Analysis Of William Wordsworth’s Poem The World Is Too Much With Us: Cry Of The Modern Man
The Romantic period is generally considered to have stretched from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. William Wordsworth emerged as a leading figure within this movement which was renowned for its intense reverence of the natural world. Wordsworth’s polemic “The world is too much with us”, first published in Poems, in Two Volumes (1807), is generally read as a lament of a world all too consumed with mercantile, materialistic values which has fallen out of touch with the natural world.
Karl Kroeber in his essay ‘A New Reading of “The World Is Too Much With Us”’ (Kroeber, 1963, pp.183) describes the conventional reading as “a lament for modern man’s failure to enjoy and appreciate nature”. Kroeber attempts ‘to remove the veil of familiarity’ as it has become ‘obscured’ in the public psyche. Similarly, this essay will try to expand upon the conventional interpretation of “The world is too much with us” as merely a lament expressing grief or sorrow against the modern world and put forward the argument that as it is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems the full breadth of emotions and nuances has become lost or unappreciated.
The expressions of grief and sorrow expressed within “The world is too much with us” are well established and clearly evident however a prominent vein of frustration and anger is also present throughout the poem. Wordsworth’s anger can be seen most through the startling and dramatic shift in tone created by the caesural pause and exclamatory plea “-Great God!”. The almost heretical nature of this plea to an unchristian “outworn creed” serves to emphasise the intensity of Wordsworth’s outrage at the injustice which surrounds him. Wordsworth’s feelings of heavy resentment are clearly evident within the exclamatory oxymoron “sordid boon!” which creates an indignant tone to convey Wordsworth’s resentment. Conversely, Tianyu Ma (Ma, 2017, pp.83) argues against using the modern definition of “boon” defined as “to have a positive effect on some entity” and instead “to simply disregard the word” in favour of a more archaic meaning that of a favour or request which results in a differing interpretation of the line.
However, the oxymoronic “sordid boon” should not be disregarded even if Wordsworth did not intend it to have this specific meaning. When interpreted as an oxymoron the term still has tremendous resonance in a modern world where technological advancements are perceived as a “boon” regardless of the “sordid” environmental price we must pay for them therefore perfectly encapsulating Wordsworth’s “forlorn” outlook upon modern man’s relationship to nature. Wordsworth employs a number of structural devices to allude to his feelings of enmity to the modern world. Wordsworth’s unyielding anger towards the “sordid” treatment of nature is emblemised through the employment of iambic pentameter which runs through the poem mimicking Wordsworth’s unwavering resentment.
Similarly, in a traditional Petrarchan sonnet a problem is proposed in the octave which is then resolved in the sestet. No such resolution is present in “The world is too much with us” since even when Wordsworth invokes ancient religions who had greater respect for nature he labels them as a “creed outworn ” and therefore Wordsworth’s animosity is expressed with complete unity and with no divergence hence reflecting the unequivocal nature of his anger. The culmination of these devices makes Wordsworth’s frustration and anger heavily apparent and hence shows that “The world is too much with us” as more than merely just a grief-stricken lament.
Despite clearly showcasing the emotions of grief, sorrow and anger Wordsworth is not wholly negative in “The world is too much with us”. Wordsworth does not simply present a requiem to the present but also includes a dream-like ode to the past. A soporific and dream like quality colours the ending of the sestet through the sibilant sounds evoked in the final three lines
“Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
Which starkly juxtaposes to the condemnatory octave which ends with the metaphor which declares that we are morally “out of tune” with the natural world. Furthermore, the use of the passive voice, “Have glimpses…/Have sight…”, creates distance between the reader and “Proteus” and “Triton” so as to cement the elusive and ethereal nature of the final mythical image which the poem ends on. Additionally, Wordsworth employs the sonnet form, a form heavily associated with the theme of love, in order to act as an allusion to Wordsworth’s romanticised view of the past. The slither of hope which Wordsworth sees in the past ensures that “The world is too much with us” is not a wholly negative lament but does in fact contain much to celebrate. Similarly, Wordsworth’s depicts nature as a restorative force and therefore it acts as an unobjectionably positive aspect within this sonnet hence making it far more complex than simply showcasing the emotions of grief and sorrow.
The employment of maternal imagery where the personified “Sea” “bares her bosom to the moon” clearly casts nature as a motherly force which holds strong connotations of tenderness and compassion thus portraying it as a restorative and caring force. This depiction of “Nature” in these terms starkly contrasts to the metaphorically “out of tune” modern society which is too consumed with “Getting and spending”. Similarly, the image evoked of the personified “Sea” with her “bosom” uncovered portrays “Nature” in an incredibly vulnerable position hence implying a sense of stoic victimhood. Despite having been mistreated by man she still metaphorically “bares her bosom” in an attempt thus colouring humanity in starkly negative terms whilst glorifying “Nature”.
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