an active searching and constant examination, but instead comes forth "into the light of things," not merely to weigh arguments put forward by others but to be taught about itself.

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