The Prelude – 2014 Version

—Was it for this,
The sun, the fair and golden orb, the fiery
And intermediate visitant between
The dawn and evening star – fair shepherdess
And lithesome light of that uncertain hour,
Fretful demesne, who navigates and steers
The brief, contiguous days and nights – benignant
Shone upon my face? For this, dids’t Thou,
O Moosilauke! surveyor of Vermont –
Though situate within New Hampshire – maintain
Thy place immovable through night and day—
Though nowhere near my beauteous birthplace—
Didst thou, host every season — spring and summer,
Autumn and winter – the days and weeks thereof
And hours—not one skipped—nor minute either
But every second each one antecedent
To that which followed after; didst thou
Compose my thoughts to more than pious poetry,
Bestowing, midst the unsuspecting dwellings
Of men, and seasonable women, thy dim
Implacable knowledge of mankind and Nature,
Of congress midst the hills and valleys,
Uplands and contrastive lowlands. When
Made visible above the slumbrous landscape,
Thy broad, immotive height observable—
A neighbor’s house, not mine, though oft half seen
Behind a cloud or two or sometimes more
Or not at all if rain fell bleakly earthward,
Or if by unintentioned choice I stood
With leafy branches of a Maple, Elm
Or Birch between myself and that same view—
Thou wast a Playmate. Oh! Many a time
Did I, a naked boy—not girl though oft
Accompanied by a naked girl— cavort
In sand, shallows and the swift, uproarious
Descent of waterfalls, made one long day
A lazing summer’s day with girls — plunged
And bask’d and plunged and bask’d again, first one
And then the other alternate all day
In one delightful Rill and then another,
Or cours’d their hillocks and their valleys, leaped
Into the groves of bushy groundsel; or
When visiting the lofty grounds of Dartmouth—
The radiant coeds bronzing on the Green.
Then stood I, hunter, on the Indian Plains
Alert, of stern determination, savage
Who aims his nocked and blading arrow midst
The buffalo. Was it for this?

  • This fragment of a later revision to The Prelude was recently discovered among the papers of a Mrs. M — who wishes to remain anonymous. The inks and papers have undergone rigorous testing and I am assured the fragment is not fraudulent but a heretofore unknown and final revision undertaken by the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth. I am pleased to offer the reading public a first glimpse of the sublime verse enclosed therein.

The Problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude

Amplificatio: The way in which style may elevate or depress the subject at hand… the first means of stylistic ornament, amplification or attenuation… (a) in the actual word employed to describe a thing… (b) by the four principle methods of amplification: incrementum, comparatio, ratiocinatio, and congeries. [Quintilian (VIII, iii, 90) from A Handbook of 16th Century Rhetoric p.28]

Amplification may refer to exaggeration or to stylistic vices such as figures of excess or superfluity (e.g., hyperbole). [Amplification. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved February 17, 2014]

I’ve been hankering for some beautiful blank verse that isn’t Shakespeare, so I thought I’d try reading, once again, Wordsworth’s 865350Prelude. I’ve been reading the Norton Critical Edition with its side by side printing of the 1805 and 1850 Prelude. Most seem to prefer the 1805 edition, but in terms of poetic quality, I occasionally find the 1850 version better — but not by much.

Here’s my problem with Wordsworth’s Prelude. I’m of the mind that Wordsworth is a second rate poet, but reading his Prelude convinces me that Wordsworth isn’t just a second rate poet who writes poorly but a third rate poet who only occasionally writes well.

