The Common Core Literacy Standards encourage “close reading”, the careful inspection of a text for analysis, but I believe that the British poet William Wordsworth offers his sly opinion on that practice in one of his poems The Tables Turned. The poem is a plea to the reader to throw down the books with poems that try to capture nature, the art that mimics nature, or the science that tries to explain nature:
AN EVENING SCENE ON THE SAME SUBJECT (1798)
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.
When I teach the poem, I make a big show of doing a “close reading”, by over-emphasizing particular images, text structure, and word choice in order to determine an author’s purpose. The process can be a bit dramatic, but in this case, I want them to feel a little hostile towards my attempts to “dissect” the poem.
“What does the poem mean?” I will press them, “What is Wordworth’s purpose?”
“Nature is good?” (Maybe)
“Poems can make us appreciate nature?” (Perhaps)
“We cannot capture Nature in books?” (Possibly)
“We should ditch our books and go outside?” Absolutely!
And to the delight of everyone, I instruct my students to close up their books and go outside so that we can “let Nature be your Teacher”. That is the entire lesson. A poem, an analysis, and a trip outdoors that obeys the author’s intent.
Hopefully, next June will give us the day when the “sun above the mountain’s head/A freshening lustre mellow” lets us upend the tables and go outside to engage with Nature in order to “watch and receive” and leave close reading overturned.