The World Is Too Much with Us
"The World Is Too Much with Us" is a sonnet by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. In it, Wordsworth criticises the world of the First Industrial Revolution for being absorbed in materialism and distancing itself from nature. Composed circa 1802, the poem was first published in Poems, In Two Volumes (1807). Like most Italian sonnets, its 14 lines are written in iambic pentameter.
In the early 19th century, Wordsworth wrote several sonnets blasting what he perceived as "the decadent material cynicism of the time." "The World Is Too Much with Us" is one of those works. It reflects his view that humanity must get in touch with nature to progress spiritually. The rhyme scheme of this poem is a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-c-d, c-d. This Italian sonnet uses the last six lines (sestet) to answer the first eight lines (octave). The first eight lines (octave) are the problem and the next six (sestet) is the solution.
Wordsworth gives 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 author knows the potential of humanity's "powers," but fears it is clouded by the mentality of "getting and spending." The "sordid boon" we have "given our hearts" is the materialistic progress of mankind. The detriment society has on the environment will proceed unchecked and relentless like the "winds that will be howling at all hours". The speaker complains that "the world" is too overwhelming for us to appreciate it. We're so concerned about time and money that we use up all our energy. People want to accumulate stuff, so they see nothing in Nature that they can "own." According to the speaker, we've sold our souls.
Unlike society, Wordsworth does not see nature as a commodity. The verse "Little we see in Nature that is ours", shows that coexisting is the relationship envisioned. We should be able to appreciate beautiful events like the moon shining over the ocean and the blowing of strong winds, but it's like we're on a different wavelength from Nature. This relationship appears to be at the mercy of mankind because of the vulnerable way nature is described. The verse "This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon", gives the vision of a feminine creature opening herself to the heavens above. The phrase "sleeping flowers" might also describe how nature is being overrun unknowingly and is helpless.
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. The speaker 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'd see wild mythological gods like Proteus, who can take many shapes, and Triton, who looks like a mer-man.
The metaphor “we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon” is also a paradox. 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 words suggests that materialism is a destructive and corrupt blessing which the industrial revolution has produced. It emphasises the tension between the good exterior and the sordid truth behind materialism. On an exterior level, material goods bring pleasure and are a symbol of man’s progress; however, in truth, they feed the worst aspects of humanity: thus a "sordid boon."
Wordsworth employs a strictly structured form, the Italian sonnet, which conforms to a set of strict conventions. As in many sonnets by the Romantic poets, he creates a tension between the emotional, natural, and fluid themes explored in the poem and the structured form of the sonnet. This tension reflects what was occurring during the Romantic Era, in which artists and poets were rebelling in the structured world of the neoclassical period.
Employing the familiar with the new and revolutionary-Wordsworth uses the familiar structure of the sonnet as well as referring to familiar ancient Gods (in the authors context they would have been familiar) to persuade the reader to engage in a positive way to the concepts addressed. The unfamiliar or unknown is always feared and suppressed thus by incorporating the familiar with the revolutionary the reader in the 19th century is more likely to engage positively with Wordsworth’s message.
Repetition and rhyming scheme
The repetitive rhyme scheme ABBAABBA, and the use of word pairs such as “getting and spending” and “late and soon” emphasises the monotonous nature of modern life and materialism. Getting and spending is a cluster of longer emphasised words with many consonants, also possibly emphasising this view.
In essence, materialism is just that getting and spending: it is devoid of emotion or a true fulfilling purpose. In many ways the stereotypes of man and woman mirror the difference between the neoclassical and romantic period between civilised and nature. Men in this context are associated with rationality, strength, order and power, whereas women are associated with emotion and the imagination.
Music and harmony
The line, "For this, for everything we are out of tune" implies that man is out of tune with nature, unable to live in harmony with the world around him. By describing the harmonious relationship of man and nature as a tune, Wordsworth evokes a sensuous experience of nature.
Wordsworth uses the words "we" and "us." This includes the reader, once again positioning the reader to engage with the poem.
In the simile "and are up gathered now like sleeping flowers," sleeping flowers suggest that man is numb and unaware of the beauty and power of the natural world. At the same time, however, there is also a certain optimism: the image of sleeping flowers implies that humans are only dormant, and that there is some hope we will wake up and realise the power of nature.
The poem's many commas and semicolons create pauses that instill reflection in the reader. In each pause the reader is given space to contemplate and engage with the message.
- Phillips, Brian. SparkNotes on Wordsworth's Poetry. "The world is too much with us." 17 August 2007. http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/wordsworth/section4.rhtml
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