The website goodreads offers several pages worth of  very interesting comments by readers. They’re mostly favorable, but there’s often this proviso:

I like a lot of Wordsworth’s poetry, and this is my second time reading The Prelude, and it’s still a bit of a slog to get through for me. There are beautiful, lovely passages, but then a lot of trudging through rambly boring ones that make me sleepy. [Comment by Claire]

Right. Exactly. Reading Wordsworth is mostly a slog and I’m going to explain why. First this disclaimer: I don’t read for content, which probably makes me a poor reader of Wordsworth. The poets’s philosophical views hold almost zero interest to me. I read for poetry. All the criticism I’ve read on The Prelude, so far, has focused on the work as exegesis rather than poetry. By contrast, the criticism of Keats’ Hyperion is commonly far more invested in the poetry. Keats’ Hyperion is appreciated as great poetry. I presently can’t think of any critic who would seriously contend that the Prelude stands comparison to Paradise Lost or Hyperion. It has its moments, but they’re few and far between.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to close my eyes. I’m going to slip the pages under my finger and open to a page at random — this so you don’t think I’ve deliberately chosen the dregs. And here we go. I’ve landed on Book Seventh lines 605-644 1805 (on the left side), 630-669 1850 version (on the right side). Pages 260-261 in the Norton Critical Edition. We’ll go with the 1850 version, since I can copy and paste it from here:

          Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed          630
          By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
          Until the shapes before my eyes became
          A second-sight procession, 1.) such as glides
          Over still mountains, 2.) or appears in dreams;
          3.) And once, far-travelled in such mood, a.) beyond
          The reach of common indication, b.) lost
          Amid the moving pageant, I was 4.) smitten
          Abruptly, with the view (a sight not rare)
          Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
          Stood, propped against a wall, upon his chest              640
          Wearing a written paper, to explain
          His story, whence he came, and who he was.
          Caught by the spectacle my mind turned round
          As with the might of waters; and apt type
          This label seemed of the utmost we can know,
          Both of ourselves and of the universe;
          And, on the shape of that unmoving man,
          a.) His steadfast face b.) and sightless eyes, I gazed,
          As if admonished from another world.

            Though reared upon the base of outward things,           650
          Structures like these the excited spirit mainly
          Builds for herself; scenes different there are,
          Full-formed, that take, with small internal help,
          Possession of the faculties,1.) --the peace
          That comes with night; 2.) the deep solemnity
          Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,
          3.) When the great tide of human life stands still:
          4.) The business of the day to come, unborn,
          Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;
          5.) The blended calmness of the heavens and earth,             660
          Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, 6.) and sounds
          Unfrequent as in deserts; 7.) at late hours
          Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains
          Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir,
          10.) The feeble salutation from the voice
          Of some unhappy woman, now and then
          Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about,
          b.) Nothing is listened to. But these, I fear,
          Are falsely catalogued; things that are, are not,

Right, so here’s the first thing that gets under my skin, Wordsworth’s pointless elaborating.

          Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look,

Not only has he looked but he has not “ceased to look”.

          By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,

It’s like a nervous tick. You can’t go more than 20 lines without Wordsworth essentially restating the same thing a dozen different ways. Do we really need to know that his thoughts are of what, whither, when,  how? No, we don’t. It’s just pointless babbling. From there, the reader descends into a miasma of convoluted phrasing rife with redundancies.

                        I was 4.) smitten
          Abruptly, with the view ( a sight not rare)
          Of a blind Beggar,

He was smitten. Well, if he was smitten, we don’t need to know that it was “with the view”. This is implied and redundant, but if you’re trying  to turn little ideas into a big epic, it’s apparently a good trick to be as wordy as possible. But even that’s not enough. He also has to tell us it was “a sight”. So now he’s given us the same information three times and then, finally, tells us what the object of the smiting, view, and sight was—”a blind Beggar”. What’s the blind beggar doing?

         Wearing a written paper, to explain
         His story, whence he came, and who he was.

Not a paper but a written paper. Do we really need to know it was a written paper. No, it’s a needless detail but it conveniently fluffs up the meter. And then what? The written paper explains his story. But if it explains the beggar’s story, doesn’t it stand to reason that it would also explain “whence he came, and who he was”? Isn’t that the point of “his story”? Does Wordsworth really need to add that it explains whence and who? No, it’s redundant.

