The World Is Too Much with Us

by William Wordsworth

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Who are Proteus and Trito in Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us"?

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Proteus and Triton in Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us" are ancient sea gods. Wordsworth references them to express his preference for the reverence for nature seen in pagan cultures over the materialism of his contemporary society. Proteus, a prophet of the sea, and Triton, his son who controls the waves, symbolize the spiritual connection with nature that Wordsworth finds lacking in modern times.

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William Wordsworth's sonnet "The World is Too Much with Us" meditates on the way the modern world (early 1800s) is overly commercialized, causing humans to become separate from nature. Wordsworth sees all the "getting and spending" as a "waste" of humanity's true purpose. He finds meaning in nature but laments that his fellow humans "have given [their] hearts away" to a lesser entity (materialism, modernity, economic gain).

In the middle of the poem, Wordsworth brings in natural imagery and figurative language to re-establish a connection between man and nature. In describing, in turn, "this Sea," "the winds," and "flowers," Wordsworth argues that nature has great power but that people have become "out of tune" with the rhythm of their environment.

Wordsworth next connects his love for and devotion to nature with "Pagan" cultures. He seems to think that we must go back in time and travel to places and cultures where nature was respected and even worshipped. This is where "Proteus" and "Triton" come in. Proteus and Triton are both ancient gods associated with the sea. The Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, rules the realm, but Proteus is a prophet of the sea and Triton his son. The ancients (who Christians would call "Pagan" for their polytheism) would pray and make offering to sea gods, and to gods of other parts of nature, and created myths about how the natural world came into being and why/how it functions as it does (take the Persephone/Demeter myth as an explanation of the four seasons).

Ultimately, Wordsworth includes these figures to suggest that he'd rather live according to these ancient rituals and beliefs than live in the modern world, if it meant he'd have the appropriate reverence for nature that seems to be missing in his early 19th century milieu.

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In this poem, Wordsworth laments that modern humans of his time period are spiritually disconnected from nature and obsessed, instead, with making money. Therefore, at the poem's end, he states that he wishes he had been raised in a pagan religion, such as the one the ancient Greeks followed. Then nature, imagination, and spirituality would be intertwined, and when he looked at the sea, he would see the gods Proteus and Triton amid the waves.

Proteus was a sea god and Triton was his son. Proteus had the ability to predict the future, but if someone tried to wrest a prediction from him, he would change shape to try to escape prophesying. Triton could blow his conch shell to control the waves. He too was a god. Both were colorful figures standing in contrast to the dull world of getting and spending that the narrator believed too many people in his time were fixated on.

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Proteus is one of the ancient gods found in Greek mythology. He was god of the rivers and the sea and was able to prophesy, but would only do so if held against his will. To make the task of capture more difficult, Proteus would constantly change shape. The word 'protean' is derived from this capacity.

Triton is also a mythical Greek god, said to be messenger to his father, Poseidon. Triton was believed to be part man, part mermaid. He carried a large conch which he used to blow through to either calm or raise the waves. He also carried a trident like his father.

In his poem, William Wordsworth refers to such pagan beliefs as an alternative to the materialism of The Industrial Revolution. Wordsworth felt that man had become obsessed with seeking material wealth and had completely neglected or forgotten nature. His poem beseeches man to return to nature and leave behind 'worldly things'. Man's quest should not be for self-enrichment, but should be a desire to achieve unity with nature - a  common theme in Romantic poetry.

It is for this reason that Wordsworth feels that he would be better off being a pagan, a reference to early religious beliefs in a variety of gods existent in nature, and not a monotheistic (one god) system of belief. Since these are gods of nature and Wordsworth wishes to achieve a closer relationship with nature, it would be best for him then, to rather be a pagan and worship the natural than the material.  

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The allusions to Greek mythology that are made in the last two lines of this wonderful poem mention these two important deities as the speaker declares he would rather be a pagan than cut off from nature and man's relationship to his natural surroundings. Consider what the last two lines say:

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Proteus in Greek mythology was a sea god who could change his shape at will, giving rise to the adjective "protean," and Triton is a sea god who controls the waves by blowing a conch shell, his "wreathed horn" as the poem describes it. Both allusions function as examples of pagan religion and how they prized nature as a powerful force to be reckoned with that mankind needed to respond to and have a relationship with. This of course stands in conflict with the damaging impact of materialism that is described in the first few lines of the poem.

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