The speaker addresses the soul of the dead poet John Milton, saying that he should be alive at this moment in history, for England needs him. England, the speaker says, is stagnant and selfish, and Milton could raise her up again. The speaker says that Milton could give England “manners, virtue, freedom, power,” for his soul was like a star, his voice had a sound as pure as the sea, and he moved through the world with “cheerful godliness,” laying upon himself the “lowest duties.”
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). The Petrarchan sonnet can take a number of variable rhyme schemes; in this case, the octave (which typically proposes a question or an idea), follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, and the sestet (which typically answers the question or comments upon the idea) follows a rhyme scheme of BCCDBD.
The speaker of this poem, which takes the form of a dramatic outburst, literally cries out to the soul of John Milton in anger and frustration. (The poem begins with the cry: “Milton!”) In the octave, the speaker articulates his wish that Milton would return to earth, and lists the vices ruining the current era. Every venerable institution—the altar (representing religion), the sword (representing the military), the pen (representing literature), and the fireside (representing the home)—has lost touch with “inward happiness,” which the speaker identifies as a specifically English birthright, just as Milton is a specifically English poet. (This is one of Wordsworth’s few explicitly nationalistic verses—shades, perhaps, of the conservatism that took hold in his old age.)
In the sestet, the speaker describes Milton’s character, explaining why he thinks Milton would be well suited to correct England’s current waywardness. His soul was as bright as a star, and stood apart from the crowd: he did not need the approval or company of others in order to live his life as he pleased. His voice was as powerful and influential as the sea itself, and though he possessed a kind of moral perfection, he never ceased to act humbly. These virtues are precisely what Wordsworth saw as lacking in the English men and women of his day.
It is important to remember that for all its emphasis on feeling and passion, Wordsworth’s poetry is equally concerned with goodness and morality. Unlike later Romantic rebels and sensualists, Wordsworth was concerned that his ideas communicate natural morality to his readers, and he did not oppose his philosophy to society. Wordsworth’s ideal vision of life was such that he believed anyone could participate in it, and that everyone would be happier for doing so. The angry moral sonnets of 1802 come from this ethical impulse, and indicate how frustrating it was for Wordsworth to see his poems exerting more aesthetic influence than social or psychological influence.