Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

This sonnet comprises an apt summary of many of the themes Wordsworth pursued throughout his tumultuous career. Primarily, “The World Is Too Much with Us” is a poem about vision, about lines of sight, about the debris of history that prevents the observer from seeing through to the real meaning and purpose of human life.

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Throughout the first eight lines of the sonnet, two competing worldviews are silently compared before the poet explicitly declares in line 9 his allegiance to a modified paganism that preserves nature’s autonomy and authority apart from human control or divine manipulation. In short, the poet seeks to divorce Christian vice from pagan virtue and form a hybrid ethic that permits the soul to return to its spiritual moorings.

The poet’s intellectual vista envisions a decadent West poised on utter industrialization and eventually ruin. The incipient “environmentalism” found in the sonnet undergirds most of Wordsworth’s other works, especially his long narrative poem, The Prelude (published posthumously in 1850), and his verse drama, The Borderers (1842). Nature is conceptualized as a willing teacher, a personified, secularized “Holy Spirit,” who will “guide us into all truth.”

The “world” that is “too much with us” is the world as stylized, fixed, unmalleable—the world of a sovereign deity who has placed humankind in a cosmos of his and not their making. Echoed here, then, is the poet’s rebellion against this fixedness. The sonnet is thus a call to arms, a rallying cry to cease “getting and spending” with the coinage of heaven and to turn to a “creed outworn” for sustenance and guidance.

In this, the sonnet reflects the poet’s quite explicit preoccupation with expressing the nature and consequences of self-consciousness for an appreciation of nature’s role in forming the human spirit. In commenting upon his poetics, Wordsworth offered that “the study of human nature suggests this awful truth, that, as in the trials to which life subjects us, sin and crime are apt to start from their very opposite qualities.” In other words, whatever merits Christian civilization may have presented, its excesses breed the very behaviors and social conditions that cause its dissolution.

This sentiment is in line with the sonnet’s poetic form and theme, and with the poet’s own testimony about his life in the autobiographical work, The Prelude. Therein Wordsworth suggests that he had sought a rudder for the future by attaining a clear sense of his own past, and not merely the historian’s pseudo-objective reconstruction of the past.

That past, the past of each person, is available for introspection, and thus evaluation, in the poet’s view only to the extent that one breaks free of the “world” as a prison house. To regain “our powers,” people must get “in tune” with nature’s melodies. The alternative—from the perspective of the sonnet and the poet himself—is to reap captivity of spirit and poverty of soul. Hence, “The World Is Too Much with Us” is a prototypical Romantic anthem, impishly prodding readers to reconsider the basis of their transcendent faith and their despair at reclaiming nature for their own purposes.

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