The Greek God Proteus rising from the sea

The World is Too Much with Us

Introduction

William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us” is a criticism of life in the early 1800s. The speaker complains humanity was losing its important connection to the natural world because the industrial revolution meant we were becoming more concerned with technological innovations and manufacturing processes.

Instead of working the land, people were working machines in soulless factories in their pursuit of “getting and spending”. At the end of the poem, the “forlorn” speaker argues he would find more beauty and meaning in the ancient pagan world compared to the emptiness of modern England.

Published in 1807, Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us” remains a persuasive rallying call against the corruption of our “hearts” and the need to rediscover our “world”.

The World is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Beautiful Nature

The speaker celebrates the awesome power and magnificent beauty of nature in the second quatrain. First, there is the personification of the Sea who “bares her bosom to the moon”. This intimate gesture conveys her sensuality and suggests these forces of nature have a deep and gratifying relationship. The alliteration of /b/ in “bares” and “bosom” draws the listener’s attention to her naked body so we can admire her wild and unspoiled spirit.

Of course, the sea’s low and high tides depend on the gravitational pull between the earth and the moon. By comparing the sea to a nurturing mother, the poet focuses on nature’s purity rather than the scientific progress he feels is corrupting our view of the world. Wordsworth is mourning the loss of that spiritual nourishment and comfort.

The sixth and seventh lines depict the “howling” winds becoming “up-gathered”. We often associate “howling” with wolves – a nocturnal predator which might evoke fear in the reader. Nature can be destructive, but the wolves might be howling at the moon in distress. It is worth noting the phrase “at all hours” is a colloquialism for late at night. Importantly, this anthropomorphism of the wind could suggest that nature itself is in distress and echoing the poet’s own sense of loss. Perhaps the howl is nature’s call to help us find our way home.

The simile comparing the wind to “flowers” connotes a softer and more peaceful presence. Flowers are delicate and colourful petals which are antithetical to the animal imagery in line six. This complete contrast shows the reader how the wind can both a destructive and vulnerable force. We are missing out on both because we are so preoccupied with the material world.

Similar to the personification of the sea, the flowers are another reference to fertility and growth. The fact they are personified as “sleeping” and not in full bloom could suggest mother nature is struggling because of our industrialised society. In this way, the speaker is revealing his anger towards our destructive impact on nature.

Wordsworth picks up on the beauty of nature again in line eleven when he locates the poem “on this pleasant lea”. These grassy areas are often used for cows and sheep to graze – another reminder of the different relationships in nature. Or it could be a synecdoche for the whole planet. Sadly, we are ignoring this “pleasant” world in favour of factories and machines.

The Material World

Although we might think the “world” refers to nature, Wordsworth is using the word to signify our industrialised cities and even symbolise our relentless desire for money and power. This ambiguity is appropriately disorientating because the poet is arguing our view of the world is distorted and we have lost sight of what is important in our lives – Nature. We are weighed down “too much” by the need for material possessions and are neglecting the beauty and significance of the natural “world”.

The simple phrase “getting and spending” conveys our obsession with consumerism. The falling rhythm of the trochaic “getting” at the start of the line reinforces the downbeat tone of the opening lines. The present continuous form of the verbs and the repetition of the /ŋ/ reinforces the speaker’s frustration with our material “world” because they make these unstressed syllables seem more like a burden for the speaker.

The disheartened tone of the first part of the line is followed by an image of squandered potential: “laying waste our powers”. Wordsworth is questioning why we should “waste” all our energy and intellectual “powers” in the pursuit of wealth when we could be searching for a higher truth.

We are so greedy we can no longer recognise ourselves in nature. Our relationship to the sea, moon, wind, and flowers is “little” and insignificant. That is why poet is lamenting “we have given our hearts away” for this “sordid boon”. The final image here is oxymoronic. Wordsworth acknowledges the technological advancements and industrialisation have offered some benefits, but also points out this “boon” is immoral and selfish.

