Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Late and Soon

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!
The 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 wreathed horn.
     William Wordsworth, 1806

(To handle a nitpick first, I hate accented syllables as in wreathèd, hence I removed that accent grave above. When I entered college it was to study English Literature, but I abandoned that for History after a horrid course in Shakespeare early on when I discovered what that kind of learning actually portended—namely the reading of critics on critics on critics on literature light years distantly removed. Therefore I think I missed out formally learning that in early English poetry such syllables were actually sounded out. People read wreath-ed not wreathd. I made the discovery sailing solo through Spenser’s The Fairie Queene where you find lines like this one (plucked at random):

     Then called she a Groome, that forth him led

… a line in pentameter that demands that we read call-ed and not called. Therefore, up there, we hear old Triton blow his wreath-ed horn. Nitpicks sometimes take over, but I grow passionate about such things.)

What I wanted to say in comment is that Wordsworth’s leading phrase has taken such roots in our language that the unwary might think it biblical. And then those who, having forgotten what it might be all about, if they’d ever read it—one really wonders if such things are even read in school any more—thus curious about the poem itself, might then be slightly shocked (or thrilled) that it appears to promote pagan values, Pagan with a leading cap at that. That would be wrong as well, but indeed the world is too much with us, hence almost anything written is read in a polarized way. Now I propose that almost nobody actually understands that this poem is about Diet, about Nutrition.

Whoa! Hold it! Is that some lame joke slouching towards Broadway to be born? No, sir. I’m deadly serious. To use a genuinely biblical phrase, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.” And applying that teaching, Wordsworth is speaking of nutrition. The world that’s too much with us is the world of human fabrication—distraction from the meaningful, the high, that which gives us genuine life. We don’t even attend to Nature—which is God’s word in its most elemental form. Despites its roaring sound and howling wind and breaking surf it represents a kind of silence in midst of which we can perceive the still small voice that nourishes the distinctly human. The problem’s with us, late and soon, and has nothing to do with the times.


  1. Thanks for forcing us to stop and "understand" the roses....
    I mean, just pondering for a short spell a Sea who bares her bosom to the Moon: the eternal love-song of the monthly tides!... well, it certainly gives me a new appreciation of Wordsworth.

  2. The meaning you describe does come through reading this poem. Poetry does come through, almost despite our efforts...

    Nice post!


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