Angrily, the speaker accuses the modern age of having lost its connection to nature and to everything meaningful: “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!” He says that even when the sea “bares her bosom to the moon” and the winds howl, humanity is still out of tune, and looks on uncaringly at the spectacle of the storm. The speaker wishes that he were a pagan raised according to a different vision of the world, so that, “standing on this pleasant lea,” he might see images of ancient gods rising from the waves, a sight that would cheer him greatly. He imagines “Proteus rising from the sea,” and Triton “blowing his wreathed horn.”
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 rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet is somewhat variable; in this case, the octave follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA, and the sestet follows a rhyme scheme of CDCDCD. In most Petrarchan sonnets, the octave proposes a question or an idea that the sestet answers, comments upon, or criticizes.
“The world is too much with us” falls in line with a number of sonnets written by Wordsworth in the early 1800s that criticize or admonish what Wordsworth saw as the decadent material cynicism of the time. This relatively simple poem angrily states that human beings are too preoccupied with the material (“The world...getting and spending”) and have lost touch with the spiritual and with nature. In the sestet, the speaker dramatically proposes an impossible personal solution to his problem—he wishes he could have been raised as a pagan, so he could still see ancient gods in the actions of nature and thereby gain spiritual solace. His thunderous “Great God!” indicates the extremity of his wish—in Christian England, one did not often wish to be a pagan.
On the whole, this sonnet offers an angry summation of the familiar Wordsworthian theme of communion with nature, and states precisely how far the early nineteenth century was from living out the Wordsworthian ideal. The sonnet is important for its rhetorical force (it shows Wordsworth’s increasing confidence with language as an implement of dramatic power, sweeping the wind and the sea up like flowers in a bouquet), and for being representative of other poems in the Wordsworth canon—notably “London, 1802,” in which the speaker dreams of bringing back the dead poet John Milton to save his decadent era.