THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US: HUMAN SEPARATION FROM NATURE

One of the old standards of English poetry is THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US, by the romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850).  The romantic movement tended to emphasize personal feelings, and often associated those feelings with Nature — mountains and waterfalls, lakes and woods, and all that is (or was) in them.  We see this emphasis in today’s poem.

As for the mechanics of the poem, we need only take a quick look at the pattern of rhyming to see how those rhymes influenced his phrases.  I will mark the rhymes here with numbers, each number corresponding to groups of rhyming words.  As you see, there are four rhymes made:

1.  soon, boon, moon, tune (yes, they are not precise rhymes, but close enough for Wordsworth)
2.  powers, ours, hours, flowers
3.  be, lea, sea
4.  outworn, forlorn, horn

The world is too much with us; late and soon (1)
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: (2)
Little we see in Nature that is ours; (2)
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! (1)
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; (1)
The winds that will be howling at all hours, (2)
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;(2)
For this, for everything, we are out of tune; (1)
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be (3)
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; (4)
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, (3)
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; (4)
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; (3)
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. (4)

And now for the meaning:

The world, he tells us, is too much with us.  By “the world,” he means the human world of commerce and industry, of business, of running to and fro to make a living, to buy and sell (getting and spending) at all hours of the day (“late and soon”), of being too involved in such things.  Why?  Because in doing so, we lose and gradually destroy (“lay waste”) what Wordsworth considered to be the important “powers” in humans — the emotional and spiritual side of our nature as opposed to the completely material and rational and “practical.”  We can also think of “getting and spending” as meaning getting our vital energy from Nature, but wasting it in purely material pursuits rather than aesthetic or spiritual pursuits.

The result of this one-sided life is that we lose touch with Nature, we “see little in Nature that is ours,” little that we can relate to and feel as a part of us.  Now we might ask why Wordsworth felt this way, but we need only recall that he was born at just the right (or wrong) time to see the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which turned good parts of England from quiet fields and woods to “dark satanic mills,” as William Blake put it.

Wordsworth tells us “we have given our hearts away,” and he does not mean this in a good way.  We have given our hearts — or emotional being, our wishes and innermost desires — away in exchange for the getting and spending and industry of the human world, which is most evident in city life.  That, the poet remarks, is “a sordid boon,” — a gain (boon) that is felt to be immoral and depressing (sordid).

Wordsworth gives examples of what we have lost:

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.

We are, he says, out of harmony — “out of tune” with Nature, with the sea rising and falling in the moonlight with its surface (bosom) bare to the moon, with the wind, whether it howls at times throughout the day and night (“at all hours”) or whether it is silent and still, like flowers that have closed their petals (“sleeping flowers”).  We are out of tune with all these and with the rest of nature — “It moves us not” — it has no emotional effect on us, on our spirits.  We have lost our connection with Nature.

moon and surf and a rocky shore

(Photo credit: R. S.)

The poet finds this separation of humans and Nature abnormal and intolerable.  He protests against it:

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 wreathed horn.

“Great God!” he exclaims — just as we today might say “Good grief!” or something similar — “I’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”  He is thinking back to Greek and Roman antiquity.  He tells us he would rather have been born and nourished (“suckled”) and raised in pagan religion (creed).  He speaks of it as “a creed outworn” because the old Greco-Roman religion, seen as old and no longer adequate by Christians, was replaced by Christianity, which seldom encouraged love of Nature).

If he had been raised as a pagan, he tells us, then he could stand there on the pleasant lea (meadow, grassy area) and see things that would make him less forlorn — less depressed and unhappy:

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Three views of the Triton Fountain

Triton Fountain (Photo credit: Dog Company)

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Proteus was an ancient Greek sea god who could change his form.
Triton was also a sea god, the son of Poseidon, and his messenger.  By blowing his conch shell horn he could calm or raise the waves of the sea.

Wordsworth is telling us, then, that he is so weary of the human separation from Nature that he sees and feels around him that he would rather have been raised a pagan.  Then he would be able again to see the power and wonder in Nature, as manifested in the gods that were once felt to be a part of it; he might see the god Proteus rise up from the sea, or perhaps hear the sea god Triton blow on his horn to command the waves.  Nature would once more have force and power and significance, which Wordsworth felt it had largely lost in his day.

Imagine, then, how much worse things are now in our own time, when humans have polluted air and soil and water with toxic chemicals and radiation, and cities and growing populations are forever encroaching on farmlands and forests.

As for the rhyme, Wordsworth obviously stretched things a bit by his simile of winds

 up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

That is one of the pitfalls of rhyme in verse.  It leads all too often to such inadequate or unlikely comparisons, but Wordsworth felt he needed “flowers”; what else was he to rhyme with “powers,” “ours,” and “hours”?  When using rhyme, a poet must be very careful to remain its master rather than its servant.

Be sure, when you read the line

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn,

that you read “wreathed” as two syllables (wreath-ed) instead of the usual one, which is what Wordsworth intended here.  By “wreathed” horn he just means that the horn was ornamented by some kind of garland, in this case perhaps of seaweed.

David

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