William Wordsworth’s Expostulation and Reply: a Neoclassical and Romantic Analysis

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12 min read

Published: Jul 27, 2018

Words: 2229|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Jul 27, 2018

The first volume of William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1798) was published, as Wordsworth states in Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802), " an experiment." (482). The introduction to Lyrical Ballads by William Richey and Daniel Robinson suggests that the experiment contested the valued literature of the time in such a way that it sought to "strip away the pleasing illusions of late eighteenth-century art in order to reveal things as they (were)." (1). Thus Lyrical Ballads became one of the first examples of literature of the romantic era, with William Wordsworth leading as one of the authentic romantic poets. A focus on the poor and disenfranchised, written in the real "language of men," characterized literature of the romantic era, which contrasted with the literature of the neoclassical era. This literature featured an emphasis on the lives of the aristocracy and was written in a sophisticated manner (2). Although Lyrical Ballads did not seek to provide a strong reaction against Neoclassicism, evidence of such a movement is obvious in the content of its poems, namely, "Expostulation and Reply."

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The poem provides an interesting conflict within itself regarding the transition from neoclassicist ideas into romantic ideas and therefore would best be approached by such criticisms. The ultimate message of the poem favors romanticism, yet an approach of romantic criticism alone will not entirely provide a reasonably valid judgment of the work's strengths and weaknesses, a secondary analysis of the poem with regard to Neoclassicism is also necessary. The grounds for this judgment are based on the comparison of Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth to An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope. William Wordsworth's essay represents the means for a romantic criticism and Pope's essay represents a neoclassical criticism.

"Expostulation and Reply" was written in the style of a poetic dialog that takes place between two gentlemen ,on the topic of scholarship. The poem is made up 4-line stanzas with an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. The first gentleman, Matthew, asks his companion William why he is idly sitting: "Why William sit you thus alone,/ And dream your time away?" Then Matthew chides him for not spending his time amongst the books and knowledge of scholars past: "Up! Up! And drink the spirit breath'd/ From dead men to their kind." William replies that his actions are not idle in nature, that he is sensing nature without even trying to do so: "Our bodies feel, where'er they be,/ Against, or with our will." He says that the mind can be fed passively and can thus be used to teach itself, "...we can feed this mind of ours,/ In a wise passiveness." He asks his companion why one should seek knowledge when it comes automatically through nature, "Think you...That nothing of itself will come,/ But we must still be seeking?" William ultimately responds that man can learn all he needs to know from nature and that is why he is sitting and dreaming: "I sit upon this old grey stone,/ And dream my time away." (103-4).

The poem encapsulates the neoclassical values of Matthew, who reasons with William for the purpose of dissuading him from his romantic values. William replies, as the title suggests, with sound support for his values, thus creating a sense of persuading the reader. In just a mere 8 stanzas, the poem presents the logical transition between Neoclassicism and Romanticism that likely took place on the societal level. It is probable that the poem reflects a conversation that may have occurred in William Wordsworth's life and was thus the inspiration for such a poem.

Elements of Neoclassicism are indeed present in the poem, despite its debut as a romantic piece. Matthew presents his companion, William, with an argument that is supported by neoclassical beliefs. Matthew suggests that William pick up a book and learn from the spirit of the dead men through their rhetoric. The idea of learning from old truths is an element of Neoclassicism that is found specifically in Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism, which followed the tradition of Horace and provided advice for critics of literature and for poets (297): "You then whose judgment the right course would steer,/ Know well each ancient's proper character;/ His fable, subject, scope in ev'ry page;/ Religion, country, genius of his age" (301). Pope is suggesting in this passage, lines 118-121 of his essay, that in order for one to follow down the best path, he or she should select the well-worn path. In order to proclaim the general truths, the writer must learn from the thinkers of past times. This truth, then, should be communicated to others and that learned others will recognize the truth, because they had heard it before. "Some by old words to fame have made pretense,/ Ancients in praise, mere moderns in their sense;/ Such labored nothings, in so strange a style,/ Amaze th' unlearned, and make the learned smile." (301). Matthew would have William understand that there is no other way to learn than from the knowledge and wisdom of books.

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In the poem, Matthew proposes that without the books, common man would be nothing: "Where are your books? That light bequeath'd/ To beings else forlorn and blind!" (103). This reflects the neoclassical notion that without the knowledge of the great thinkers of the past, the common man is blind; he is hopeless and aimless without it. This also presents the neoclassical distinction of classes within society, providing that the common man would lack intellect and the capacity to construct knowledge on his own.

Matthew also accuses William of having no common sense or rationality because he is reflecting on nature as if he has no purpose and as if he was the first man to take in nature, "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!" (103). To the neoclassicist, the scenario of William sitting idly on a stone would make him seem like a fool, and his rationale for doing so would seem nonsensical. The voice of Neoclassicism is heard strongly in the poem as Matthew echoes the beliefs of Alexander Pope and other Neoclassicists.

