The World Is Too Much with Us Questions and Answers
by William Wordsworth

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What is the theme of the poem "The World is Too Much With Us"?

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Dolly Doyle eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "The World is Too Much With Us," the speaker laments the loss of man's intimate connection to the natural world in the wake of industrialism and a greater desire for worldly success. When Wordsworth uses the term "world," he is not describing the planet but society. In his view, society is obsessed with "[g]etting and spending," commercial endeavors and making as much money as possible. This blinds people to the greater beauty of the world and in a way, strips life of any greater meaning beyond the acquisition of wealth.

The final portion of the poem features the speaker wishing he had lived as a pagan in antiquity because he feels ancient peoples had a better appreciation for nature than modern people do:

... 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.

Triton and Proteus were sea deities. The speaker is not expressing a desire to worship these old gods or even necessarily speaking out against the dominant Christian religion of his homeland, but he is expressing an appreciation for how the pagans had greater reverence for nature and perhaps saw their lives as something beyond the worldly. Instead of seeing nature as something to be exploited, the pagan as described by Wordsworth feels both in awe of and a part of nature, giving his life greater spiritual meaning beyond money.

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In "The World Is Too Much With Us" Wordsworth laments the way in which modern-day commercial society has eaten away at man's soul, turning him into little more than a consumer of goods obsessed with "getting and spending".

As a Romantic poet, Wordsworth believes that creation is an organic whole in which man and nature are joined together as one. In becoming more worldly, in allowing our whole identities to be determined by the values of industrial capitalism, we are separating ourselves from what we really are. Instead of the headlong pursuit of wealth and goods, we should concern ourselves with remaining in close communication with nature, living in harmony with our natural surroundings.

Yet modern man has become out of tune with nature, and Wordsworth is keen for him to reestablish that broken connection, to revitalize his corrupted soul, even if it means adopting a kind of pagan mindset.

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The theme of "The World Is Too Much with Us" is that humankind has forsaken the soul and individuality for money and material gain. By rejecting a connection to nature, which enriches the soul, people have lost sight of the true meaning and purpose of human existence.

A great lover of nature, William Wordsworth often wrote his poetry while out on walks in the countryside, where it was peaceful and he could enjoy the loveliness of the world. He chose the sonnet form for this poem because of its order and discipline and rhetorical force, feeling that this form was appropriate to express his strong "moral sentiment":

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!

In these lines Wordsworth denounces the materialism that he has observed in people after the Industrial Revolution: "For this, for everything, we are out of tune." This belief in materialism, Wordsworth feels, prevents people from realizing the true meaning and purpose of life.

The speaker of this poem declares that he would rather be a pagan who worships nature in "a creed outworn" than be someone who embraces a spiritually empty materialism. At least as a pagan, there is joy and spiritual enrichment in the communion with the beauty and life of the world:

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

Like so many of his poems, "The World Is Too Much with Us" directs his readers to what Wordsworth called "a moral sentiment," as he perceives his time as a decadent era.

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The theme of illusion versus reality is a dominant one in "The World is Too Much with Us."

In the poem, Wordsworth reminds the reader that illusion should not be interpreted as reality.  For example, when he writes, "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—," it is a reminder that there is something more profound in our daily lives.  Wordsworth suggests that one of the problems in the modern setting is the "sordid boon!" which mistakes illusion for reality. Wordsworth's poem is a call to change the way in which we view our lives.

He sees existence's illusion as preventing a truer sight from emerging.  When Wordsworth writes of "glimpses" that make him feel less "forlorn," they consist of transcendent visions.  These sights are of "Proteus rising from the sea;" and "old Triton blow his wreathèd horn."  Wordsworth insists that visions of Greek gods are more real than modern reality.

For Wordsworth, the illusion lies in our belief that our daily routines constitute reality.  He argues that what should be seen as authentic requires a different type of sight.  This inward and reflective vision is critical to understanding the world and our place in it.  Wordsworth suggests that we can be happier if we see a truer form of reality in our lives.

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