The World Is Too Much with Us

by William Wordsworth

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Student Question

In "The World is Too Much with Us," what is "too much" with us?

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“Late” refers to the most recent past and the present. “Soon” is the future. Wordsworth’s theme or warning here is that in recent and future times, it seems that humans have lost touch with nature and therefore, have lost a sense of their sensitivity and the spiritual world because they are preoccupied with material things.

But I understand that the first line/title can seem ambiguous. Wordsworth is making a clear distinction between the industrialized, material society and nature. “World” can mean the Earth itself or the social life we live.

In my interpretation, in this poem, “world” means that social, material life. And Nature would be the Earth and organic life. So, what does it mean to say that the “world” is too much with us? This way of speaking is not as common today. But you may hear phrases like “It’s always got to be so dramatic with you.” This means that you create and sustain dramatic situations. Comparatively, we (us) make too much of the world. We make too much of the material, industrial world. We have “given up our hearts” to it. We have lost touch with the natural Earth.

It’s really a prophetic poem. Using a more modern, specific example, you might say, “Cell phones are too much with us.”

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We need to identify the opposition that Wordsworth creates to understand the central argument of this poem and answer your question. This poem is basically a lament about the situation as Wordsworth sees it of his times. When he looks at his life and the life of those around him, he sees that people have rejected Nature in favour of "the world," which is, as the title suggests, what is "too much with us." However, it is important that we carefully define what Wordsworth is referring to by placing so much blame on the "world." From the context of the poem, it is clear that the world refers to materialism. Consider how the poem begins:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

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!

Thus we can see that the opposition is between materialism and Nature. By pursuing material wealth and focussing on "getting and spending" we actually "waste our powers" and make a "sordid boon," giving "our hearts away" in exchange for the fleeting pleasures of materialism. We have essentially cut ourselves off from Nature and the way that it is able to restore and heal our inner-selves. Thus the poem is a strident attack against materialism and a call to a return to a simpler lifestyle where we are more in tune as opposed to "out of tune" with Nature.

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Wordsworth in "The World Is Too Much With Us" is much more specific about what we should be in tune with (nature) than he is about what is getting in our way. 

Two main targets appear to be present in the poem, however.  First, "getting and spending" appears to refer to business interests.  We spend too much time pursuing commercial ventures, buying and selling, and not enough time studying and learning from nature.

Second, when the speaker writes that he'd rather be a pagan because pagans are in tune with nature, he implies that Christians are not.  Pagans, by definition, worship or at least greatly revere nature.  Christians, suggests the speaker, do not.  Christians, apparently, are too much interested in making money. 

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