The World Is Too Much with Us

by William Wordsworth

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How does Wordsworth's poem "The World Is Too Much with Us" differ from the techniques used by French Symbolist poets such as Charles Baudelaire. How would Baudelaire have written this poem differently?

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The English poet William Wordsworth, who served as England's poet laureate from 1843 to 1850, and the French poet Charles Baudelaire, although they lived in the same century, could hardly be more different. They were both men, and they were both poets, but their aims, techniques, themes, and lives varied greatly. Wordsworth was perhaps the foremost poet of the Romantic movement, which also included his sometime collaborators Coleridge, Byron, Southey, and Shelley. The Romantics valued nature, childhood, strong emotions, and the individual human spirit. Wordsworth called himself a man speaking to men and defined poetry as strong emotions recalled in tranquility. In "The World Is Too Much With Us," he talks about the alienation that modern man feels. For him the solutions are nature, solitude, and recovering the innocence of childhood. The classical allusions (Triton, Proteus) at the end of the poem are perhaps nostalgic for a time when man was closer to nature and to the gods. Although the Romantics were initially seen as the spirit of the age, even radical (especially Shelley), Wordsworth became increasingly conservative as he got older.

Baudelaire may have shared some of the same Romantic values with Wordsworth, notably the importance of the individual and of poetry as a means for conveying emotion, but his approach, along those of the other French Symbolist (sometimes called decadent poets) was quite different. His peers included Rimbauld, Verlaine, and Mallarme. Baudelaire was a controversial figure in his own time for his unconventional, idiosyncratic approach to art and his equally unconventional lifestyle. The Symbolist poets can be seen as some of the earliest rebel artists who had no desire to fit in or be accepted and who believed in art for art's sake. Baudelaire, who lived in Paris, was very much an urban poet and so would not be sympathetic to Wordsworth's return to nature program. If Wordsworth's style is expansive, Baudelaire's is interior, even hermetic, favoring dense symbolism over clarity. If he saw the world too much with us, he would probably blame bland, bourgeoisie society and then go and take some opium. For a good introduction to his work, Flowers of Evil is the place to start. For more on the Romantics, I'd suggest M.H. Abrams's critical work.

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