The World is Too Much with Us
I must confess that I am fond of much of the poetry of the English romantics, especially when they shun the political, and try to reintroduce us to the marvelous creation that is all around us. In the finest and wisest of the Romantics, in William Wordsworth for example, this engagement with sky and sea, with hill and valley, is not sentimental. He really does feel, in the silences and the sounds, the presence of the divine, and that sense does bring him closer to his fellow man, especially the poor, and the unpretentious people of the countryside who work with their hands and their shoulders and their backs.
Think of the following sonnet as a challenge to mankind standing on the verge of the industrial revolution, or rather crossing a continental divide, on one side of which you have people who can feel the wind as they work, and hear the trilling of the birds or the rush of the sea-waves in the distance, and who feel it not as a pretty thing, not as an opportunity for a nice picture, but as the ordinary setting for their lives. On the other side, the gray soot-spewing mills of a mushroom of a city, like Dickens’ Coketown, in the novel Hard Times, where a man is not a man but a “hand,” and where the schoolmaster, in his steam-boiler of an imagination, calls out, “Facts, facts, facts! Teach these children nothing but facts!” Dickens is at pains to show us that Coketown is a moral outrage on the imagination and the humanity of man – and it needs more than an amelioration of working conditions to mitigate the harm. And that is Wordsworth’s point too.
He does not indulge in the dilettante’s tiptoeing through the tulips. Nature for him is emphatically not an object of a tourist’s curiosity, or something to use to keep the boredom away. It is a world of mystery, even a kind of holy dread. Our problem is that “the world is too much with us,” and here it does seem that Wordsworth has in mind the warnings of Scripture, that if we stand with Christ, the “world,” not the beautiful cosmos God created, but the dull or the frantic pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power, prestige, and rank, will hate us. The poet Hopkins will say that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” but that electrical flame, that brooding of the Spirit over the bend of the dawn, persists despite man’s attempts to smudge it or snuff it out. But here, Wordsworth says that if he had to choose between being a modern man who is alien to the impulse of the divine in the creation around us, and being a pagan of old, before the advent of rationalist philosophy, who could feel the presence of a nymph in every rushing stream, and hear the sea-god Triton sounding his horn from the deep and dark waves, he would choose to be that pagan every time.
Those are not the only choices – obviously, and Wordsworth knows it. But he issues the challenge anyway, and he is earnest about it. Let us heed his call, and learn again how to cry out with the psalmist, “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!”
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-gathered 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.
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