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
The 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 wreathed horn.
All British Literature anthologies include Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us.” It marks the entry way to Romanticism and is prized for the poet’s intense objections to modern life. The opening quatrain offers a banner to march with, declaring the evils of materialism and the loss of our connection to Nature. For many, Wordsworth’s sonnet provides a bracing moral sentiment: stop and smell the roses to maintain our inner peace and sanity. This sweet reading, however, misses the disturbing drama in this sonnet. Far from a confident statement, the speaker in this poem is undergoing a painful discovery of how lost to himself he is, how much he hates the mind his culture has arranged for him, and the prospect there may be no way back to the vitality he desires.
We need to read this lyric poem as drama. The poet is not addressing us to report a truth he has settled for himself. This poem, instead, puts us into a dramatic situation, overhearing the meditations of a person undergoing an impassioned and troubling experience. The speaker does not know his own mind and is discovering it for himself as the poem unfolds. We overhear his anguished thoughts, in the dramatic present, as they emerge.
This distinction between poet and created voice is fundamental. We know poems are crafted objects, labored over for long days, sometimes months, and even years. The illusion of spontaneity is part of the artistry. So, for example, when in “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth’s speaker stops and corrects himself:
Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild:
Wordsworth is trying to convince us that the speaker is observing and having these thoughts immediately as we read. In this sonnet, the explosive break in line 9 has a similar effect. Line 9 not only violates the octave and sestet boundary but also shifts tone from sad resignation to explosive anger:
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. – Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan …
The speaker corrects himself – “for this, for everything” – trespasses across the border into the sestet, and then explodes in a full-voiced expletive, leading to an outlandish wish. These are not the settled thoughts of a wise teacher. Instead, we are overhearing an unsettling drama of impassioned thoughts and dangerous wishes. A British gentleman, at the height of his nation’s imperial power, begs to be permitted to escape to a primitive world.
The speaker begins by analyzing a common feature of modernity and particularly of the commercial city. “The world” is our world that no longer belongs to Nature. The comment would seem unremarkable, but there is something odd in his complaint. The world neither overwhelms, crushes, nor defeats us; instead, it is “with us,” a part of us. It is with us “late and soon” and in “getting and spending.” The commercial city is about time and money. Although he wears no watch and is as yet not subject to the digital accounting of his life, he is more aware than past generations of the close ordering of time. As E. P. Thompson noted, agricultural time measures the day in three-hour segments, marking the sun’s journey across the sky. In the commercial city time is urgent and precise. We carry in us a tense awareness of time, the insistent tick-tock of “late and soon,” the stomach-churning worry that we will miss the opening of the meeting, the dinner, the social gathering, the film … and even that we may arrive too early and expose our frightened concern. Time is not “out there” but lives within us.
Anxieties of time and worries over money haunt our thoughts. The fiscal ledger drives our day. In this new world, money measures happiness, safety, social status, and prospects for grasping our desires. The speaker is enslaved, even while he hates that he has submitted to this remorseless unreality. Gripped by social conditioning, we squander and even see them extinguished (waste and laid waste). Nature has blessed us with powers we choose to ignore. In the commercial city, we strike bargains with one another, with ourselves, with nature and our human nature. Worse than squandering this blessing, we all but insure we cannot recover it. As the sonnet unfolds, Wordsworth provides definitions. What are these powers we have lost? “Little we see in nature that is ours” and much that follows clarifies this comment. In one sense, seeing Nature as an object invites our exploitation of Nature’s bounty. A builder of tract housing sees a stand of woods as newly constructed housing and ready profits once the landscape is cleared. However, the term “ours” must not mean “possession.” As the second quatrain makes clear, the bond broken is our capacity to grasp the correspondence between our lives and the substance and force of Nature, the loss of metaphor to see ourselves in the world around us.
A good example of this bond, now broken, appears in seventeenth century poems. The heliotropic force that causes sunflowers to follow the sun across the sky is the same as our aspiration for heaven; all nature hungers to complete itself by reaching above. Though flowers are not of our kind, they share with us God’s fundamental blessings. Seeing the sunflower sharing the force that drives our souls is seeing in Nature what is ours. To be sure, fundamental issues of metaphor persist; are metaphors rhetorical tropes, or do they describe what is real? It is one thing to say that we are like sunflowers, another to say we are sunflowers. Wordsworth’s speaker needs to know which is possible for him. The rationality of the commercial city has reduced metaphor to decoration and by doing so has broken our bond with nature.
