Monday, April 13, 2009

The World Is Too Much With Us by William Wordsworth

Yesterday's poem was Emily Dickinson's "It's All I Have to Bring Today", the mere mention of which makes me yearn to go back and read the entire poem again. It is, after all, only eight lines long, but oh the beauty and unspoken longing inside those eight lines. But I digress. At first I tried to think about poems that referenced bees or clover, which play such a prominent role in the second half of the poem. But I found myself drawn back to the first four lines of the poem, which are the reason I so love that particular bit of Dickinson: "It's all I have to bring today—This, and my heart beside—This, and my heart and all the fields—and all the meadows wide." And I started thinking about giving away one's heart, and from there, my choice became obvious, and I selected one of my very favorite Wordsworth poems,* which contains the phrase "we have given our hearts away" in the fourth line (and refers to a meadow, or "lea," in line 11).

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.

*I acknowledge that I have an inordinately large number of "favorite poems" per poet, for which I make no apology. Today's selection is, among Wordsworth's poems, definitely top 10, and probably within the top 5. I memorized the first 4 lines of this poem when I first fell in love with Wordsworth in high school.

Form and discussion: The poem is an Italianate sonnet. If you spotted that without me telling you, then you win one point. If you realized that Wordsworth was working with iambic pentameter, then bravo to you, and take another point. If you spotted that the rhyme scheme is ABBAABBACDCDCD without me first telling you, then you may take yet another point.

Like all good sonnets, this one contains a volta, or a "turn". The turn occurs in the middle of the ninth line of the poem, with the words "Great God!" In the first 8-1/2 lines, Wordsworth talks about how modern man is out of tune with Nature, and is caught up in the world of materiality. (Mind you, "modern man" for Wordsworth lived in the early 19th century, yet 200 years later, I think this poem still rings true.) With his impassioned exclamation ("Great God!"), Wordsworth evinces disgust with being caught up in the materialistic world in which he dwells, and announces a break with the world of "getting and spending", finishing the thought with "I'd rather be a Pagan". The remainder of the poem is spent demonstrating that were he a Pagan, he'd be paying more attention to nature: standing in the meadow, looking at the sea, he'd be envisioning Proteus (a god able to take many forms) or Triton.

In the early 19th century, the phrase "Great God!" was used only in cases of extreme agitation, and while not blasphemous, was not the sort of thing one said unless severely vexed or dismayed. More particularly, in early 19th century England, which was decidedly Church of England-driven, one did not go about wishing to be Pagan (and thereby impliedly rejecting the church and also, by further implication, the state with which it was so tightly bound). Therefore, saying "Great God! I'd rather be a Pagan" was pretty strong stuff, and would decidedly have gotten people's attention (while indicating the extent to which the speaker was upset).

William Wordsworth was one of the first of the so-called Romantic poets. His early Romantic poems were included with those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1798 publication, Lyrical Ballads. While references to nature and use of metaphor are common devices in modern poetry, they are used in part because Wordsworth came along and wrote in the way that he did, with a reverence for and appreciation of nature, and with a focus on emotional response to nature and other stimuli. Wordsworth's poems focused on emotion, ideas and sentiment as much as they did on the natural world, often with some interconnectedness. Even today, I think they tap into many contemporary issues, which is pretty great for two hundred year-old poems.

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Percy Bisque Silley said...

Correction: The original title of the work was "Lyrical Salads."

As to the poem you have cited, tis meet and well, yet I prefer his less celebrated "Strange Fits of Passion I Have Known," again with an eye to the title.

The Title, Madam! The title tells the tale; tis Far more than a titular thing.

Kelly Fineman said...

Brilliantly spoken, sirrah.