Sunday Poetry: The World is Too Much with Us, by William Wordsworth

The World is Too Much with Us

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!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gather’d now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

– by William Wordsworth
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I spent the weekend with friends at a lake. Last night, we saw stars like we never see in the city, and heard the sound of a Whip-poor-will in the night. Campfire and conversation made it all complete.

It had been almost a year since I was outdoors in the woods at night. It will probably be a longtime before it happens again. There’s always too much stuff to be done – parties to go to, work, and so on. Even down there, an internet connection threatened to bring my daily world back to my laptop.

Way back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, William Wordsworth felt the same thing. The daily struggle of commerce and stuff to do – getting and spending – made him feel out of touch with nature. He yearned to be excited by nature – he wanted to feel the power of nature, and have his imagination pushed to seeing ancient gods at work in the universe.

The poem is in the form of an Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet. The first 8 lines raise a problem, and the final 6 address the problem. In this poem, the first 8 lines state the problem that we are out of touch with nature, and the final six lines are Wordsworth’s fantasy that he could step out of the modern world and back in time to an age where people saw the power of gods in nature.

Like a Shakespearian sonnet, the Italian sonnet is 14 lines of iambic pentameter. The difference lies in the rhyming scheme. This Italian sonnet is ABBA ABBA CD CD CD (though other Italian sonnets have different rhyming schemes for the final 6 lines), and the Shakespearian sonnet is typically ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. While both forms have served as the skeleton for fantastic poems, I generally prefer the Italian variety, since, too often, the final couplet of a Shakespearian sonnet comes off too sing-songy, like a punchline.

But enough with the technical talk. Reread the poem, and think about how the world is too much with you, late and soon, and how the best parts of you – your creativity, your wit, your joys in life – are reigned in by an alarm clock and bills. Sympathize with Wordsworth, and think how different where you are right now was 202 years ago, when the poem was written.

It felt good to be out in the woods, and live, even for a weekend, in a tribal arrangement of friends who cooked, played and drank without much regard to the rest of the world. I’m not ready to give up central air and my iPod, but the stars were incredible.

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