While the opening quatrain of Wordsworth’s sonnet includes metaphor, there is nothing to see or imagine, no moving across the space between what is pictured and what is meant. The metaphor here is of two kinds: (1) extended comparison — economic exchange of giving away, getting and spending, wasting, and boon; and (2) metonymy – the world is the city’s world; late and soon are qualities of time, and getting and spending are features of money; “our hearts” is so worn an emblem as hardly to seem a metaphor at all. But the metaphors intensify and become complex the speaker wanders deeper into the thicket of imagination and desire.
The second quatrain shifts abruptly. The speaker entertains examples of what we can/cannot see in Nature. The sea appears, in bold personification, as a woman’s body, the swells suggesting a living breathing being. There is, of course, a scientific relation of the moon to the swells of the sea in its gravitational influence. There is also the play of light upon the face of the waters imposing a radiant glow to the dark surface. The speaker may have in mind some country Scots practices that urged women seeking fertility to bare their bodies to the moon’s powers. However, in this moment of imagining the speaker sees something in Nature that is ours.
A oddly compounded metaphor follows. The winds are personified as howling beings, Banshees condemned to eternal suffering, excluded evermore from the warmth of human dwellings, lost children lost forever. But these demons usually carry on their miserable racket above the world and out of our hearing. Just as flowers close their petals in sleep as they enter the quiet of night and repose, the howling winds are lifted above in the stillness of the evening scene. This little narrative, supported by the speaker’s brisk images, introduces us, strangely, to what we cannot imagine. The speaker enters this story through imagination but at the same time notes its limits. Wordsworth’s speaker cannot escape his awareness that he is making metaphors and imposing them on Nature. He experiences a crisis of double consciousness, both inside and outside his imaginings. He is out of tune, a nice Pythagorean image for disorder, and unable to trust his imaginings or connect them with appropriate feelings.
This division in his consciousness brings on his impious explosion and the wild thought that follows. His desire to regress to paganism divides against itself. The speaker is an English gentleman when Britannia rules the waves and dominates the economic and cultural fortunes of a great many “backward” peoples. The speaker would wish to be a pagan, and at the same time recognizes he would inhabit a “creed outworn.”
However, something in the metaphoring is rising to conclusion. The word “suckled” suddenly closes the gap between observation and possession, between a picturesque metaphor and oceanic connection. As a pagan, he would experience no division of imagination and reflective mind. Though belief system would be primitive, he would have been nurtured in a single-minded culture and never experience a divided mind and heart.
His divided self invites irony. The speaker stands on “this pleasant lea” (meadow), overlooking the soft-swelling sea, while winds rest quiet above. Despite this luxurious peacefulness, he feels alien to himself. In this paradise, he is forlorn. He wishes, in the conditional, it could all be different. He expects not a vision, but only glimpses, and those glimpses capable only to make him “less forlorn.” He is careful rather than rapturous: he has his wits about him, though he might wish otherwise.
What follows is unexpected. Wordsworth knew his Ovid, but in his poetry he rarely appealed to the old gods. What would refresh him, it turns out, requires the ability to see Proteus and old Triton, those monumental gods of the sea. They have a distinct appropriateness to the speaker’s problem. From “Proteus,” the son of Oceanus and Tethys, we have “protean”, the capability of changing form. The sea is most changeable — what color is it? What moods? But Proteus invokes the issue of metaphor (one thing becoming another) and how this trick of mind, attaches us to our world. But how is imagining Proteus anything more than a trick of the mind? There is the sea, and here the reflective mirror of mind. But where is the point of contact when hungry sucking finds the bared bosom?
Something deeper is happening in the line invoking Proteus.
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea
The line imitates the action it describes, locating the idea not in the mind but in our voice and breathing. The sound pattern takes us from a vowel sounded high in the head (“sight of”) to the vowels of “Proteus” that rumble in our chest; and then again from the high vowel of “rising” to the resonance of “sea”. The fall and rise of the line enact its idea. The line takes us into something unavoidably primitive, the fact of our bodies, that we breathe, that speech is song, that we have bodies alive to inspiration.
The final line takes us deeper into these possibilities:
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn
Triton, son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, is a mixed creature, man above and fish below, a clever emblem for divided nature. He carries the giant conch shell, commanding the roar of the turbulent sea. Wordsworth’s sonnet has described no sound to this point; everything has been sight: “little we see”; “glimpses”; “sight of Proteus”; and the absence of the howlings of the wind. This conch rumble in the final line heralds a new thought/experience. The key word is “wreathed”. The word describes Triton’s conch shell physically, but “wreathed” invokes the deep resonance of our breathing, suggested in the previous line but here more powerfully. What is “out there” becomes “in here,” and no longer merely decorative as a toy of the mind. What is in Nature, and in the primitive imaginings in pagan mythologies, is still in us, for all that the commercial city and its double-mindedness has done to ruin us.