The World Is Too Much With Us, Wordsworth, Summary, Analysis & Themes

"The World Is Too Much with Us" is a sonnet penned by William Wordsworth and published in 1807. Wordsworth, a key figure in the English Romantic movement, expressed deep concern about the diminishing bond between humanity and the natural world. He attributed this loss to the rise of industrial society, which prioritized materialistic pursuits over a harmonious relationship with nature. The poem was composed during the First Industrial Revolution, a transformative era of technological and mechanical advancements that reshaped British society from the mid-18th to the early 19th century.

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.

Summary of the Poem

The material world—that of the city, our jobs, our innumerable financial obligations—controls our lives to an unhealthy degree. We are always rushing from one thing to the next; we earn money one day just to spend it the next.

The result of this is that we have destroyed a vital part of our humanity: we have lost the ability to connect with and find tranquility in nature. In exchange for material gain, we have given away our emotions and liveliness.

This ocean that reflects the moonlight on its surface, and the peaceful, momentarily windless night, which is like flowers whose petals are folded up in the cold—these natural features still exist, but we just can’t appreciate them. Our lives have nothing to do with the rhythms of the natural world. As a result, those rhythms have no emotional impact on us.

My God, I wish that I were raised in a culture that worshipped many gods, though that religion is now outdated. That way, standing on this pleasant patch of grass, I might be calmed and heartened by the image of the ocean before me. I might see the Greek god Proteus taking shape before my very eyes, or hear another Greek god, Triton, blow his legendary, spiral-grooved conch shell.

Who is Proteus?

Proteus is a figure from Greek mythology, described as an early sea-god with the ability to change shape and foresee the future. He is often associated with the ever-changing nature of the sea and the fluidity of water. Proteus is known for his elusiveness, as he will transform into various forms to avoid revealing the future, only revealing it to those who manage to capture him. This aspect of Proteus has led to the term "protean," which means versatile or capable of assuming many forms. In the context of the PROTEUS project, the name is used metaphorically to symbolize change and foresight in the teaching profession. The project aims to create proactive and reflective teachers who take control of their professional development. Like Proteus, who could foresee the future but would change shape to avoid revealing it, the project envisions teachers who anticipate and adapt to changes in education. The term "protean" also implies flexibility, versatility, and adaptability, qualities that are essential for teachers in a rapidly changing educational landscape. According to mythology, Proteus was believed to be the son of the sea-god Poseidon and Phoenice. He had several children, including Polygonus and Telegonus, who were both defeated by Heracles. Another son, Eioneus, became the father of Dymas, king of Phrygia. Proteus also fathered Theoclymenos and Theonoe with the Nereid Psamathe, and was linked to the lineage of the Cabeiri through his daughter Cabeiro. His daughters Rhoiteia, Thebe, and Thaicrucia were associated with the founding of various cities and mythological figures.

What is Triton's Horn?

In later mythology, Triton became known for carrying a conch shell, which he used as a trumpet to control the sea's waves. He served as the "trumpeter and bugler" for Oceanus and Poseidon, and the sound of his conch shell was so loud and frightening that it could scare off giants, who mistook it for the roar of a monstrous beast. Triton, a Greek god of the sea, was the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, both deities associated with the sea. He resided with his parents in a magnificent golden palace at the sea's bottom. Triton is often depicted in art and literature as a merman, having a human upper body and a fish-like tail. Over time, the term "Triton(s)" became a general term for mermen in both Greek and Roman mythology. In English literature, Triton is commonly portrayed as the messenger or herald of Poseidon. Additionally, there is a mythical figure named Triton associated with Lake Tritonis in ancient Libya, who is said to have assisted the Argonauts. According to Apollonius Rhodius, this Triton married a nymph from the region, named Libya.

Line by Line Explanation & Analysis

Lines 1-2

The initial lines of the poem introduce its theme and central conflict, highlighting the tension between the natural world and urban life. As an Italian sonnet, the poem adheres to a specific structure, beginning with a problem or proposition. The statement "The world is too much with us" serves as both the opening line and the title (although initially, the poem was published without a title). This line sets up the poem's ambiguity, as "world" could refer to the natural world, an imaginative realm, a human-created world, or the entire Earth. Similarly, "too much" can be interpreted in various ways: as an overwhelming presence of humanity, or as people bearing the weight of worldly burdens too frequently.

This ambiguity reflects the poem's intention to blur the lines between nature and civilization, suggesting that humans are burdened by the effects of societal progress and struggle to understand its implications. While the poem speaks in a collective voice ("we"), it also conveys an individual perspective that resonates with many. The second line encapsulates human existence in the modern world, emphasizing the constant busyness of life, the perpetual pursuit of material gain, and the swift depletion of personal energy. The irregularities in meter and punctuation in these lines mirror the chaotic nature of modern life, with stresses and pauses reflecting the rhythm of urban existence. The abruptness of the punctuation adds to the sense of urgency and tension, highlighting the artificiality of city living. The phrase "we lay waste our powers" suggests a sense of hopelessness, hinting at the poem's underlying question of whether humans can rediscover their lost connection to nature.

Lines 3-4

These lines further develop the theme of humanity's disconnection from nature. The speaker laments that humans see very little in nature that belongs to them. This could suggest a lack of appreciation or understanding of the natural world. The phrase "we have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" implies that humans have traded their emotional connection to nature for something materialistic and of little value. The word "sordid" suggests something morally distasteful or degraded, indicating the speaker's disdain for this trade-off.

