June 1, 2009
“The World Is Too Much With Us”
by Pastor George Van Alstine
Ever since I first heard this line of poetry in a college English Literature course, it has haunted me. Sometimes it comes up from my unconscious to express an otherwise indescribable world-weariness, when life seems to be just too much for me. It’s like a cosmic sigh.
This is the opening line of the most famous sonnet by William Wordsworth, an early English romantic poet. He wrote it in about 1802.
When I reread the whole poem, I find that it has a meaning quite different from the sigh from my unconscious. For Wordsworth, “the world” seems to represent the human activities that fill our days. While we are busy doing what we call “living”—eating, conversing, earning, sleeping—, we are missing the beauty and order and wonder of Nature:
“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 . . .”
He describes the awesome effects of the sea and the winds in storms, and by contrast, in times of calm:
“For this, for everything, we are out of tune,
It moves us not . . . .”
In the last few lines, Wordsworth laments the fact that his Christian faith has not taught him to celebrate Nature as well as the pagans do through their gods—even though he supposedly worships the “Great God” who is over all of Nature.
Though this poem was written over two hundred years ago, it speaks with surprising clarity to our modern world. Wordsworth sounds like a prophet of today’s environmental challenges. Preoccupied with material pursuits, our society and economic system have been amazingly and dangerously “out of tune” with Nature.
The same prevailing materialism has a profound effect on our personal lives as well. The cultivation of our spiritual side through prayer and meditation seems always to be a struggle, because “the world is too much with us.”
Jesus warned his followers about this. He said that the Word of God is like seed that sprouts in our lives. In the case of many of us, these spiritual seedlings are “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” with the result that our “fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). The Apostle John wrote that “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of riches . . . are passing away, but those who do the will of God [love the spiritual rather than the material] live forever” (1 John 2:16-17).
What are Wordsworth’s words worth? (Couldn’t resist!) As with all true poetry, the phrase says much more than the sum total of its words. Try saying the line over several times, with your own life in mind:
“the world is too much with me.”
The first time you say it, emphasize “the world”; think of what most allures and distracts you.
The second time you say it, emphasize “too much”; think of the constant bombardment of materialism coming at you.
The third time you say it, emphasize “with”; not “in,” fortunately; but just how close to the center of your being does the world encroach?