Conversing as I may

Opposing Viewpoints

Wordsworth’s poem “Expostulation and Reply” presents two friends’ competing viewpoints on humanity’s relation to the world. The title of the poem and the call and response format of Mathew and William’s interaction (also echoed by the alternate rhyme scheme, i.e. ABAB, throughout the poem) demonstrate that the poem is fundamentally a social commentary. Arguably, what underlies the opposing viewpoints of the two friends, Mathew and William, are conflicting political ideologies.

Mathew’s Ideology

Mathew’s ideology revolves around the betterment of the self through social conditioning, namely by means of reading books. Moreover, Mathew invokes the liberalist ideologies of the radicals of the French Revolution {an oversimplified account of some of the causes for the French Revolution are as follows:  “Resentment [of the French Monarch], coupled with burgeoning Enlightenment ideals, fueled radical sentiments and launched the Revolution in 1789” (Wikipedia)}. Significantly, Mathew characterizes the books that he feels William should be reading as literally being a source of light: “‘Where are your books?—that light bequeathed/ To beings else forlorn and blind!’” (Wordsworth, lines 5-6), and thus makes an apparent allusion to the enlightenment literature which fueled French radicalism. Furthermore, Mathew’s beckoning of William to change his physical state: “Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed/ From dead men to their kind” (lines 7-8), echoes the radical’s call for armed revolution, and subsequent martyrdom.

William’s Ideology

William’s ideology is decidedly conservative. William rejects external social pressures for change in favor of the preservation of his own convictions. This notion rings especially true in the final stanza of the poem in which William remarks:

‘—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,

Conversing as I may,

I sit upon this old grey stone.

And dream my time away.’ (Wordsworth, lines 29-32)

The “old grey stone” seems to be a metaphor then for the continuance of an old natural order, it is an image that invokes a sense of immutability. Moreover, William’s lines “‘—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,/ Conversing as I may’” (29-30), do not simply imply that William is geographically alone; rather the remark suggests that William is a man who desires his ideology and way of life to be left alone.

New Historicism

Stephen Greenblatt’s Norton Anthology of English Literature; Volume D states in an exposition on William Wordsworth that “During [Wordsworth’s] year in France (November 1791 to December 1792), Wordsworth became a fervent supporter of the French Revolution—which seemed to him and many others to promote a ‘glorious renovation’ of society” (Greenblatt 270). However, Wordsworth’s fervor was not to last, as Wordsworth gradually became disillusioned with the course of the Revolution, which consequently brought him “to the verge of an emotional breakdown, [and] when ‘sick, wearied out with contraries,’ he ‘yielded up moral questions in despair’” (270). Thus, there is a historical context through which the ideology embedded in Wordsworth’s poetry can be traced back to.

Why It Matters

I think it’s important that “Expostulation and Reply” deals with two friends expressing deeply dualistic (especially in context of the bloodshed of the French Revolution) ideologies because it reflects on the extent to which ideology can potentially tear even meaningful relationships apart. The reader gets the impression that Mathew’s “expostulation” catches William off-guard via William’s remark that “When life was sweet, I knew not why,/  To me my good friend Matthew Spake” (Wordsworth lines 14-15). Furthermore, the fact that William is reflecting on the past, “When life was sweet” (line 14), infers that life is no longer sweet. Accordingly, the poem can be viewed as a retrospective reflection on a time of innocent ideological burgeoning before the eventual rise of irreconcilable ideological difference, and the subsequent onslaught of an ideologically fueled war.

Questions for the Class

Another stanza that may or may not move the argument forward that “Expostulation and Reply” is an inherently political poem is:

‘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.’ (Lines 21-24)

By relegating “Powers” to being of “our minds impress,” is Wordsworth saying that powers (political or otherwise) are subjective? Do the powers that humans hold over other humans exist only to the extent that those other humans are willing subjects? If not, would Wordsworth regard nature as the only legitimate source of authority? …OR am I absolutely off base!? Let me know what you think!


I realize that the connotations of certain words do vary and may be loaded, so here are the definitions of liberalism and conservatism that I used as the framework for evaluating Mathew and William’s ideologies in the context of Wordsworth’s poem, “Expostulation and Reply”:

Liberalism, n. support for or advocacy of individual rights, civil liberties, and reform tending toward individual freedom, democracy, or social equality; a political and social philosophy based on these principles (Oxford English Dictionary Online).

Conservatism, n. the holding of conservative principles; the tendency to resist great or sudden change, esp. in politics; adherence to traditional values and ideas (Oxford English Dictionary Online)

Works cited:

Greenblatt, Stephen, Deidre Lynch, and Jack Stillinger. The Norton Anthology of English Literature; Romanticism, Volume D. Ninth Edition. New York. W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print.

“French Revolution.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Nov. 2013. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.

Related Material

A true scientist-poet, the late Richard Feynman gives us an opinion of beauty that echoes elements of our introductory lectures on perception, Hume’s rhetoric of disillusionment and Wordsworth’s notions of knowledge:


About johnbunyan1628

"profanity, dancing, bell-ringing"
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2 Responses to Conversing as I may

  1. h0p3d1am0nd says:

    Although I enjoyed all of your analysis, my favorite part was the section about friendship. I like the fact that you pointed out that the two voices are more than just a poetic tool, two disembodied voices talking about two very different ideologies of the time. You said very simply that the two voices belonged to two friends, which we know because they are on a first-name basis. Though this makes the poem more personable and relatable to readers, it also adds a darker tone as you pointed out in your comment on the ability of differing ideologies (especially seen at the time in the French Revolution) to “tear even meaningful relationships apart.”

  2. To respond to your direct question to the class, I suppose Wordsworth might see Nature as the only true authority because, in a way, his overall poetics involve essentially deifying Nature. As an alternative to some supernatural higher power, such as the Christian God, Wordsworth would see Nature as the perfect guide for humans because it has not been corrupted by humans. As we’re about to read from Emerson, Man is fallen, while Nature is unfallen. I think Wordsworth would probably see along those same lines. So if Nature is “unfallen” to Wordsworth, then yes, he would regard it as a higher authority, the only true authority over humans.

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