Lines 5-8

The speaker then references the sea and the winds as examples of nature's beauty and power. The sea is personified as a female entity that exposes her chest to the moon, symbolizing a sense of openness and vulnerability. The winds, depicted as howling at all hours and now resting like sleeping flowers, represent both the wild, untamed aspects of nature and its serene, peaceful moments. Despite these natural wonders, the speaker notes that humanity is out of tune with nature, indicating a lack of harmony or connection.

Lines 9-14

In the final six lines, the speaker expresses a desire to be more in tune with nature by referencing pagan beliefs. The speaker suggests that being raised in a pagan culture, which worshipped multiple gods, would provide a deeper connection to the natural world. Standing in a pleasant meadow, the speaker imagines feeling less lonely and more uplifted by the sights and sounds of nature. The speaker longs to see Proteus, a Greek sea god capable of changing forms, and to hear Triton, another Greek sea god, blow his horn. These mythological references emphasize the speaker's yearning for a deeper, more meaningful connection to nature and a rejection of the shallow, materialistic values of society.

Major Themes

  • The Corrupt Present Versus The Idealized Past
  • Throughout his poetic career, Wordsworth drew a clear distinction between the present, which he typically perceived as corrupt and meaningless, and the past, which he idealized as a purer and more spiritual time. For much of his poetry, that idealized past was his own childhood. In “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth notes that he often indulges in the memories of his youth, feeling “in hours of weariness, sensations sweet” (Line 28) when doing so. It was the memory of the River Wye which he often returned to “in spirit” (Line 57) when the “fever of the world” (Line 55) “hung upon the beatings of [his] heart” (Line 56) too heavily. Ruminating on his past in nature is what Wordsworth uses to get through the miseries of the present world.

  • Materialism and Consumerism
  • The poem "The World Is Too Much With Us" by William Wordsworth deeply explores the themes of materialism and consumerism, shedding light on the detrimental effects of a society overly preoccupied with worldly possessions.

  • Disconnect from Nature and Spiritual Values
  • The theme of disconnect from nature and spiritual values reflects a deep concern about the harmful consequences of contemporary society's obsession with materialism and its disregard for the beauty and significance of the natural world.

  • Nature, Materialism, and Loss
  • In “The World Is Too Much With Us,” the speaker describes humankind’s relationship with the natural world in terms of loss. That relationship once flourished, but now, due to the impacts of industrialization on everyday life, humankind has lost the ability to appreciate, celebrate, and be soothed by nature. To emphasize this central loss, the poem describes it from three angles: economic, spiritual, and cultural. Notably, the poem does not suggest a way to regain what is lost. Rather, its tone is desperate, arguing that humankind’s original relationship with nature can never be revived.

  • The Individual vs. Society
  • The poem explores how modernity has eroded not just people’s connection to nature, but also people's sense of individual identity and agency. The poem subtly suggests that modern city life has lead to a sort of uniformity of experience, and that individuals are powerless to resist society’s homogenizing effects.

Historical Context

The poem was published in 1807, a time marked by significant social, political, and economic changes in Great Britain and globally. A decade earlier, in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte had risen to power after the French Revolution and was on a path to European dominance by 1803. Following a series of wars that ended with France's defeat, Britain, which had played a major role in organizing resistance, emerged as the world's foremost power. During this era, Britain expanded its colonial holdings in South Africa, solidified its control over India, and, with its powerful navy and strategic control of trade routes, exerted considerable influence over the European economic landscape.

Another significant event during this period was the conclusion of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 and the death of its renowned leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture, in 1803. One of the sonnets in Wordsworth's collection, "Poems, In Two Volumes," titled "To Toussaint L'Ouverture," commemorates the revolutionary figure with profound admiration, expressing that his memory will endure: "There's not a breathing of the common wind / That will forget thee."

Internally, the First Industrial Revolution was reshaping British cities, fueling their growth. Automation led to job losses, and pollution from industries like steel foundries and slaughterhouses contaminated rivers. Additionally, agricultural workers migrated from rural areas to urban centers. This urban transformation represents the "world" referenced in Wordsworth's poem, a new societal order that the speaker seems to perceive as enduring.

Literary Context

"The world is too much with us" was written in the early 19th century and included in the 1807 collection "Poems, In Two Volumes." During this period, critics viewed Wordsworth as being at the peak of his creative powers and he was highly popular, despite receiving a harsh critique from the poet Lord Byron for this collection.

In 1795, Wordsworth met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and two years later, he and his sister Dorothy Wordsworth, also a poet, moved to live near him. In 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge jointly published "Lyrical Ballads," a collection that included Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." This collection is credited with launching the English Romantic Poetry movement.

Wordsworth's work during this period, sometimes referred to as his "great decade," was characterized by a focus on natural imagery and poetry that adhered to his definition of verse as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings ... recollected in tranquillity," as outlined in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads. "The world is too much with us" contrasts with his typical themes of the time, as the speaker seeks tranquillity in nature but feels overwhelmed by the urban environment instead.

Other sonnets from "Poems, In Two Volumes," such as "London, 1802," express similar despair about industrialization. However, "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" presents a slightly more optimistic view, though this sentiment is also complex. William Blake's 1794 poem "London" serves as a precursor to "The World Is Too Much with Us" in its focus on the negative aspects of industrial urban life.

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