On a beautiful evening, the speaker thinks that the time is “quiet as a Nun,” and as the sun sinks down on the horizon, “the gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea.” The sound of the ocean makes the speaker think that “the mighty Being is awake,” and, with his eternal motion, raising an everlasting “sound like thunder.” The speaker then addresses the young girl who walks with him by the sea, and tells her that though she appears untouched by the “solemn thought” that he himself is gripped by, her nature is still divine. He says that she worships in the “Temple’s inner shrine” merely by being, and that “God is with thee when we know it not.”
This poem is one of the many excellent sonnets Wordsworth wrote in the early 1800s. Sonnets are fourteen-line poetic inventions written in iambic pentameter. There are several varieties of sonnets; “The world is too much with us” takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, modeled after the work of Petrarch, an Italian poet of the early Renaissance. A Petrarchan sonnet is divided into two parts, an octave (the first eight lines of the poem) and a sestet (the final six lines). In this case, the octave follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, and the sestet follows a rhyme scheme of CDEDEC.
This poem is one of the most personal and intimate in all of Wordsworth’s writing, and its aura of heartfelt serenity is as genuine as anything in the Wordsworth canon. Shortly before he married Mary Hutchinson, Wordsworth returned to France to see his former mistress Annette Vallon, whom he would likely have married ten years earlier had the war between France and England not separated them. He returned to visit Annette to make arrangements for her and for their child, Caroline, who was now a ten-year-old girl. This poem is thought to have originated from a real moment in Wordsworth’s life, when he walked on the beach with the daughter he had not known for a decade.
Unlike many of the other sonnets of 1802, “It is a beauteous evening” is not charged with either moral or political outrage; instead it is as tranquil as its theme. The main technique of the sonnet is to combine imagery depicting the natural scene with explicitly religious imagery—a technique also employed, although less directly, in “Tintern Abbey.” The octave of the sonnet makes the first metaphorical comparisons, stating that the evening is a “holy time,” and “quiet as a nun / Breathless with adoration.” As the sun sets, “the mighty Being” moves over the waters, making a thunderous sound “everlastingly.” In the sestet, the speaker turns to the young girl walking with him, and observes that unlike him, she is not touched by “solemn thought” (details also appearing in the Immortality Ode). But he declares that this fact does not make her “less divine”—childhood is inherently at one with nature, worshipping in the unconscious, inner temple of pure unity with the present moment and surroundings.