Wordsworth then goes on to tell us, once again, that he is smitten, viewing, caught by, gazing at, the shape of the unmoving man (lest you thought the beggar burst into song). And then, just in case you didn’t get it the first time — the part about the beggar being “blind” — Wordsworth reminds us that the man’s eyes are “sightless”. Round and round we go.

And then he sets up his next several lines by elaborating on scenes differing (a pretentious Miltonic inversion) beginning with:

                            --the peace
          That comes with night;

Good, but Wordsworth can’t leave it at that. Now he’s going to natter on about sleep and peace (see above for the latter):

                             the deep solemnity
          Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,

The word deep is lazy — just a bland adjective Wordsworth threw in to keep the meter. Most of his adjectives are tossed in with the blithe indifference of metrical expediency. Solemnity is a vapid poeticism and “intermediate hours of rest” is a wordy abstraction with little poetic power. But Wordsworth isn’t done:

          When the great tide of human life stands still:

“Great tide of human life” is nothing short of a cliché, and writing that “life stands still” doesn’t improve matters. Next we’re going to get elaboration within elaboration:

          The business of the day to come, unborn,
          Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;

The phrase “as in the grave” elaborates on “locked up”, but is such an embarrassingly clichéd  addendum, and so artlessly tacked on, that if I were to read it aloud I could read it for laughs. But Wordsworth is just getting started:

          The blended calmness of the heavens and earth,             660
          Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, and sounds
          Unfrequent as in deserts;

More gratuitous elaboration. Do we really need to know about the “Moonlight and stars”? I thought “heavens” already covered that? (And notice how he uses moonlight instead of moon solely to keep the meter.)  And then, because he just can’t stop himself, he tacks on “as in deserts’, echoing the simple-minded simile “as in the grave”. But what makes it worse is the generic cliché-edness of the verse. And what really sinks the boat is that this kind of writing does nothing to advance the narrative. It makes reading the poem a slog because the reader has to spend two dozen lines listening to Wordsworth state and restate the same information with pseudo-poetic obviousness.

And as if all that uninspired piling on weren’t enough, Wordsworth launches the reader in a whole new direction, further adumbrating scenes different:

                                  7.) at late hours
          Of winter evenings, 8.) when unwholesome rains
          Are falling hard, 9.) with people yet astir,
          10.) The feeble salutation from the voice
          Of some unhappy woman, now and then
          Heard as we pass, a.) when no one looks about,
          b.) Nothing is listened to.

It’s not enough that the rains are “unwholesome”. The unwholesome rains are also “falling hard”.  The phrase “people yet astir” is blandly general. From there we descend into nonsensical stupidity. The phrase from the voice is utterly redundant.  Obviously, if one hears a salutation, then it stands to reason that the salutation is from the voice. Right? Wordsworth then throws in some metrical wordsworthfluffery with unhappy (another vacuous adjective).  It stands to reason that if the salutation is “feeble”, she’s probably not happy. But Wordsworth piles on more redundancies, adding: “now and then/Heard as we pass”. Once again, if the salutation was worth mentioning, then it was obviously heard. We don’t need to be told that he “heard it” (now and then as he passed). Wordsworth then gets so  tangled up in excess that the whole thing collapses into sheer contradiction. When no one looks about, he writes; but then that begs the question. If no one looks about, why the feeble salutation? And the salutations came more than once. They were now and then. Obviously the unhappy woman (and unnamed others who were astir) was looking about. Nothing is listened to, he writes. Well if nothing was listened to, then who did the hearing (now and then as they passed) and why the salutations?

There are just no two ways about it. It’s terrible writing. It’s terrible poetry. Even Wordsworth seems a little embarrassed:

But these, I fear,/ Are falsely catalogued

I can go to every single page of the Prelude and find more examples. It just doesn’t stop. Wordsworth is a veritable font of bad poetry — needless repetition, vacuous adjectives, pointless elaboration, redundancy, pretentious Miltonic inversions, metrical expediency, banal similes, non-sequiturs, double negatives, Latinate verbosity. You name it.

