Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Wordsworth's "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 wreath├Ęd horn.

I asked a trusted colleague of mine if I should use some of my blogs to share my passion and thoughts on the literature I have taught (sometimes for many years). He thought it would be a interesting (is that positive or negative connotation?) idea. Who knows if I’ll have an audience, but I’ll try pushing my thoughts into the ether. Any analysis I write is distilled from my own reading and interpretation, my college classes, my conversations with others, and research I do to make sure I’m “right” (when I’m stuck).

The following essay is one I wrote as an example for students. I gave myself the same time limit they had—I think it was 45 minutes this time. While I typed it for safe-keeping, I kept the typos since it was a first draft. Students were able to talk to each other and annotate the prompt ahead of time, so I did the same. I’ve read this poem many times, but, for some reason, this year I had an epiphany. This is my interpretation of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us.”

Return to Nature
            “Great God!” interjects William Wordsworth in his sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us,” a poem exploring the issue foremost in a Romantic’s mind: how to extract oneself from the world and draw closer to nature.  Wordsworth uses the formality of the sonnet form and his language to lend a serious tone to the issue, but his passion spills forth in his diction and use of figurative language.
            The form of the sonnet lends structure and formality to any topic.  In the octave, Wordsworth spells forth the issue: man does not turn to nature as a source of strength; rather, man simply sees nature as a source for goods.  He rapes nature of her bounty and preoccupies himself with “Getting and spending.” Man sees “Little…in Nature that is ours.” While these statements seem melodramatic, they adequately sum up the reactionary attitude of the Romantics during the nineteenth century.  Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, man was thrust from a mostly agrarian society into a largely industrial and suburban one.  Society began redefining itself.  City populations seemed to explode overnight—those explosions brought rises in poverty, filthy living conditions, and crime.  How does one find time to appreciate nature when one must fight for every morsel of food, or when one must slave away at a low-paying job just to support ones family?  As more factories spill pollutants into the air, how does one draw a clean breath, much less pause to notice as the “Sea bares her bosom to the moon”?  Instead, man is “out of tune” with nature.  Nature “moves us not”.  Society removed itself from the source of inspiration, imagination, and truth…without a source, how does man find direction for his life?    
            In the sestet, Wordsworth addresses that question: How does man find direction since he has turned from nature?  He shifts his focus from “us” to “I”: his answer is to throw off the shackles of modern society and return to a simpler state.  He provides this answer in the middle of line 9.  The reader sees a dash followed by “Great God!” This dash feels like a mental inhalation before his passionate exclamation.  Wordsworth clearly and formally states his issue in the octave, but after he states his case, he explodes into the sestet.  His ardor for Nature and all she offers rushes forth in a torrent of words: “I’d rather be/A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.” Wordsworth would rather return to older, seemingly outdated beliefs and practices so that he might “Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.” He goes on to allude to Proteus and Triton, two Greek gods.  These allusions illuminate another Romantic characteristic: looking to the distant past.  Technology can lead to a brave new world, but one cannot forget the knowledge of the past.  In addition, one should not view nature with a jaded or greedy eye—one should still be able to see nature with a Romantic, simplistic soul, to see “Proteus rising from the sea” instead of seeing only the rich resources one can glean from the ocean.  In society’s quest for evolution, mankind should never forget to stand “on a pleasant lea” and simply listen to “old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
Wordsworth begins his sonnet with a formal tone, but his passion for his subject bursts forth in the sestet.  His poem shows one man’s solution to the overwhelming problem facing modern society: failure to truly appreciate nature.  

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