On Reading Wordsworth’s “The World Is To ...

On Reading Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us”

Apr 10, 2022

A photo of a Triton statue in Bologna, Italy, taken by Gabriel Maltinti


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 wreathèd horn.

It’s a deep relief to hear someone from over 210 years ago voice a sentiment you have once felt in a higher, more refined tone. It does a good bit to scrub away the shiny prejudice for the contemporary, and wipe off Past’s accumulated dust which mars our judgement whenever we peer into

the dark backward and abysm of time.

That the sonnet positions us within hearing distance of a formerly beating heart of a late genius crossing the vast of time elapsed to now send the warmth of truth in our breast is an aspect of its immortality. Here the eternal theme is the romanticized return for an apparent golden age, that source of the poet’s love for the pastoral; that age when good natures and innocence were common behavior for our species, and evil was a foreign tongue in our ears. In this near perfect sonnet, expelled in one coherent breath, Wordsworth triumphs over this yearning by housing, temporarily, the previous spirit through the power of imagination.

The first two lines are nearing cliche for those of us living in this never-ending gilded age of materialism, where we seem to split our time generally between working and consuming the former simply to fuel the latterso that in our entertainment we can forget the monotonous routine. The easy, “feel-good” solution to this is often uttered by that one unfortunate fellow during a group trip to the hiking trail outside the city: “it feels good to return to nature.” Now the special experience has been made trite, and any beautiful landscape scenes are spoiled by their supposed resemblance to a family road trip movie or marketing ploys for health foods. You half-expect it was the fellow’s attempt to advertise an organic granola bar.

“Our powers” are our intellect, our heart, our soul, and the vitality which sets all of these off. Unless we feel a passion in our work, likely our heart is dulled through habit, and de-sensitized by the sensational stream of information: daily news via TV and posts on social media. That vital energy has been, if poured into meaninglessness and not spent on its nobler ends, wasted.

Little we see in nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away: a sordid boon!

One of the lifelong tasks for humans who are detached from wild Nature, who rarely nurse their leisure in her lap of ancient majesty, is to restore that love for the infinite, the eternal: for Nature herself. Lucky are those who spent their childhoods outdoors on long, hot summer days, seeking the invite to a damp shade under canopy, cooling their limbs in a friendly stream, as birds hop from branch to branch, twittering familiar songs at such a relaxed scene.

…These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence, have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owned to them

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

It is a worldly boon to throw off any attempt at universal love, at an acceptance for the world as it is, and instead follow the winding unending path of self-interest, littered by prizes which grow greater in disappointment. No popular currency is found in the yellow-vased daffodils. There are, however, sensations of a more noble mint, felt deeply, and in some circumstances can elevate. You cannot boast about it to anyone or share your discoveries, unless you have the gift of song.

The three lines regarding the sea and the winds is Wordsworth in his poetic mood. He himself feels anxious when, for spans of time longer than expected, he remains disharmonious with Nature; when he feels no acute sensations, such as the pangs of aching beauty.

See how apt the comparison between sea and bosom is: the rise and fall of the tides pulled by the moon is the rise and fall of our breast when our beloved is near. Same with the winds, how they howl! Like a pervasive beast ripping their way through the grass and trees, tossing all that is loose up in the air with a wayward maliciousness.

And how right a word suckled is! The Pagan has been drinking from the “old wine of heaven”. He or she has been raised on it, and it serves as a touch stone for the mind in its interactions with the world, therefore becoming life itself. It is a “creed outworn” because its essential truth, the spiritual and moral insights, have been superseded to Christianity, and certain external phenomenon explained away by progressive Science.

With the stationing effect in the phrase, “standing on this pleasant lea,” Wordsworth mounts the reader before a clear landscape; here are ample grounds for the imagination to play with those images in the last two lines. These are the “glimpses that would make me less forlorn”, which let the sonnet die a proud death.

When the human heart whispers:

I have immortal longings in me

we can use this poem as a guide to test the experiential truth, and overcome such yearnings temporarily with a trial of imaginative power.

The gods reincarnated in the last two lines link directly back to the sea and wind lines mentioned earlier. Proteus’s dwelling is near the mouth of the Nile River (thank you Google), tending to his flock of seals. The lea, a section of arable land, could be so in part thanks to a river that snakes a way out to the ocean. The sea-seamed horizon is within our sight. The sound of Triton’s horn is in the distant roar of the rolling waters, keeping the feisty winds spell-bound, resembling the culled flowers. Though it is as quick as thoughta flash of the spirit elevated backwardsthis primitive vision can be an earthly paradise for one who returns to it with an ever-growing pleasure, due in part to cultivated taste: the sturdy consequence from accumulated experience.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothing, but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing

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