Wordsworth wasn’t entirely blind to his bad writing. The 1850 does make small improvements from time to time. the following is typical:

It hath been told already how my sight
Was dazzled by the novel show, and how
Erelong I did into myself return.
So did it seem, and so in truth it was —
Yet  this was but short-lived.

[The Prelude p. 102 1805Version  204-208]

The portion in italics is pointless. Wordsworth apparently agreed because he weeded out the blather in his 1850 rewrite:

It hath been told, that when the first delight
That flashed upon me from this novel show
Had failed, the mind returned into herself

[The Prelude p. 103 1805Version  204-206]

And that was that, almost, because then Wordsworth launches into another round of “excess and superfluity”:

          In climate, and my nature's outward coat
          Changed also slowly and insensibly.
          Full oft the quiet and exalted thoughts
          Of loneliness gave way to 1.) empty noise
          2.) And superficial pastimes; 3.) now and then
          Forced labour, 4.) and more frequently forced hopes;           210
          5.) And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
          Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
          And shook the mind's simplicity.--And yet
          This was a gladsome time.

This is the stuff of pure comedy. Each clause builds on the last adding more syllables and verbosity until, by the fifth clause, Wordsworth’s excess tumbles forth with an almost breathless panic:

And, worst of all, a treasonable growth
Of indecisive judgments, that impaired
And shook the mind’s simplicity.

Take a deep breath:

…yet/This was a gladsome time.

Indeed. It’s enough to leave a reader “insensible”. I’ve really come to the conclusion that the only reason Wordsworth is remembered for much of anything is due to the sheer volume of his output. If you write enough, if you’re a William Wordsworth (or a John Ashbery for that matter), you will eventually overwhelm your critics. You will also, like the broken clock, get it right twice a day.

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where  along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

[The Prelude Book Sixth Lines 624-640]

If only Wordsworth could have sustained more passages like this; and see here for a recently discovered fragment.

The world is too much with us ❧ William Wordsworth

This analysis is late in coming and is a request.

Work has picked up a bit. My three daughters each have baseball games. My wife just bought eight chicks. They’re in our claw foot bathtub (in a box), and I have about two or three weeks to build the chicken coop. (Maybe I’ll post some pictures of the coop).

Full Disclosure

William Wordsworth is not one of my favorite poets. In terms of his skills as a poet, his figurative language, descriptive language and meter sometimes feels too unimaginative or expedient. He wrote a tremendous quantity of poetry but  quality didn’t always keep pace. On the other hand, Wordsworth deliberately cultivated what he considered a low or plain style of diction closer to the parlance of everyday speech.

Reading his poetry after a century of free verse, which (in the hands of some poets) makes a concerted effort to sound as ‘mundane’ – as indistinguishable from every day talk – as possible, Wordworth’s poetry may sound as stiff and stilted as any other 19th century poet. But to the ears of his contemporaries, his poetry sounded markedly different. Part of Wordsworth’s frustration with the high style, as it was called, might stem from his unease with forms. His best poetry is found in blank verse, where he didn’t have to force phrase and thought into the constraints of a poetic structure. Milton, for much the same reasons, wrote Paradise Lost in blank verse rather than the, then standard, closed heroic couplets.

In his book Power, Plain English and the Rise of Modern Poetry, David Rosen finds an interesting example of Wordsworth’s struggle with formal demands – one passage from Juvenilia XVIa and another from Juvenilia XVIb. Respectively:

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground, no hearth
Of Traveller’s half-way house with its turf smoke
Scented the air through which the plover wings
His solitary flight.

§

No spade for leagues had won a rood of earth
From that bleak common, of all covert bare;
From traveller’s half-way house no genial hearth
Scented with its turf smoke the desart air,
Through which the plover wings his lonely course

If English isn’t your first language (and I get many non-English speaking readers) these two passages aren’t going to look (or sound) very different. But the first example has a much more colloquial feel to it. For instance: For the sake of rhyme, Wordsworth essentially compresses two lines into one line.

