Discussing Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Tables Turned’

In an earlier post about interpreting poetry, I tried to convince my readers of the merits of reading poems and enjoying them as a form of art. There I also presented a six-step approach to interpreting poems that I will be referring to throughout this article, so you might want to have a look at that one first.

This time we will discuss a poem that will introduce us to one of the key ideas of Romanticism – the return to nature.

You probably already know some of the big names of the wider Romanticism movement that swept most of Europe towards the end of the 18th century. It was particularly strong in Germany, with prominent writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Novalis, and Friedrich Hölderlin, or painters such as Caspar David Friedrich whose works are a wonderful visual representation of what Romanticism was about.

In English literature there are the Big Six who best represent both the poetics of English Romanticism, diverse as it was, as well as the zeitgeist of the period: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. 

Different in character and focus of their writing, these authors shared some of the same key elements of Romanticism as an artistic and poetic ideology: the belief in the creative power of the poetic genius, preoccupation with the inner world of personal feelings and, as mentioned earlier, an interest in the natural world.

It is that last element I am most interested in here, and as an illustration of it I have chosen a poem by William Wordsworth – possibly the single most influential of the English Romantic poets. It was his Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798 and co-authored with Coleridge, that spearheaded the movement in Britain. His very life embodied this core value of Romanticism: spending most of his life in the idyllic Lake District in England, he was always observant and deeply appreciative of the nature around him.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The poem I have selected is called The Tables Turned, and it comes from the Lyrical Ballads. Following the steps I have presented in that earlier post, first read the poem silently, and then look up any new words and phrases.

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

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.

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.

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.

In step 2 we take a look at the structural features of this poem. See how many stanzas and lines there are. What do you notice about the rhythm of the poem? Is there any metrical pattern? The poem has an ABAB rhyme scheme – if you are unfamiliar with the term, can you figure out what it means? (Read the poem once more, this time aloud and it should become apparent.)

Step 3: What would you say is the theme of this poem? It is obviously about nature, but try to be more specific. What virtues does the poet ascribe to it? What does he contrast it with? (‘Nature as a teacher’ is more to the point; does anything else come to mind?)

Step 4: Think about the tone. The poem begins on a light note, as the poet playfully invites his friend to leave his books and go outside into nature (so he wouldn’t ‘grow double’). Does that humorous tone change later on in the poem?

Step 5: Speculate and reflect. Personally speaking, Wordsworth’s message is music to my ears, as I share his sentiments about the value of nature and the importance of enjoying it and learning from it. I find the message of the poem very relevant today, at a time of ever greater alienation from the natural world and the disastrous consequences of our disregard for the environment.

However, do you agree with Wordsworth that we can learn much more from nature than we possibly could from books, teachers and preachers; or that books are dull whereas the chirping of birds is wise? (Find other examples of contrast in the poem – how convincing are they?) Wordsworth’s ideas about nature can seem a bit naive and truly romantic. Are they realistic at all? Is nature always kind and benign? Is there really inherent wisdom to it, superior to human intellect, or is that something we read into it?

Wordsworth was a writer himself, a devout Anglican, and someone who certainly valued intellectual endeavours. So what do you think was his point in making some of these claims?

Step 6 consists of doing research into the historical and cultural background of the poem, some of which we have already touched upon. There was a lot going on towards the end of the 18th and at the beginning of the 19th century and learning about it will help us understand the poetic imagery, and the themes and visions presented by the Romantics. 

To learn more about William Wordsworth and the background to his works, you can use the links below as a starting point. But once you are done with your study, do go outside for a nice, long walk – you will be sure to understand this poem more fully.

The Romantics

Wordsworth Grasmere

Wordsworth board on the Grammaticus Pinterest profile

P.S. The cover image is John Glover’s ‘Ullswater, early morning’, c. 1824. It depicts the second largest lake in the Lake District, a landscape Wordsworth would have been very familiar with.

2 Replies to “Discussing Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Tables Turned’”

  1. The poem is, of course, lovely (and one of my all time favorites). Your analysis of the work, and corresponding instructions/suggestions to readers for their own studies/analyses are brilliant and practical. It’s always a great pleasure to read your work here.

    Liked by 1 person

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