Having thus revealed the presence of Neoclassicism in the poem, it is important that one discover the fundamental romantic message of Wordsworth's work. His message appears not only through the poem's content, but also through its style. William's reply to Matthew claims that he is sensing and learning from nature without even trying to do so. This reflects Wordsworth's claim that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, which only come to a man who possesses organic sensibility (484). In the poem, William is in the process of writing a poem, but perhaps he is gaining the emotional experience necessary to do so. William suggests that man can feed his mind through passiveness. This passiveness that Wordsworth describes reflects his statement "For the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants." (484). Ultimately, William suggests that things come of themselves. Here Wordsworth implies that poetry comes from the emotions man derives from his personal experiences in nature (490). Therefore, the romantic rationale behind William's actions is supplemented through his reply and personal defense.

The experimental value of Lyrical Ballads, as well as the romantic style in which they were written, contradict the neoclassical style. Pope condemns writing with such experimental intentions in his essay by stating "True ease in writing comes from art, not chance." (302). Although Wordsworth's ideas were experimental in the realm of literature, he was not a writer simply by chance. His ideas were new and his way of conveying them was somewhat of an experiment. Wordsworth believed that poetry should be adopted from the language of men, thought that poets who used the more philosophical language "separate themselves from the sympathies of men" and therefore "indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, or their own creation" (483). Wordsworth would suggest that because he wrote this poem in the language of the common man, it could be read and enjoyed by the common man as well as the aristocracy, therefore creating pleasure for all. And pleasure, Wordsworth asserts, is the end of poetry, its ultimate goal (489).

The poem resembles a work of Romanticism through its style. As previously mentioned, the work was written in the language of the common man. The word choice in the poem, as well as being in the language of the common man, refers to experiences of the common man. For instance, the poem is likely set in a rural environment because William sits on an old grey stone and then converses with his friend by Esthwaite Lake. This use of the rural setting is a predominant feature of romanticism: "Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart fine a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are under less restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language" (483). The action that takes place in the poem resembles the experience of ordinary men as well and can thus be perceived by them. Wordsworth states that it is necessary for the poet to give immediate pleasure to the reader: "The end of poetry is to produce excitement in coexistence with an overbalance of pleasure..." (487-9). The poem does give the reader a sense of pleasure in that he learns that he can create things of his own capacity, without the help of intellectuals of the past. Wordsworth also makes reference to the distinct purpose that a poem has: "(a) description of such objects as strongly excited those feelings will be found to carry along with them a purpose2E" (484). The purpose in "Expostulation and Reply" is clear: to enlighten the readers about the nature's value to knowledge and to dissuade the reader from relying solely upon books; more bluntly put, to move the readers toward romanticist values and ideas and away from Neoclassicism.

In order to perceive these strengths in the poem, it is necessary to use romantic criticism. Though it is also valuable to use this criticism to analyze the weaknesses of the poem, it is difficult to do so because the piece was written in accordance with the values of romanticism. One weakness of the poem is, however, the assertion of the importance of feeling by Wordsworth in his preface, "that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation." Meanwhile, the poem struggles to show such importance of feeling and succeeds at conveying the perception of nature (484). It is not evident to the reader what strong feelings the poem conveys, nor what action and situation it gives importance to. However, if the work were to be analyzed through neoclassical criticism, the work would have fewer strengths and many more weaknesses.

A neoclassical criticism of the poem would find a great deal of strengths within the first 3 stanzas, and then perhaps would find weakness in the argument provided in the last four stanzas. The language of the poem would be a weakness, as well as its apparent rural setting. The content of the poem is presented in two parts: the expostulation and the reply. Pope suggests that some critics attempt to make the whole message of the poem depend upon its parts, and this he says leads to the sacrifice of the entire work based on the failure of one part (301). Perhaps Pope would have difficulty critiquing the whole of Wordsworth's poem, given that it has 2 obvious and opposing parts.

It is clear that the work is rich with strengths through a romantic criticism. Romantic criticism for "Expostulation and Reply" provides the basis for a sound analysis because it is a work of Romanticism, but furthermore, it truly serves to elaborate the strengths of the work in a way that no other criticism could. Concurrently, the poem thrives on the analysis of a Neoclassical criticism because the neoclassical elements of the poem provide elements of interest necessary for a secondary criticism; elements for which Romanticism alone does not provide the sole basis of judgment. Because of the changing time in which the work was written and the experimental nature of its origin, the poem is a unique example of a work of Romanticism with lingering Neoclassical beliefs still intertwined. Indeed the work is valuable for its presentation of the historical transition that took place between the eras of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, especially because it shows it on an everyday level, as would be the experience of the ordinary man.

Works Cited

Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. Critical Theory Since Plato: Third Edition. Adams, Hazard and Searle, Leroy. Boston, Massachusetts: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005: (297-306).

Richey, William and Robinson, Daniel. Introduction. Lyrical Ballads and Related Writings. Richey, William and Robinson, Daniel. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002: (1-7).

Wordsworth, William. "Expostulation and Reply". Lyrical Ballads and Related Writings. Richey, William and Robinson, Daniel. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002: (103-4).

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Wordsworth, William. Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads. Critical Theory Since Plato: Third Edition. Adams, Hazard and Searle, Leroy. Boston, Massachusetts: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005: (481-492).

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William Wordsworth’s Expostulation and Reply: A Neoclassical and Romantic Analysis. (2018, April 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 1, 2023, from
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