He changes:

The road extended o’er the heath
Weary and bleak: no cottager had there
Won from the waste a rood of ground…

Into

No spade for leagues had won a rood of earth
From that bleak common

The first feels more descriptive and discursive. The second, with its figurative language (the metrically necessary and monosyllabic spade substitutes for cottager) gives the poetry a more heightened and literary feel. Instead of no hearth Wordsworth (in the rewrite) again needs to satisfy both rhyme and meter. He adds the unnecessary adjective genial (unnecessary because it’s already implied by the context). Solitary flight turns into the less evocative but more literary lonely course.

Wordsworth, at his best, is found in blank verse. He found blank verse to be far more congenial in terms of a plain-spoken aesthetic. That said, the requested sonnet is one of his Miscellaneous Sonnets, numbered 33.


The Sonnet

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!
This 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 wreathèd horn.

One among many Interpretations — My own

I’ve noticed a common theme in the interpretation of this sonnet – one which is heavily influenced by modern preoccupations. For instance, the following excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2 describes Wordsworth as “[contrasting] Nature with the world of materialism and ‘making it.'” Wikipedia, echoes this interpretation by writing that  “Wordsworth wrote several sonnets blasting what he perceived as ‘the decadent material cynicism of the time.’ The world is too much with us is one of those works. It reflects his philosophy that humanity must get in touch with nature in order to progress spiritually.”

The Wikipedia article (as of May 28th 2010) goes on to say that the “poem is a statement about conflict between nature and humanity; the innate romance of the wild, and the spiritually crushing realities of the industrialized world,” and that “Wordsworth longs for a much simpler time when the progress of humanity was tempered by the restrictions nature imposed.”

Sparknote writes that “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.”

A later analysis at ENotes, apparently written after this post appeared and answering the question “what is the theme?”, seems to continue this trend. The contributor, identifying his or herself as a college teacher, writes:

“Although the poem opens by stressing that humans are involved in the “world,” that word in this context refers to the world that humans have created for themselves – the artificial environment of civilization, especially cities, an environment that cuts us off from nature as God created it. The “world” Wordsworth implicitly condemns is a “world” in which making money and spending money are crucial values.”

All the analyses, almost as though they were borrowed from each other, use eerily similar phrasing to describe what they perceive as Wordsworth’s alienation with 19th Century industrialization and burgeoning materialism. My own reading, however, is very different. I think they miss the point. It seems to me that all the analyses (online at least) gloss over some of the difficulties in the lines, difficulties which, if read literally, seem to assert something very different.

  • The world is too much with us

Take the first line or phrase:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending;

What does he mean by The world is too much with us?  And what does Wordsworth mean by the world? He doesn’t write, for instance, our world. If he had written our world, one might assert that he was making a distinction between the world of man (our world) and nature. But he doesn’t seem to make that distinction. He simply writes The world and  surely this includes nature? Why would Wordsworth (of all poets the most attuned to nature) write that the world (or nature) is too much with us? Starting with this first line, my reading is almost the opposite of every interpretation I’ve read! As I read it, the sonnet isn’t so much a lament for the loss of nature (to the harsh realities of materialism and industrialization), but a lament for the loss of the imagination to the harsh realities of nature itself! That is, Wordsworth’s conception of nature, in this sonnet at least, is very different from our own.

By the start of the 19th century, nature was no longer the place of mystery it always had been, filled with man’s animistic impulses, but increasingly the province of science and physical laws – think Copernicus, Lamarck, Newton, and eventually Darwin. It wasn’t nature that Wordsworth loved (not as we understand it) but what nature symbolized. It was the 19th centuries redefinition of nature that Wordsworth resisted. Contrary to Wikipedia’s assertion that “Wordsworth longs for… the restrictions nature imposed,” my own reading is that  Wordsworth decries the restrictions increasingly imposed by nature (or the world).

