19 September 2005
My grandfather was raised on a beautiful ranch in Southern Utah. Majestic red cliffs overhang a winding river and rolling fields of sweetgrass. Every time that I visit “The Ranch” I feel like vitality is being poured into me, and the world seems a more complete place. It is, to me, a deeply religious experience. Similarly, I believe that William Wordsworth's poem “The world is too much with us”, despite first impressions, espouses the idea that religion is both a prerequisite and a consequence of truly experiencing Nature.
Wordsworth's description of nature as “This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon, / The winds that will be howling at all hours” is passionate, almost sexual (lines 5-6). It is obvious that Wordsworth has experienced the power that Nature can have over the human soul, and this poem is, in a sense, a lament over those who are unable to experience Nature in this way. It is also an examination of why his contemporaries seem unable to connect with Nature as he has. After his beautiful description of Nature’s power, Wordsworth describes how, “For this, for everything, we are out of tune; / It moves us not” (8-9). This passage is a poignant description of his sorrow at his society's inability to truly appreciate Nature. It also reinforces how vital Wordsworth considers an understanding of Nature to be to our understanding life, equating being out of tune with Nature as being out of tune “for everything” (8).
If “The world is too much with us” is indeed a critique of our inability to communicate with Nature, our first task is to determine the cause of this dissociation. Wordsworth directs our focus in the poem to his claim that he would “rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” (9-10). Wordsworth knew his audience, and intended this statement to be shocking and controversial. At first blush, he seems to be claiming that he would rather be a Pagan than a Christian, that the truths of Christianity are not worth the neglect of Nature that has accompanied them, that something about the nature of Christianity makes us unable to find power and sustenance through nature.
I believe that this interpretation is misguided, however, and distorts the intended meaning of the poem. Wordsworth's exaltation of Paganism is never directed in opposition to Christianity. In fact, his lament is actually a prayer, directed to “Great God!” (9). Wordsworth is not saying that he would rather be a Pagan than a Christian, but that he would rather be a Pagan with the ability to appreciate and gain spiritual power from Nature than a Christian who is unable to. His real point is to show, in a very dramatic manner, the primacy of Nature over religion. He is teaching his reader that the ability to experience Nature's power brings man closer to God than religion, even true religion, ever can.
And yet, the fact that Wordsworth chooses Paganism rather than Atheism as his alternate belief system is very telling. This choice shows that there is a deep connection between Nature and a personal religion. In seeing the beauties of Nature, he believes that as a Pagan he would see Proteus's or Triton's glory. To experience Nature, for Wordsworth, is to experience God. Wordsworth is not complaining that a belief in the Christian God incapacitates our ability to appreciate Nature. Rather, he is mourning the fact that his Christian society is unable to come to know God more intimately through Nature. In reality, rather than religion and nature being diametrically opposed, Wordsworth seems to intimate that religion is a necessary prerequisite to understanding Nature – even if that religious belief is Paganism.
Reading the poem in this way, religion, instead of being an obstacle, is an aid to experiencing Nature. We are led to ask, then, what is the obstacle that puts us “out of tune”, to which “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon” (8,4)? Rather than Christianity, it is materialism that strangles our ability to be moved by nature. As Wordsworth titles his poem, the “world” is what is too much with us; it is getting and spending that are the problem, not Christianity. The pursuit of materialism makes one unprepared for even the most dramatic of natural scenes. The Sea, capitalized and personified, baring her bosom – nature set out simply for the taking into our souls, ready to be “up-gathered now like sleeping flowers”(7) , does not move us. Even for Nature this obvious and open, materialism has put us out of tune.
If Nature and religious faith are viewed by Wordsworth as complementary, and I suggest that they are, then this poem is not only a lament for the loss of our connection with Nature, but also a lament for our loss of connection with God. A materialistic Christianity, despite her religious truths, is farther from God than a Paganism that recognizes and supplicates the power of Nature.
The point of “The world is too much with us”, then, is not a criticism of Christianity per se, but of the supposedly Christian societies that place getting and spending above Nature, and above Nature's God. What seems a sweeping condemnation may be actually a powerful reiteration of the Christian ideals of avoiding selfishness and worldliness. And what seems to be a poem about the futility of religion becomes a lesson on how to appreciate Nature's “glimpses that would make [us] less forlorn” through the necessary medium of religious belief (12).
Wordsworth, William. “The world is too much with us.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York, NY: Norton, 2000.