Last Updated on March 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
William Wordsworth published the sonnet “The world is too much with us” in 1807. The sonnet’s speaker explores nature, the sublime, and the past. The speaker rejects civilization and laments that humanity has lost touch with nature. “The world is too much with us” invites readers to consider their relationship to the world around them.
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“The world is too much with us” is a Petrarchan sonnet written in iambic pentameter and comprised of fourteen lines. The first eight lines (the octave) introduce an argument or observation, and the last six lines (the sestet) show a shift in the tone and serve as an answer to the octave. This shift is marked by a volta, which takes place at the start of the ninth line, marking the turn in the poem’s tone or argument. Wordsworth’s sonnet has the volta in the middle of the ninth line instead of at the start.
The sonnet begins with a declaration: “The world is too much with us.” The speaker suggests that humanity’s focus on civilization, or the “world,” has resulted in the loss of a deeper connection to nature. The first line then ends with “late and soon,” claiming that this preoccupation with the world has plagued humanity for some time and will continue to do so. The next two lines call attention to how the world may negatively affect humanity:
- In line two, the speaker claims that too much time is wasted on “getting and spending,” and by focusing on such actions, we ignore what is natural and nourishing and thus “lay waste our powers.”
- In line three, the speaker says that “little we see in nature that is ours.” This suggests a fundamental separation from nature, not only in understanding but also through a lack of control and ownership.
- The speaker then declares in line four that we have “given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” This idea could be interpreted as an unfortunate bargain or choice. The words “sordid” and “boon” create an oxymoron that expresses an uneasy trade.
The speaker's lament suggests that humanity has given away its connection to nature for commerce and industrialization. Modernity may appear beneficial, but as a consequence humanity has lost its sense of belonging and orientation in the natural world.
Wordsworth’s sonnet exhibits a poetic style characteristic of Romanticism in its description of nature. The speaker makes use of the sublime, which in poetry is meant to highlight the greatness of the subject matter and bring ecstasy to the reader. Two instances of the sublime can be found in the first eight lines:
- In line five, the speaker describes the sea with grandeur, casting it as a feminine entity that “bares her bosom to the moon.” This description anthropomorphizes the sea, creating a maternal figure.
- In line six, the speaker describes the winds as “howling at all hours” and couples that with a simile in which the winds are “gathered up like sleeping flowers.” Here, the speaker juxtaposes the violence of winds howling with the gentleness of sleeping flowers.
The speaker illustrates the varying degrees of nature and its changeability, and laments that we are unable to see and experience these phenomena. Perhaps seeing and being a part of nature would be nourishing for the human soul; when humans are only focused on the world (civilization) and not nature, we are left impoverished.
The sonnet then shifts with the volta at line nine, when the speaker exclaims “—Great God!” in between two thoughts.
- This sudden shift rhythmically breaks the line in half, resulting in a caesura.
- It also marks the turn in the poem, in which the speaker wishes to be separate from the world and surrounded by the beauty and grandeur of nature.
Having suggested in the octave that humanity is “out of tune” with nature, the speaker begins the sestet by expressing that he would “rather be / A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.” The use of the word “pagan” suggests a tradition deeply connected to the natural world. Whereas the world represents civilization and an established Christian doctrine, the speaker wishes to view the world through a lens distinct from the artificial creations of humanity.
The last four lines of the poem express a wistfulness for the past. The speaker believes that that while “standing on a pleasant lea” he would find happiness in seeing nature and the old pagan gods, such as “Proteus rising from the sea.” Characteristic of Romantic poetry, the speaker makes several allusions to Greek mythology by introducing Proteus, the prophetic Greek god of seas and rivers, and Triton, the messenger god of the sea and the son of Poseidon. In a figure for his desire to connect with the natural world and receive its truths, the speaker longs to “hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.” Wordsworth’s sonnet expresses a wish to go back to a past in which humans were more connected to nature and less taken in by industry and commerce.