The poem has been written in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, fashioned on the lines of Italian poetic traditions, influenced in its form and meter by the work of Petrarch – one of the famous Italian poets of the early renaissance era. Like a classical Petrarchan sonnet, it is divided into an octave and a sestet to capture and convey the developing violent relationship between the material and the industrial world.
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While the octave has been fashioned on the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, the sestet is based on the CDCDCD rhyme structure. However, despite its classical inspirations, it is structured in bold deviance from the classical Petrarchan pattern. Similarly, it does not lose itself into the Shakespearean structure of the Jacobean poets but is written in what Wordsworth had referred to as “the real language of men.” (Wordsworth 85)
The Life & Times of the Author
However, in order to understand Wordsworth’s writings, we must first understand the man and his times. It is only by gaining a better understanding of his world that we can begin to understand why he saw it as he saw it. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was born in Cumberland, Lake District – the scenic northwest of England – where he developed his growing love for nature. Having lost his parents at an early age, he formed a lasting relationship with his sister, who was to remain his closest and perhaps only family throughout his life.
Wordsworth briefly fell in love with a girl while on a sojourn in France, eventually fathering a child with her, but had to leave for London because of the tumultuous times that the two lovers found themselves in. Although this relationship never matured into a formal marriage, he did stay in touch with his daughter for the rest of his life and continued to support her (Barth 115).
However, his writings were more influenced by the times that he found himself in rather than the shape that his personal life took. Wordsworth was perhaps born at one of the most interesting times in modern history. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to change the relationship between means and ends, affecting the human psyche in the most profound way. Nature no longer was seen as a habitat, but as raw material and sometimes even as an impediment to the industrial revolution – humanity’s march to progress and prosperity, albeit at the cost of its environment.
Romanticism in its very essence was a counter-revolution, preferring the disorder of nature to the schematic operations of the Industrial Age. Unlike the classicists, the romantics believed in the supremacy of emotion over reason, fantasy over reality, the natural world and its disorder over the mechanical world and its clockwork-like operations, irrationality over rationalism, and contumacy over compliance. (Barth 100)
This movement was to produce the true masters of its age, who were to challenge the established norms and standards, producing works of art & literature rich in content and imagination, pushing and breaching the anachronistic boundaries of their respective worlds from music to art to literature. Interestingly, the term romanticism was coined much later to define and categorize the work of this era. Wordsworth himself essentially saw his work as experimental because of its emphasis on a freer and more natural flow of emotions, as opposed to the constrained and guided one preferred by his Jacobean contemporaries.
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In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, an anthology of poems that contains this particular work, Wordsworth wrote about the power of poetry calling it a natural flow of potent feelings, that are expressed in feelings in instances of harmony. Nothing better could have been said or written to describe the moving spirit behind Wordsworth’s musings. Lyrical Ballads also contains the works of another famous fellow “Lake Poet,” Samuel T. Coleridge, who contributed “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the book, which is perhaps one of Coleridge’s most celebrated works. These two leading lights of the Romantic Movement had considerable convergence of opinion on nature’s role in a man’s life as well as man’s place in nature, and as a friend and a mentor, Coleridge was to enjoy a lasting influence on Wordsworth’s work (Gill 72).
Quote from the Poem
This poem is perhaps one of Wordsworth’s finest expressions of the turmoil and strife he felt within, and that many of us continue to feel till today as we are pulled between the two extremes of the natural world and the world that we have built around us, losing a part of ourselves as we travel from one to the other. When reading this poem, one cannot but feel the raw strength of his emotions – the anger and the anguish afflicting his very being, and the memories and images that he conjures to soothe his troubled spirit. The world is at once in a state of war and peace – a war within and perhaps the most fragile of peace without.
The opening octave, “The World Is Too Much with Us,” encapsulates Wordsworth’s growing despair with the world of chimneys and steam engines taking form around him. He is mourning the rise of materialism and people’s growing distance from nature:
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! (Wordsworth 145, 1-4)
He expresses his bewilderment at the idea of time that this new world has embraced where the past rapidly melts into the present and the present into the future, as if in a foundry. Time no longer has the graceful movement that it possessed in nature, where one season would segue into the next. Now everything is either late or on time or too soon.
Everything around has transformed into a raw material that needs to be inventoried, and appraised, and used to build the structures of the new world that is fast replacing the old. The idea of the new world and its promises of prosperity seem nothing more than nightmares of a sordid boon to the author, where we are replacing what is precious and irreplaceable with all that is destructive and abhorrent to him. How can columns of smoke be a worthy replacement for the woodlands and hills that they are rapidly devouring? The sense of loss and the anguish that it elicits is most profound in these opening lines.
Has man truly and irrevocably lost touch with nature? Will we lose what is most precious in our petty transactions of profit and loss? Will the transformation be as complete and irreversible, as it seems? While writing
“for this, for everything, we are out of tune”, (Wordsworth 145, 8)
Wordsworth seems to have answered in an affirmative. He feels dismayed and robbed at humanity’s accumulative choice of replacing the sometimes gentle and sometimes ferocious sounds of the sea for the constant screaming and howling of the engine rooms. We have bartered nature’s tranquility for the noises of our mechanical wonders without realizing what we may have forever lost in the process. In time, we too will feel the same inconsolable void in our souls that the author feels now.
In the lines that follow, we come face to face with Wordsworth’s anger. As the Christian world that believes in God destroys the very world that God himself has created, he wonders if he would have felt less pain if he were a pagan, worshipping the nature that he loves so much. Would the world have behaved differently if it were so too, seeing the image of the divine and feeling His presence in the world of nature that once stood around them? Would he have felt less forsaken? Would we have been less lost, if at all?
In “The World is Too Much with Us,” Wordsworth presents us with a fatalistic view of the future through the prism of the present. He tries to angrily warn us of what we are turning our world into, and of what we may become in this process of transformation. He feels a profound sense of loss when he sees the world of nature around him crumbling and giving way to the edifice of modernity. The sense of sadness and anger is palpable throughout the poem, as he tries to understand the logic that lays bare green hills to feed the chimneys of the sprawling industrial estates. His words continue to ring as true as they did at the time of the Industrial revolution, prompting us to re-examine our attitude towards our environment, and the limited natural resources that we continue to exploit and take for granted.
Barth, J. R.. Romanticism and Transcendence: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Religious Imagination. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
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Gill, Stephen C. The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Wordsworth, William. William Wordsworth: The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.