Notes on Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us.”

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Notes on Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us.”


Notes on Wordsworth’s “The world is too much with us.”
[Note: When poems do not have titles, it is traditional to assign the first line as the title, as is the case with Wordsworth’s sonnet.]

Like Charlotte Smith before him (“To Melancholy”), Wordsworth writes a Petrarchan sonnet—which contains an octet (abbaabba) and a sestet (either cdecde or cdcdcd; in this one, it is the latter). Therefore, there should be two basic movements of thought. What are they?

The world is too much with us; late and soon, a
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: b
Little we see in nature that is ours; b
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! a
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; a
The Winds that will be howling at all hours b
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; b
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune; a
It moves us not.

Great God! I’d rather be c
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; d
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, c
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; d
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; c
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. d

Sample Problem

For this poem, a dictionary will help you tease out its meaning. Indeed, the only difficulty seems to derive from the language, which means that there is no difficulty at all!

I had to (or wanted to) look up the following words: “sordid,” “boon,” “lea,” and “forlorn.” I used the Oxford English Dictionary. I tried to fine-tune the different meanings of the words to get the most likely definition as determined by context. So,

sordid(line 4), adj. Of a low, mean, or despicable character; marked by or proceeding from ignoble motives, esp. of self-interest or monetary gain.

boon (line 4), n. A favor, a gift, a thing freely or graciously bestowed

lea (line 11), n. a tract of open ground, either meadow, pasture, or arable land; grass land

forlorn (line 12), adj. morally lost; bereft; stripped


First notice the opposition established: (civilized) world versus nature. Nature encompasses “our hearts,” so for people to turn away from nature is to also turn away from an important part of themselves. And for what? “Getting and spending” is a wonderful phrase in that it encapsulates so much: how much of life is spent acquiring things? Lines 5-7 depict the beauty of nature—a beauty that no longer “moves us.” To be “out of tune” with Nature is to be disconnected from what Wordsworth believes is most vital about life.

The second movement begins with a qualification: “Great God!” Here Wordsworth acknowledges one god—no doubt to ward off any accusations of being a pagan himself! Although belief in the old gods has been replaced by worship of the Christian one (“creed outworn”), pantheism afforded the pagans a strong connection to their world. Pagans had a god for every aspect of nature: Diana for the moon, Apollo for the sun, Ceres for the harvest, and, as illustrated in the poem, a slew of gods for the sea (Proteus and Triton—not just Neptune). The pagans looked to nature with reverence and awe; a view Wordsworth heartily endorses.

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