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!
The 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 wreathed horn.
There are lots of places I could have posted this poem besides the downspout of a bank: an office cubicle, grocery cart, dressing room of a clothing store, a subway car during commuting hours, the concierge desk at the mall, or the mouse of my computer. I’m amazed at how current this 204-year old poem is. Wouldn’t the phrase “a sordid boon!” be an excellent replacement for the longer and less poetic “BP oil rig disaster”?
(Like the BP oil spill, the poem is STILL THERE! I’ve walked past the bank three times in the last week and the scotch tape is holding steady.)
Wordsworth was considered revolutionary in his time for tossing aside the elevated language of traditional poetry in favor of everyday diction. Must have been some pretty fancy chatter in the village square back then because this is the type of poem that causes non-poetry readers to throw up their hands and say, “I don’t understand it.” So perhaps a short (and shallow, maybe even silly) summary is in order: *
We’re too consumed with material things/We aren’t fully human when we spend all our time earning money and spending it/We’ve don’t see ourselves as part of the natural world/ We’re building a man-made world at the expense of the natural world and the benefits are not worth it/ The ocean at night under the moon and the wind during a storm are like a bouquet given to us, but we fail to see the sublime beauty and power of it/I wish I could believe in the pagan gods of nature/so that when I stand in this beautiful meadow/I’d experience the divine in nature and it would make me feel less lonely/to see the awesome gods of the sea rising up.
Now that’s a 122-word argument for the power of poetry over prose.
Wordsworth wrote during the Industrial Revolution, and with his poems fought against changes that he felt alienated us from nature. (Imagine!—fighting with poems . . . shelling a city with limericks. . .equipping drones with sonnets. . .) We’ve long gotten used to the industrialized world; our struggle is with the virtual one. Of course, the phrase “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” still applies, especially in our uber-consumer culture, but if Wordsworth were writing the sonnet today, he would probably find a better way to say “profiling and surfing, we lay waste our powers.”
If we stop for one minute to consider the proportion of our time given over to getting and spending (or web-surfing or updating our facebook profile), an existential terror creeps in. What would we do with all our time if we weren’t getting and spending? An unlikely source provides an answer: Frank Gilbreth, an efficiency expert, a real life champion of industrialization, and hero of Cheaper by the Dozen.
Cheaper by the Dozen was a favorite book of mine as a young girl. (It has nothing to do with the movie! Repeat: nothing to do with the terrible movie!) I related to the huge family and the gruff but sweet father, and for some reason I’ve remembered the last line of the book. Someone asks Frank Gilbreth, who’s always trying to find the shortest, most productive way to perform tasks, what he’s saving time for. Here’s his answer:
“’For work, if you love that best,” said Dad. “For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure.” He looked over the top of his pince-nez. “For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.’”
*(for an alternative and much more intelligent reading of this poem, link to http://poemshape.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/the-world-is-too-much-with-us-❧-william-wordsworth/