By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The World Is Too Much With Us’ is perhaps William Wordsworth’s finest sonnet. Published in 1807, it offers, in just fourteen lines, a miniature ‘manifesto’ for Romanticism, as Wordsworth bemoans the ways that modern life is preventing us from fully appreciating the wonders of the natural world.
Let’s take a closer look at ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’, as the poem is often known (after its opening words). We’ll begin with a summary of the poem, and then move to an in-depth analysis of what makes this poem an important work of English Romanticism.
‘The World Is Too Much With Us’: summary
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!
Wordsworth begins by referring to the modern world (‘The world’), which is a world obsessed with money and even an early brand of consumerism: people are obsessed lately with ‘Getting and spending’, focusing on material things, on money, and the empty, soulless pleasures these things can provide.
So the modern world is ‘too much with us’: it has come to dominate our lives and our thinking too much. Wordsworth believes that his fellow human beings are wasting the ‘powers’ they have been given – their emotional and intellectual powers, but also their power to use their senses to appreciate nature and its beauty.
Indeed, human beings no longer even recognise themselves in nature: they have become divorced from the natural world (it’s worth remembering that, thanks to the advent of the Industrial Revolution around this time, more and more people were living in towns and cities, and were becoming more isolated from nature as a result).
We may believe we have gained something with the new world of ‘getting and spending’, but for Wordsworth, it’s a questionable blessing or ‘boon’: it’s sordid, cheap, base, and unbecoming of us.
We might think about modern examples of people earning enough to buy a car to drive to work, where they used to walk through the fields and woods to get there. They have gained something (convenience) but at what cost? Seeing those trees whizz past you in your car doesn’t provide quite the same experience as walking amongst them.
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;
In the next four-line unit of the poem (we’ll say more about the form of the poem later on), Wordsworth provides some examples of nature’s wonders: wonders which the modern world is making us more detached and distant from.
There’s the sea that, in a romantic and even sensual image, bares her naked front to the moon above; there are the winds which make a howling sound but are now at rest, like ‘sleeping flowers’. But we, humankind, are out of touch with these things.
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;
None of this appears to produce any emotional effect on us any more. Wordsworth states that he would rather be a pagan who believes in the divinity of all nature, than someone who believes in nothing at all (which, Wordsworth implies, is what most modern men are like).
Then, with his pagan belief in a sort of pantheism – the idea that there is divinity in all living things – Wordsworth might stand on a beautiful meadow and look out at things that would make him less downhearted and more hopeful again.
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
With such pagan beliefs, as he looked out at the sea Wordsworth would imagine he could see the great god Proteus emerging from the waters, and hear Triton blowing his horn.
Proteus was an early sea god in classical myth, while Triton, another ancient Greek god of the sea, lived with his parents in a golden palace on the seabed, and was described as having a conch shell which he blew like a trumpet. (Wordsworth is alluding to a line from the Elizabeth poet Edmund Spenser, whose poem ‘Colin Clout’s Come Home Again’ includes the question, ‘Is Triton blowing loud his wreathed horne’.)
In summary, then, Wordsworth argues that it’s better to have a belief in the almost magical power of nature, than to be indifferent to the natural world. If you believe nature possesses a divinity of its own, you can almost ‘see’ these wonderful and supernatural things when you look at it, so powerful is your experience of the landscape.
‘The World Is Too Much With Us’: analysis
Wordsworth wrote the sonnet known by the title ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’ between May 1802 and March 1804, several years after his ground-breaking collection Lyrical Ballads (co-authored with Samuel Taylor Coleridge) had been published in 1798. With the publication of that collection, Romanticism had well and truly arrived on English shores.
And when Wordsworth added his famous preface to the 1800 reprint of the volume, he famously argued: ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’. And for Wordsworth, these feelings are often occasioned, or even directly inspired, by our communion with nature.
‘The World Is Too Much With Us’ is a quintessential Wordsworth poem, and a representative work of Romantic poetry, because the poem sees nature as something which can enrich our lives if we forge a close bond with it. But it goes deeper than this: for Wordsworth, nature possesses the power to enrich and inspire our imaginations, too, summoning the ancient pagan gods from the sea and putting us in touch with the divine.
But it’s also, of course, putting us in touch with literature, and the world of myth. Triton and Proteus need not become our gods: it is enough to believe that nature still contains and coexists with those creations which our ancient ancestors wrote about millennia ago. There is something of the epic and mythical hardwired into us, and nature – especially the quasi-Sublime force of the sea and powerful winds – can put us back in touch with this.
‘The World Is Too Much With Us’ was published in 1807 in Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes, which received largely negative reviews. A young Byron described the book as ‘puerile’. However, it contained a number of Wordsworth’s best-known and most anthologised poems, including his famous ‘daffodils’ poem (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’) and, of course, this poem.
‘The World Is Too Much With Us’: form
We mentioned earlier in this analysis that Wordsworth’s poem is an example of a sonnet. Specifically, it’s a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, because it is rhymed in a very particular way: the poem can be divided into an eight-line unit or ‘octave’ and a concluding six-line unit or ‘sestet’. The octave is rhymed abbaabba while the sestet is rhymed cdcdcd.
Many of Wordsworth’s sonnets follow this rhyming pattern, but it is especially well-suited to a poem like ‘The World Is Too Much With Us’: the enclosed rhyme of the two abba abba quatrains which begin the poem neatly echo the poet’s sense of frustration with the modern world and his circling back to nature, which his fellow men have abandoned.
By contrast, there’s a decisiveness to the trio of cd couplets which form the sestet, as the poem opens outward towards nature, suggesting the path forward that Wordsworth, and his fellow human beings, need to take in order to break the spell that the modern materialistic world has cast over them.
The metre of the poem, meanwhile, is fairly regular iambic pentameter, although there are some notable variations: the trochaic substitution of ‘Getting’ at the beginning of the second line, for example.