  • Late and soon

The world is too much with us” he writes. We have plumbed too deeply into the mysteries of nature and have become enmeshed in its mechanistic laws. What does he mean by “late and soon“? For the non-English speaking readers, the expression is non-standard English (and even gives English speaking readers pause). The compressed figurative language permits Wordsworth to work his thoughts into the tightly knit Sonnet form but makes a precise understanding tricky. Late is probably best understood as “in recent times” or lately. Late also carries the connotation, recently deceased; but it’s hard to square this meaning with anything in the poem. Soon can be understood in two senses. First, in the sense of the near future, which is how all the interpretations (I’ve read online) construe the word. There’s another meaning though: My belovèd Shakespeare Lexicon points out that soon could also be construed as meaning easily, readily, or likely. So, Wordsworth may be suggesting that nature (or the world) is too much with us lately, and will be more so with all too much facility as man’s knowledge continues to unlock nature’s secrets.

  • Nonsensical Punctuation (by modern standards)

One of the most devilish aspects of this poem is the punctuation. I would love to see the original to know whether the punctuation is Wordsworth’s or the meddling of Oxford editors (I’ve copied my own rendition of the sonnet from the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Wordsworth’s complete poems).  No reader of poetry should ever take a poem’s punctuation for granted. In other words, don’t assume the punctuation represents the poet’s intentions. Far too often, the self-appointed (read editors) assume they know better (than you) what the poet intended and give us no indication that they’ve altered the poem. That kind of presumptuousness irritates the hell out of me; and it’s one of the reasons I don’t like Norton’s student editions.

You will find copies of this sonnet elsewhere on the net with differing punctuation. I don’t know which of these  renditions comes closest to the original. I’ve searched online using facsimile as a search term, and the closest I’ve come is here – the Library of the University of Toronto.

Anyway… how to make sense of the punctuation?

Do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us – late and soon,
Getting and spending.

Or do we read it this way?

The world is too much with us.

Late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

So on and so forth. I’m tempted to read the lines as follows (my own punctuation in red)?

The world is too much with us. Late and soon,
Getting and spending,
we lay waste our powers. (or : or )
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

As it is, the poem’s punctuation (by modern standards) doesn’t work. According to The Little, Brown Handbook, for example, the semicolon should not be used to link subordinate clauses or phrases to main clauses (or to introduce lists), and yet this is exactly what the poem does. Among other uses, semi-colons separate main clauses. Secondly, the poem’s use of a colon after powers also doesn’t make sense. A colon is used to “introduce summaries, explanations, series, appositive ending sentences, long or formal quotations, and statements introduced by the following or as follows.” A reader could, perhaps, construe Little we see in Nature that is ours as explaining the statement we lay waste our powers (hence the colon or dash), but the fourth line We have given our hearts away sounds more like a summation rather than an explanation.

Anyway, all this is to say that by modern standards the poem’s punctuation is nonsensical. None of my suggestions are offered as improvements, only as interpretive possibilities.

  • Getting and spending.

It’s this phrase that reminds us of Wordsworth’s distaste for materialism or commoditizing. Most interpretations read this as representing society’s (and his own) alienation from nature. My own reading is different. Keeping in mind the first line of the sonnet, The world is too much with us, Wordsworth seems to be saying that nature has betrayed us. That is, this isn’t a poem about Wordsworth yearning for a return to nature, but a  feeling that nature has betrayed him. After all, what *is* the world, if it isn’t nature? In this light the sarcasm and anger (heard by some readers) takes on a very different subtext. The anger is that of the betrayed. Nature is not the thing Wordsworth imagined it, but an indifferent world ruled by hard, fixed laws.

Think of it this way – nature isn’t what he imagined it was. It’s not a magical place imbued with sense and purpose. In this sense, the phrase Little we see in Nature that is ours makes more sense. Everything that we used to see in Nature — purpose, moral design, divinity  — are no longer there. Nature has become  an indifferent force. What the human mind superimposed on nature (that is ours) is gone. Such visions have turned out to be illusions. There is little in nature that has any connection to our humanity: our sense of purpose or destiny. Human beings are alone. Our imaginative lives mean nothing to nature. Our preconceptions and conceptions are irrelevant – and that is death to the poet.

