Expostulation and Reply

William Wordsworth

‘Expostulation and Reply’ a ballad, written by William Wordsworth, tells the story of Matthew, dissuading the speaker (William) from idling away his precious time in “wise passiveness” or simply daydreaming.


William Wordsworth

Nationality: English

William Wordsworth is one of the most renowned and influential Romantic poets.

He was England's Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850.

Wordsworth’s ‘Expostulation and Reply’ strikes readers with the very first word in the title, “ex-pos-tu-la-tion”. A pentasyllabic word with a deeper meaning that has to be focused with respect to the much simpler term “reply,” quite straightforward and hitting right at the point. This poem is considered one of the “Matthew” poems different from the other verses Wordsworth wrote. In this poem, Matthew’s expostulation, an argument directed to dissuade someone, is that William, our fellow poet should not waste his time daydreaming. Instead, it is meaningful to make the most of one’s time by reading the books left behind. Read the poem below to know our dear friend William’s “reply”:

Expostulation and Reply
William Wordsworth

"Why, William, on that old gray stone,"Thus for the length of half a day,"Why, William, sit you thus alone,"And dream your time away?

"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!"

One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,When life was sweet, I knew not why,To me my good friend Matthew spake,And thus I made reply:

"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,

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

"—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,"Conversing as I may,"I sit upon this old gray stone,"And dream my time away."


‘Expostulation and Reply’ by William Wordsworth is the story of Matthew and William, the former trying to dissuade the latter from idling away his time sitting alone, dreaming.

The poem begins with rapid two questions released by Matthew like an old master. He is indeed a wise man and has in-depth knowledge of various kinds of literature. He asks William why he is not reading and wasting his time sitting on an old grey stone for half a day. It seems to him as if there is nothing before him (William) to ponder upon.

In his reply, William describes the act of idleness as nothing but an intuitive process. The senses remain active without one’s conscious control. In the process, knowledge comes to him. Thus, he has not to be physically acting to gather as much knowledge as he can. This state he describes as “wise passiveness” that is needed in order to comprehend the “mighty sum of things” forever speaking.

Structure and Form

There are a few poems Wordsworth wrote in ballad form and ‘Expostulation and Reply’ is one of them. This piece consists of a total of eight quatrains with a set ABAB rhyme scheme and a combination of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Unlike the ballad rhyme scheme of ABCB, Wordsworth takes the freedom to use the alternative ABAB pattern to create a sing-song-like story. Regarding the metrical pattern, the first three lines of the first six stanzas are in iambic tetrameter. The last one is in iambic trimeter. The rest of the stanzas are composed of alternative iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines:

“Why, Wil/-liam, on/ that old/ gray stone,

Thus for/ the length/ of half/ a day,

“Why, Wil/-liam, sit/ you thus/ a-lone,

“And dream/ your time/ a-way?


“—Then ask/ not where/-fore, here,/ a-lone,

“Con-ver/-sing as/ I may,

“I sit/ up-on/ this old/ gray stone,

“And dream/ my time/ a-way.”

Literary Devices

Wordsworth uses the following literary devices in his poem ‘Expostulation and Reply.’

  • Rhetorical Question: There are a number of rhetorical questions that enhance the poetic effect. The poem begins with a set of questions posed to William regarding his idleness. In the seventh stanza, the speaker rhetorically asks his friend why it is so that we must always be seeking.
  • Metaphor: In the second stanza, the narrator (Matthew) compares knowledge bestowed upon us by our past generation as a “light” helping humankind to see. He compares the same knowledge to the “spirit” breathed by dead men.
  • Personification: In the third stanza, the earth is personified. The narrator describes William as the “first-born” son of “Mother Earth.”
  • Irony: There is an irony when the speaker says, “As if you were her first-born birth/ And none had lived before you!” Using the same ironic vein, the speaker later in the text replies, “‘—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,… I sit upon this old grey stone,/ And dream my time away.’”
  • Repetition: There is a repetition of the last two lines of the first stanza at the end of the poem, creating a complete whole. The poem ends where it has begun.


One of the important themes of Wordsworth’s ‘Expostulation and Reply’ is bookish knowledge vs. nature. In this poem, there are two sets of arguments: one advocating for the appreciation of the knowledge left to humankind and another championing the Romantic philosophy of learning from nature. The first voice rather mocks the latter’s romantic vocation. In his turn, he rather calmly addresses the former and makes him understand the infinite knowledge in nature. One needs to open their mind to embrace this knowledge and elevate the level of their consciousness. This poem also explores the themes of knowledge, active idleness (solitariness), and the essence of being in the present.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

“Why, William, on that old gray stone,

“Thus for the length of half a day,

“Why, William, sit you thus alone,

“And dream your time away?

William Wordsworth’s poem ‘Expostulation and Reply’ is a story of two individuals: William and Matthew. With reference to the poem, they are friends. Through their conversation, Wordsworth tries to reveal the secrets of nature. In the first stanza, Matthew asks his friend why he is sitting on an old gray stone for half a day without doing anything meaningful. He reiterates, why he is sitting alone and dreaming away his precious time. The “old gray stone” and young Willaim sitting on it create visual contrast. As a youth, he must be active. He should not be idle like an aged person similar to that old gray stone moving to nowhere.

Stanza Two

“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.

