William Wordsworth’s poem beginning “The world is too much with us” laments the alienation of human beings from the beauties and power of nature. Although the poem opens by stressing that humans are involved in the “world,” that word in this context refers to the world that humans have created for themselves – the artificial environment of civilization, especially cities, an environment that cuts us off from nature as God created it. The “world” Wordsworth implicitly condemns is a “world” in which making money and spending money are crucial values (2). Ironically, however, the more money we try to accumulate, and the more we spend our time accumulating money, the more “we lay waste our powers” (2). Our efforts to acquire and display wealthy rob us of the kind of mental and spiritual powers that should matter most, so that
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! (3-4)
Even when we are able to literally view nature (as line 3 suggests), we feel cut off from it. It no longer has the power to stir and inspire us. In exchange for money, we lose our souls, at least in a metaphorical sense. We make a Faustian bargain, sacrificing the joy of feeling part of nature in order to hoard up and display material possessions.
Nature, of course, remains constant to itself; its beauties (5) and powers (6) remain to be appreciated, even if we fail to appreciate them (8). We are figuratively out of harmony with the rest of creation and therefore also, in important ways, out of harmony with the Creator. It is, in fact, that creator to whom the speaker of the poem now appeals (9). Although admitting that paganism is a thing of the past, the speaker at least gives the pagans credit for their close attachment to – even their literal worship of – nature. Perhaps, by offering such homage to God’s creation, they were paradoxically closer to God than are many contemporary Christians, who have lost sight of nature’s power and beauty. To the pagans, nature seemed alive and full of wonders, but modern Europeans have largely lost that sense of the sacredness of nature, of the holiness of the created universe.
One poem that is similar in many ways to Wordsworth’s sonnet is a sonnet written in the sixteenth century by the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Surrey’s poem is in fact a translation of an earlier poem by the Petrarch, the great Italian poet. In Surrey’s poem, a man feels alienated from nature not because of a preoccupation with money, status, possessions, and social competition (as in Wordsworth’s poem) but because of a preoccupation with physical desire for a woman:
The soote season, that bud and bloom forth brings,
With green hath clad the hill and eke the vale;
The nightingale with feathers new she sings,
The turtle to her make hath told her tale.
Summer is come, for every spray now springs,
The hart hath hung his old head on the pale,
The buck in brake his winter coat he flings,
The fishes float with new repaired scale,
The adder all her slough away she slings,
The swift swallow pursueth the flyës smale,
The busy bee her honey now she mings--
Winter is worn that was the flowers' bale.
And thus I see, among these pleasant things
Each care decays, and yet my sorrow springs.
In this poem as in Wordsworth’s, man is out of synch with the rest of God’s creation, although the worldly attachment here differs from the worldly attachment Wordsworth presents.