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.
Like many Romantic poets, Wordsworth felt the critical problem of modernity was the intrusion of industrialization onto nature. Historically, the 19th century was a time that saw rapid technological change like no other: factories rose, machines displaced human workers, and millions abandoned the lush country side for bustling city centers.
In his elegiac sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us,” William Wordsworth laments this loss of an intimate connection with nature. The first line and title of the poem— “the world is too much with us”— mourns this urbanization, claiming it is because we can’t escape the hectic hustle and bustle of everyday life that we can’t appreciate nature (Wordsworth 1). Wordsworth’s use of the 1st person plural “we” in this line performs two functions: 1) grammatically, it indicates that alienation from the glories of nature is a widespread— rather than isolated— problem and 2) by its inclusion of Wordsworth, the 1st person plural suggests that he, too, suffers from this disillusioning feeling of disconnect.
Our unceasing obsession with “getting” and “spending” points to the rampant consumerism that pervades our capitalist culture. Rather than possess exulted, spiritual ambitions, most of us—Wordsworth would argue— are content just buying the new I-phone. This replacement of spiritual values with material ones deeply disturbed the Romantics, as they believed acquiring more things was an ultimately futile exercise. By phrasing these verbs in the present progressive (“getting” as opposed to its present form “get” or past form “got”), Wordsworth suggests the desire for more things is insatiable and can never be fulfilled. The desire to obtain more is perpetually bound to the progressive “-ing”: always present and never satisfied.
Even the words themselves hint at the ceaselessness of the consumerist cycle: once we procure or “get” the object of our desire, we immediately want something new. We then “spend” our money only to find that the attainment of our wish (yet again!) leaves us disappointed. And what do we do? We go out and buy something else! Wordsworth abhorred such materialism, believing the accumulation of objects could never lead to a rich, satisfying life.
Most of us feel a vague sense of ennui, Wordsworth claims, because we’re preoccupied with the superficial and estranged from the beauty and wisdom of nature: “Little we see in Nature that is ours” (Wordsworth 3). Here, the capitalization of “Nature” elevates the natural world to status of proper noun, which suggests Nature is god-like in its power. The tragedy, however, is that— while attached to physical things like money and objects— we feel little ownership of the natural world. Though industrialization represents our demolition of nature and urbanization saw us claim ownership of nature like never before, we see little in nature that is “ours”, meaning we no longer feel connected to Mother Earth: we may “see” a sunset, but we don’t revel in its colors or the way its light illuminates the sky.
In the next line, Wordsworth deplores that “we have given our hearts away,” which reveals our loss of nature as a loss of self (Wordsworth 4). The heart is such an archetypal symbol for emotion that— if penned by another hand— its use might feel cliché; however, here Wordsworth applies the image with evocative effect. By discarding our respect for the awe-inspiring beauty and mystery of nature for the empty sensual pleasures of consumerism, we’ve relinquished our ability to feel and be moved. The modern man— obsessed as he is with frivolous pleasures— can no longer experience melancholy or despair, ecstasy or euphoria: he is dead to the world. Or, more accurately, the world is dead to him. The “sea” and “winds” may be personified as energetic nouns who are intensely active, but to the speaker, they are “up-gathered now like sleeping flowers”— a sad image reflecting his detachment (Wordsworth 5-7). Though nature appears as stunning as a bouquet of spring flowers, its beauty is “sleeping” and thus lost on the speaker. For Wordsworth, this is the greatest tragedy: although ordinary life possesses the potential for revelation and glamor, most of us are too heedless to notice.
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