He further asks William about his books. According to him, the books are the “light” bestowed upon us. Without them, human beings are forever lost and spiritually blind. The knowledge lying in those books has guided humanity for ages. If William is feeling lost or thinking he has nothing to do, he must look into the books for inspiration.

Thus, Matthew creates urgency by repeating the word followed by an exclamation mark: “Up!” He encourages William to drink the “spirit,” the wine of old literature. The older the liquor the greater the taste. Thus, the old books are priceless to liquor to the present generation. William must try it once.

Stanza Three

“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!”

Seeing William still at his place, Matthew somehow becomes a bit annoyed. His tone reflects his annoyance. It seems to him quite ironic to see him look around on Mother Earth as if he has no purpose. Furthermore, it seems as if he is her first-born child and none had lived before him. In this way, Matthew tries to expostulate William from wasting away his time. He must read in order to find a purpose.

Stanza Four

​One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,

When life was sweet, I knew not why,

To me my good friend Matthew spake,

And thus I made reply:

In the fourth stanza, William speaks for the first time. He narrates how one fine morning Matthew asked him such questions. He was beside the Esthwaite lake. It seemed to him that life was sweet. When everything was fine both inwards and outwards, Matthew’s remarks somehow made him unsettled. So, he could not help but reply.

Stanza Five

“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.

William describes to his dear old friend the working of human senses. According to him, the eyes cannot choose what to see. It only sees what appears before. A human cannot control his sense of hearing. The body feels as wherever it is. One person cannot consciously control his senses and stop receiving stimuli. Only death or permanent impairment of a particular sensory organ can stop the body from receiving stimuli from the environment. Thus, even if it seems he is sitting idle, doing nothing, his senses are at work. They are bust at the comprehension of each stimulus from nature.

Stanza Six

“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,

On top of that, there are “Powers,” sources of energy that nourish the soul, and are there in nature. These Powers themselves have the ability to impress human minds. One can “feed” the mind in a state of “wise passiveness.” It means those Powers can only reach the mind when it is in a passive state. Here passive means not forcing the mind to get those powers but accepting as they come. Thus, this state is called a “wise” state of being. It is similar to mediation.

Stanza Seven

“Think you, mid all this mighty sum

“Of things for ever speaking,

“That nothing of itself will come,

“But we must still be seeking?

In the seventh stanza of ‘Expostulation and Reply,’ William poses a rhetorical question to Matthew. He describes nature as a “mighty sum of things.” It means this nature of ours is the sum of several energies. These things never stop talking. In the given scenario, he asks why his friend Matthew thinks that nothing comes to him while he sits on the rock. Why it is so that we must always be seeking hurriedly. There are times when must sit down, clean the mind’s slate, and observe. Then those “Powers” can converse with the soul.

Stanza Eight

“—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,

“Conversing as I may,

“I sit upon this old gray stone,

“And dream my time away.”

The last stanza begins where the poem has started. The speaker describes the act of sitting idle as “conversing.” Here, conversing does not mean engaging in a conversation. Instead, it means the art of becoming familiar with something. Here this thing is nothing other than the powers of nature. By reiterating his friend Matthew’s lines, he tells him not to ask him again why he is alone, sitting upon the stone, and dreaming his time away.

Historical Context

The poem ‘Expostulation and Reply’ was written somewhere between October 1798 and February 1799. Scholars consider this poem as part of Wordsworth’s “Matthew” poems. This poem was published in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798) along with its companion piece ‘The Tables Turned; an Evening Scene, on the same subject.’ During 1798–1799, Wordsworth worked on a series of poems in ballad meter, that were later grouped as “Matthew” and “Lucy” poems. At that time, he lived at Goslar, separated from his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. According to scholars, the “Matthew” in his poems is a representation of experience and the narrator “William” represents youth.


How does Wordsworth defend dreaming his time away in ‘Expostulation and Reply’?

In ‘Expostulation and Reply,’ the speaker (William) not only defends the apparent act of dreaming his time away but also enlightens his fellow companion about the art of “wise passiveness.” According to him, human senses are never idle. When the mind is passive, free from day-to-day thoughts, it becomes highly perceptive of nature’s signals. Thus, his friend observes him sitting idly. Actually, his mind is at work, comprehending the meaning of the stimuli from nature.

What is the meaning of ‘Expostulation and Reply’?

The title contains the crux of the poem, which presents two acts: “expostulation” and “replying”. The first act concerns dissuading someone from doing a particular task through arguments. On the other hand, the second act is rather straightforward. It deals with presenting an answer. In this poem, Matthew expostulates William from idling his time away through interrogation and William provides a valid reason or answer to his question.

What is “wise passiveness” in the poem ‘Expostulation and Reply’?

In this poem, Wordsworth describes the state of tranquility as “wise passiveness.” According to him, this state of active passiveness is required to receive the “Powers” of nature. So, by staying calm the speaker is doing a wise act of comprehending mother nature.

What is the setting of ‘Expostulation and Reply’?

The poem has an English rural country setting. It presents a pastoral scene of 19th-century England. The narrator is sitting on an old stone beside Esthwaite lake.

Similar Poetry

Readers who liked reading Wordsworth’s ‘Expostulation and Reply’ may also find the following poems interesting. They can read other William Wordsworth poems as well.

You can also read these inspiring poems about nature.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.

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