In this poem, written by William Wordsworth in 1802, the speaker criticises the modern industrialised society, and how it has changed people’s perceptions and led to a loss of humanity and people’s connection with nature.
The Romantic Era
Wordsworth was one of the best known English poets of the Romantic Era along with William Blake, John Keats, Percy Shelly, Lord Byron and Wordsworth’s good friend, Samuel Coleridge. The Romantic Era (or Romanticism) was at its peak approximately between 1800 and 1850. It was a phenomenon that spread from Germany throughout Europe and Britain and eventually to North America. Romanticism was in part a reaction to the age of enlightenment, and the scientific revolution which preceded that. For the Romantics, this so-called ‘age of reason’ seemed to invalidate other genuine and valuable cognitive abilities including intuition, imagination, and particularly, emotion – which the Romantics admired.
One of the outcomes of the advance in scientific knowledge during the Enlightenment was the development of industrial technologies, as well as a greater focus on materialism. The Romantics saw the steady increase of industrial production as being an act of violence against both people and nature. As more and more people flocked to the early industrial centres of England during the industrial revolution which started in the late 1700s, the English poets of the romantic era were horrified with the filth, noise and inhumanity of the workers’ conditions both inside and outside the factories they worked in. Industry was replacing nature; the artificial was replacing the natural.
Consequently, in the early 1800s, Wordsworth wrote several sonnets criticising what he perceived as “the decadent material cynicism of the time.” One of those poems, “The World Is Too Much with Us” reflects Wordsworth’s view that humanity must get in touch with nature to progress spiritually.
The World Is Too Much with Us
By William Wordsworth
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.
Meaning of the poem
The poem explores how modernity has eroded not just people’s connection to nature, but also people’s sense of individual identity and agency. The poem suggests that modern city life has lead to a sort of uniformity of experience and that people have lost the ability to live naturally.
At the beginning the poem presents loss in the economic sense, and blames urban life for the change in people’s relationship with nature. Because the urban world has “too much” control over our lives, we are always “late and soon” or “Getting and spending.” This lifestyle comes at a price: it destroys our power to identify with nature, or to appreciate the world around us. By focusing their “powers” on material things, people lose awareness of their surroundings. By describing nature as something that can be owned or possessed, the poem implies that humans have lost the ability to think of their lives in anything but economic terms.
The poem next talks about spiritual loss. “We have given our hearts away,” it says. The price of material gain and industrial progress is the human heart itself, a symbol of life and emotion. In exchange, people receive a “boon”, but it is “sordid”, dirty and immoral. In exchange for industrial progress, people have reduced themselves to an almost less-than-human state. This reveals a sense of individual suffering and loss beneath sweeping societal change.
The final lines talk which looks out upon a limitless ocean horizon, might suggest the possibility of a fresh, more hopeful set of relationships between the individual, society, and nature. But if that’s the case, then it’s no more than that—a suggestion. Regardless of how the speaker goes on to change his or her perspective, the poem’s final tone is one of dejection.