Likewise, we are ourselves, creatures of nature, use nature indifferently. We get and spend. The word spend, having the sense of consuming, wasting, using up and exhausting. We acquire but we also dissipate in doing so. We have given our hearts away, Wordsworth laments. And by hearts, he means the soul and the mind (in general). The Shakespeare Lexicon tells us that the older meaning of the word included “the mind as the power of thinking”.

  • The Painting above and left is by Jean Neely. She hosts a blog called Faint Whisper: A Record of my Art. The painting is titled Fall Grasslands but could just as easily have been titled The Pleasant Lea –  lea refers to open land or grasslands. Neely’s paintings are beautiful. Take a look.

Wordsworth is warning us that by becoming too much like nature, we lose the very thing that makes us human – our capacity to moralize, find purpose, to imagine and imbue nature with more than is there. A reader at Helium writes:”They are not as close to nature as they should be.” I read just the opposite. Wordsworth is warning us that we are too close to Nature (or rather, what Nature has become). Nature (or the world), as the 19th century was beginning to unravel it, was robbing humanity of its poetry.

This 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.

Pay attention to how Wordsworth describes the Sea. She is a woman her bares her bosom to the moon. This is the poet’s Sea. This is what he means by seeing in Nature what is ours. The metaphor of the Sea as a woman baring her bosom, gives to the Sea a purpose, a vision, and moral that is human and ours. And this has nothing to do with Nature. It is uniquely ours. Likewise, the winds don’t blow but howl, and they are up-gathered — a verb that bestows a humanly imagined purpose and intent.

The Sea, the moon, and the winds are like magical beings, filled with intelligence.

“I’d rather be a pagan…”

But we are out of tune. The hard fact of Nature has robbed us of what makes us human – our imaginative faculties. We are out of tune. Nature instructs us to be coldly indifferent. The world/Nature is too much with us. Humanity needs to return to its imaginative/visionary realm. That is our humanity.

— 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 wreathèd horn.

Wordsworth’s cry, that he’d prefer to be a Pagan, is sometimes read as religious commentary (a critique of Christianity perhaps) but within the confines of the sonnet (as I read it at least) such a reading doesn’t make sense. Christianity was no friend of the burgeoning sciences – having nearly burned Galileo at the stake.  The materialism of science, if nothing else, relentlessly undermined the Christian worldview. At first glance, Wordsworth would have more reasons to prefer Christianity.

But as I read it, his cry is the extreme. He cries to God that he would rather surrender his soul, risk the eternal damnation of a heathen, than surrender his poet’s (and human) vision of Nature.

“Proteus rising from the sea…”

And it’s in this sense, to me, that the last lines make the most sense. The sight of Proteus rising from the sea is the vision of a poet and, by extension, symbolic of humankind’s ability (and need) to imbue Nature with what is ours. There’s another sense of the Pagan that might pertain. The Pagan’s view of the world was thought to be simple and naïve – an animistic view of the world that modern science was thoroughly and finally demolishing. In this wise, Wordsworth is asserting that he prefers a Nature that is ours, informed by the poet’s imagination, to Nature as it is (or as recognized by science and modernity). The vision of Proteus and Triton thus carries the sense of the poetic imagination and antiquity (ancient knowledge and ways of knowing).

The anthropomorphic/animistic/symbolic/archetypal universe of the poet/heathen makes Wordsworth feel less forlorn. To me, that this sonnet might not be an anti-industrial screed, but a cry to preserve the mystery of poetry within our world, makes the poem all the more tender.

All in all, it’s a recurring theme in Wordsworth’s poetry. Consider his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. The ode begins:

I

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

“old triton…”

II

The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

In the fifth canto the ode continues:

…The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I think it’s in this sense that we are meant to understand the sonnet. Wordsworth is not calling for a return to Nature, but for a return to a visionary Nature that is distinct from the world and Nature. And that, I know, is very different from the usual interpretation of this sonnet.

