Bruce Seaton
Professor P. Flynn
English Romanticism

One Impulse from a Vernal Wood

In his 1798 poem The Tables Turned, William Wordsworth makes a bold statement--a statement central to the philosophical position of much of his early work:
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
The Tables Turned is the second of a matched pair of poems; it is a final answer to Expostulation and Reply, in which Wordsworth’s fictional friend Matthew asserts that Wordsworth should spend more time reading and less time sitting outside and daydreaming. The above statement is the linchpin to Wordsworth’s response. Wordsworth’s belief, influenced greatly by sensationalism and the writings of Hartley, that full, deep feelings and natural moral wisdom are only attainable by those who have felt strong emotions (both positive and negative) as children, is strongly present in this stanza.

Wordsworth believed that the strong emotions necessary for moral wisdom could be brought on only by a close relationship with nature. He saw in nature a balance of powerful forces of inspiration, joy and fear. Wordsworth believed that one impulse, such as the sunset he describes in Composed upon an Evening of Extraordinary Splendour and Beauty or the looming mountain-monster of lines 357-400 of book I of The Prelude could have the power to create these kinds of emotions. The powerful beauty of the sunset in Composed Upon an Evening restores his belief in God and the “choirs of fervent angels,” while the mountain of The Prelude that seems to chase the little boat young Wordsworth has stolen instills in the boy a chilling vision of soberingly eternal moral truth.

Any moment spent outside of society and beyond the walls and gates of common human life has the potential for this kind of impact on a person. Because these encounters with nature are solitary and direct, they have a far stronger impact than stories told by others or the opinions of “authorities.” Many of Wordsworth’s best-known works, such as Tintern Abbey and My Heart Leaps Up reflect the importance of the catalyst for deep emotion and moral wisdom that nature can be to children.

Wordsworth believed that the strong emotions produced by personal, natural experiences like these that could not be produced by written words, or through any human machination. Thus, “the sages” of The Tables Turned could include all writers who attempt to forward a philosophy of any kind, including Wordsworth himself. Thus, his opening line “Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books,” seems to say “don’t take my word for it”--these natural experiences must be encountered first-hand, and even the most deeply intellectual philosophy or elegant poetry--the “barren leaves” of the final stanza of The Tables Turned--has no power to shape a person like the power of personal experience within the stimulating leaves, mountains, and streams of a natural setting.

The instinctive moral good described in much of Wordsworth’s poetry seems closer to the Buddhist concept of Good than to that of Christianity. For Wordsworth, to be truly good is to be at one with and balanced within nature. If a person has even one experience as intense and humbling as the ones he describes in his poems, that person will have a fuller understanding of his or her place in the larger scheme of the world, and it will be easier for that person to make decisions that uphold the good of the world. Similarly, to be unbalanced and disconnected from nature is evil in that a person with a narrow scope of the world sees only his or her own best interests, and will probably make decisions that reflect this insular and arrogant outlook.

The hyperbole used in both Expostulation and Reply and The Tables Turned seems to be intentionally melodramatic, suggesting that Wordsworth is not only forwarding an idea, but also making himself the butt of a subtle joke. Matthew claims that men who do not read are “forlorn and blind”--clearly an overstatement in that there were then and are now entire cultures of perfectly happy, well-sighted people who have never even developed a system of writing, let alone read a book. In The Tables Turned, Wordsworth claims that books are “a dull and endless strife.” Anyone who has read a significant amount has felt this way at one time or another, yet ironically, it is Wordsworth’s own occupation to write books of poetry.

Although Wordsworth’s natural philosophy eventually faded into a more classically Christian system of beliefs, the intensity of his love affair with nature is perhaps never as bluntly stated as it is in The Tables Turned. The joviality with which he deals with his favorite topic is a rare exception to the serious tone of The Prelude, the feeling of childhood lost in Tintern Abbey, and the often sorrowful outlook of later poems like Surprised by Joy and Elegiac Stanzas. The poem is a sort of abbreviated manifesto of natural living, a loose rejection of societal doctrine, and a sermon on moral living.

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