This Pleasant Lea

This notion of individuality is at the very heart of the poem. Wordsworth uses the inclusive pronouns “us”, “we”, “our” and “ours” in the first four lines to emphasise a collective identity. We are all buying into this world of “getting and spending”. Unfortunately, we are so busy in our lives, suggested by the phrase “late and soon”, we have no time for self-reflection and discovery.

In contrast to these plural pronouns, the poet shifts to first person pronouns in the final six lines. Wordsworth is prepared to break free from the city and find himself in nature. Freedom is not something you can buy. It is something that is personal and might need to be done alone.

This desire for individuality can also be found in the image of the speaker “standing on this pleasant lea” because the word “lea” can also refer to being sheltered from the wind, especially the break provided by a hill. Put simply, Wordsworth wants to find a “pleasant” place away from the chaos of the modern world. It is also important to note that “standing” is an act of defiance – the poet will not be beaten down by the consumerist society.

Form and Structure

“The World is Too Much with Us” is a Petrarchan sonnet divided into an octave and sestet. Following the convention of the form, the first section introduces the problem – “we are out of tune” with nature. This metaphor compares our relationship with nature to playing a musical instrument that is pitched too high or low. If Wordsworth was picturing a wind instrument, he might be suggesting we need to adjust our “howling” or “sleeping” breaths so we can produce a more harmonious sound.

The poet underlines this discordant relationship through the use of enclosed rhyme. For example, the first and forth lines have a full rhyme – “soon” and “boon”. However, this echo is delayed by the weaker rhyme of “powers” and “ours” which frustrates the listener because we have to wait for the sound to complete. The /n/ in “boon” is immediately picked up again in the fifth line with “moon” to suggest a lack of progress and clarity in our lives. We seem trapped by the rhymes.

The poem is written in loose iambic pentameter. However, the falling rhythm in the trochaic “getting” and “little” at the start of lines two and three disrupt our expectations. There is also an extra syllable in the second line, so it ends with an unstressed sound. This hypercatelexis reinforces the sense of disappointment and failure because it deflates the strength of the word “powers”.

In the ninth line, the speaker worries we have lost our emotional and spiritual connection with nature. The progress promised by the verb “moves” is abruptly cut by the negative adverb “not”.

However, the sestet goes on to answer the problem. The poem changes to an ABABAB rhyme scheme giving the lines greater momentum because we move quickly from “lea” and “forlorn” to “sea” and “horn”. The tone is more optimistic and defiant. Perhaps the speaker feels he can reconnect with nature.

The Magic of the World

The 1800s were supposed to be a time of great enlightenment and a break from our uncivilised past. That arrogance would explain why Wordsworth represents paganism negatively in line 10. For instance, we often associate “suckled” with animals and the metaphor comparing the old “creed” to “outworn” clothes suggests the beliefs are tatty and unfitting. However, the speaker is rejecting the modern world in favour of a more spiritual existence connected to the natural world. We may have made terrific scientific and technological progress, but we have lost an immortal part of our being.

Even “glimpses” of the past would alleviate the poet’s loneliness and loss because nature has the ability to provide solace and spiritual fulfilment. The exclamation “Great God!” is a plea for divine intervention. Wordsworth is imploring a higher power to awaken humanity to the beauty and significance of the natural world. The image could also be an oath to find that meaning in life.

In the final lines, the speaker wants to have “sight of Proteus rising from the sea” and “hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn”. These allusions to the ancient gods of Greek mythology signify his desire to experience the same awe and wonder the pagans felt when they appreciated the majestic power of the sea. It would be amazing. The references to “sight” and “hear” remind the listener we are numbed by our urban lives, and we can only reawaken our senses by reconnecting with the magic of nature.

Conclusion

The sea and wind are untameable and beyond our measure. Instead of trying to define our world in terms of material possessions and mathematical equations, Wordsworth is arguing we need to rediscover the awesome power of nature. Switch of your computer and go outside.

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