The Scansion

  • All unmarked feet or Iambic. In the seventh line, I failed to mark are in |And are| as unstressed (though the pyrrhic color scheme – yellow – is correct).

Wordsworth’s metrical skills are more utilitarian than imaginative. He in no way compares to such Elizabethan masters as Donne, Jonson or Shakespeare. By the 19th century meter was simply the recognized scaffolding on which a line was fitted. Meter, as a living and developing facet of the poem’s art, was increasingly stultified (to be freed by the modernists at the start of the 20th century – poets like Frost and Stevens).

The world | is too | much with | us; late |and soon,
Getting |and spen|ding, we |lay waste |our powers;

The word powers can be pronounced disyllabically or as a monosyllable. The first foot of the second line is Trochaic. What is of more interest, perhaps, is how Wordsworth sometimes stretched (or chaffed against) the constraints of meter with his more colloquial diction.

Little |we see |in Na|ture that |is ours;
We have given |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

That fourth line is tricky and could be read as an alexandrine (a 6 foot line):

We have |given |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

This is probably not how Wordsworth would have scanned this line within  the space of an Iambic Pentameter Sonnet. Here is what he probably had in mind:

We’ve giv’n |our hearts |away, |a sor|did boon!

Such elision was a commonplace in metrical poetry (or call it a trick). But this is what Wordsworth probably intended. (As a general rule of thumb, if one can read a line as Iambic, then one probably should. Poets generally took pride in their ability to write metrical poetry, even while stretching the form.) This form of elision is called synaloepha in the first instance We’ve (despite the aspirated ‘h’), and syncope (giv’n) in the second instance. Both techniques go back to the Elizabethans and, while some purists may have (and still do) frown on such metrical cheats, they were recognized ways to fit extra-syllabic words into an Iambic Pentameter line. The line, in fact, is typical of Wordsworth’s flexible approach to meter and actually puts him closer to Robert Frost (who was born just 24 years after Wordsworth’s death) than to Keats or the later Victorians (who were much stricter metrists).

This Sea |that bares| her bo|som to |the moon,
The winds |that will|be how|ling at |all hours,
And are |up-ga|thered now |like slee|ping flowers,
For this, |for e|verything,| we are out |of tune;

Speakers naturally elide every to read ev’ry – another example of syncope.  The third foot |we are strong| could be considered either an anapestic foot (probably less likely), or an Iambic foot if the reader uses synaloepha to read we are as we’re. Once again, Wordsworth lets the language bend the metrical pattern without, necessarily, breaking it.

It moves |us not.|–Great God!| I’d ra|ther be
A Pa|gan suc|kled in| a creed |outworn;
So might |I, stan|ding on |this plea|sant lea,
Have glimp|ses that |would make |me less |forlorn;

Have sight |of Pro|teus ri|sing from |the sea;
Or hear |old Tri|ton blow |his wrea|thed horn.

The wreathed should be pronounced as a disyllabic word: wreathèd.

The Sonnet is Petrarchan in form – an Octave and Sestet separated, in this case, by a volta (a kind of thematic ‘turn’ or change in course). The Petrarchan form feels less like the working out of a argument or thesis than a Shakespearean Sonnet and lends Wordsworth’s sonnet a more contemplative closing (as opposed to the epigrammatic sting that characterizes the closing Shakespearean couplet). Where the Shakespearean Sonnet can be thought of as a argumentative tour de force , the Petrarchan Sonnet always feels more philosophical and contemplative – and certainly Wordsworth was more philosophical minded than Shakespeare – whose mind was agile and swift.

Wordsworth at his best

In the course of writing this post, I pulled out Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets just to reacquaint myself with Wordsworth’s life and reception. On page 373 Schmidt relays a passage from the Prelude, of which there are three versions and which many consider to be Wordsworth’s finest piece of sustained writing (generally the second version). The brief sample is truly Wordsworth at his finest.  He is remembering is youthful traversal of the Austrian and Italian Alps.

The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of water-falls,
And every where  along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds, and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.