The World Is Too Much With Us
By William Wordsworth
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.
In a comment on yesterday’s post, Roderick posted this poem, “The World Is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth. The poem is an Italian (Petrarchan)sonnet, which is one of my favorite forms of poetry. I love how sonnets, whether Italian, Shakespearean, Spenserian, etc., conforms to a set of strict conventions. The structure adds a particular beauty to the poetic form.
“The World Is Too Much With Us” lends itself to yesterday’s post on the theme of niksen or doing nothing. In the early 19th century, Wordsworth wrote several sonnets criticizing what he perceived as “the decadent material cynicism of the time.” This 1802 poem is one of those works. It reflects his view that humanity must get in touch with nature to progress spiritually.
The metaphor “we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon” is also an oxymoron. Sordid suggests the worst aspects of human nature such as immorality, selfishness, and greed, while a boon is something that functions as a blessing or benefit. The contradiction between the meanings of the two words suggests that materialism is a destructive and corrupt blessing which the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) has produced. They use of the oxymoron emphasizes the tension between the good exterior (material goods bring pleasure and are a symbol of man’s progress) and the sordid truth (feeding on the worst aspects of humanity) behind materialism.
While the Industrial Revolution made many advances for civilization, it was also detrimental to the health of the planet. Today’s global warming and the danger that an industrialized world has on the environment makes Wordsworth poem even more meaningful today. We saw the effects of overpopulation and industrialization during this pandemic. If you remember when Italy was in a near complete lockdown, dolphins returned to the canals of Venice that had become remarkably clear with no traffic on their waterways, and wild animals walked through the streets of Florence and Milan. It showed just how much we have sacrificed nature for “progress.” Wordsworth saw the beginnings of this over 200 years ago, and he knew the detriment society has on the environment will proceed unchecked and relentless like the “winds that will be howling at all hours.”
Wordsworth gave a fatalistic view of the world: past and future. The words “late and soon” in the opening verse describe how the past and future are included in his characterization of mankind. The poet knew the potential of humanity’s “powers,” but feared it was clouded by the mentality of “getting and spending.” The “sordid boon” we have “given our hearts” is the materialistic progress of mankind. Wordsworth complains that “the world” is too overwhelming for us to appreciate it, and that people are so concerned about time and money that we use up all our energy. People want to accumulate material goods, so they see nothing in Nature that they can “own.” Humanity has sold its soul for material gain.
The verse “I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn,” reveals Wordsworth’s perception of himself in society: a visionary romantic more in touch with nature than his contemporaries. he would rather be a pagan who worships an outdated religion so that when he gazes out on the ocean (as he’s doing now), he might feel less sad. If he were a pagan, he would have glimpses of the great green meadows that would make him less dejected. He’d see wild mythological gods like a Proteus, who can take many shapes, and Triton, who can soothe the howling sea waves.