Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
William Wordsworth's Sonnet 'The World Is Too Much With Us' Summary
William Wordsworth wrote this sonnet when he was 32 years old, in 1802, and published it in 1807. It was a heartfelt response to the demise of the cottage industry and rural way of life, which had been taken over by mass production and factory work.
People were no longer in touch with nature. The industrial revolution was at hand, the industry was booming, and the poet, always sensitive to the changes in the nation's psyche, grew increasingly alarmed.
In a letter, he wrote about 'the decadent material cynicism of the time', and this sonnet reflects Wordsworth's near helplessness to correct the imbalance between the spiritual and material, nature and the economy.
England, at the time he wrote this poem, was a hotbed of invention and entrepreneurship. Steam engines were being built for the mines, mills and new railways, factories were springing up to deal with textiles, and large-scale industrialisation was taking shape.
Population increases meant that ordinary folk could no longer sustain a living off the land. The countryside, little altered for centuries, was becoming mechanised and enclosed. Whole families would end up working in the mills and mines. This was a rapid and irreversible change, perhaps equivalent to the digital and globalisation revolution of more recent times.
Wordsworth's sonnet encapsulates this quantum leap into a cash economy; the race for profit had begun on a scale never before seen. But at what cost to the human spirit?
'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.
Line By Line Analysis of the Sonnet
Lines 1 - 4
The first line is an inescapable statement of strong opinion. The reader plunges straight in to the deep end as the speaker declares that there's too much of everything, from money to things and that as soon as we're able, when we're young, we're getting paid to spend, and even when we grow old it's not too late to get spending.
As a consequence, all this commerce, the daily slog for a wage, incessant business dealing and so on, is sapping the human spirit because as we progress, we leave behind our sense of awe and wonder of the natural world around us.
Living through the first industrial revolution, Wordsworth could see that people were sacrificing their energies and emotions once they were on the treadmill of factory work. The speaker, undoubtedly Wordsworth himself, calls this 'a sordid boon', a shameful gift.
Workers were often exploited by the owners, who grew rich whilst the majority remained poor. To the poet, this was distasteful and immoral.
Lines 5 - 8
The first four lines combine to deliver a powerful if negative view of society. There is dissipation and neglect of Nature. Line 5, start of the second quatrain, brings the reader into contact with Nature itself. Note the feminine approach as the poem progresses - the bare bosom, the moon, sleeping flower - symbols of the Mother and the emotions.
- The speaker is looking out over the water at a time of calm, thinking of the ceaseless wind and of how we are no longer in harmony with the fundamentals of nature. The words moon/tune are not full rhymes
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Line 9 reinforces the speaker's personal opinion that people are unmoved by the force of Nature. So affected is the speaker by this sad fact that they could envisage being or turning Pagan, reverting and taking succour from one of the archaic pagan religions. The mention of God (Great God!) suggests that Wordsworth thought Christianity powerless to stop the tide of materialism.
- The speaker would rather have the consolation of paganism and mythology to help alleviate the pain of spiritual loss. Use of personal pronouns and the immediacy of the present - So might I, standing on this pleasant lea (lea is an open meadow) bring home the fact that this is happening now.
Lines 13 - 14
The final two lines continue the theme begun halfway through line 9. The speaker desires to see a return to the old times when people were in tune with the land and Nature.
Proteus, from Greek mythology, the Old man of the Sea, takes different shapes and can be forced to predict the future. Triton is the son of Neptune, the sea god, and has the power to calm the seas with his conch-shell horn.
- Wordsworth must have been aware of the unstoppable growth of industry and mass production. Like Blake, his concern was for the future spiritual state of the people. His introduction of Proteus, the ever changing, frighteningly prophetic 'ancient one of the sea' who knows all things, reminds us of the sacrifices we all have to pay if 'we are out of tune' with Mother Nature.
Rhyme And Metre in 'The World Is Too Much With Us'
This is a classic 14-line sonnet with an unusual rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdcdcd and an iambic meter running throughout. Iambic beats give a dahDUM dahDUM dahDUM pattern, with the stress on the second syllable, and was the dominant meter of English poetry right up until free verse came into popular use.
The world / is too / much with / us; late / and soon,
Note the five stresses, which means that this sonnet is metrically iambic pentameter. This rhythm is kept up more or less throughout the poem.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2016 Andrew Spacey