Anyone who’s studied the English canon has likely been exposed to the famous daffodils in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” William Wordsworth was undoubtedly passionate about the natural world in general–it featured prominently in his poetry, and, together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, he was grouped rather disparagingly as one of the “Lake Poets,” living in the Lake District in Northern England and featuring it prominently in his writing.
As such, critics have accepted the vast majority of his work at face value: a commentary on the dwindling relationship between man and nature in the face of a rapidly industrializing world. Most interpretations rely heavily on the opinions of Wordsworth himself, and put his own ideals into direct conversation with his poetry. And while those themes are undoubtedly present in his poetry, there’s also potential there for other interpretations, with themes that may or may not have been intended by Wordsworth himself. Which raises the question: does it matter whether he intended them or not?
Among the most interesting debates in the world of literary theory and criticism is the concept of “the death of the author.” Presented by French critic Roland Barthes in his essay of the same name, the phrase refers to the idea that works should be viewed independent of their author–that is, once a work is published, whatever it says should speak for itself, regardless of the author’s intent, commentary, or personal experience.
Barthes’s essay is over fifty years old, but his argument is still relevant. Modern authors increasingly use social media or personal blogs to augment or amend their already published works. Readers are left to decide whether they want to consider these additions on their next read-through or disregard them entirely.
There are two sides to the argument. On one hand, because the author is the creator of the work, only the author knows what the original intention behind it was. In a sense, they “own” the text they put out into the world because they created it. But on the other hand, putting a work out into the world invites readers to interact with it however they choose. In a sense, it’s giving up that ownership, because the author no longer has control over outside interpretations. Which in turn raises some additional questions: do themes or ideas really count, if they’re not apparent to readers through the text alone? What if a work conveys a message that the author didn’t intend? Should we disregard that message entirely, because the author says so?
Which brings us back to Wordsworth.
Wordsworth wrote a series of poems in the early 1800s that are most often interpreted as a blatant criticism of a materialistic and increasingly industrialized world. The most famous of these is probably “The World Is Too Much with Us,” which on the surface appears to be a lamentation for the days when mankind appreciated the natural world. And it does seem likely that Wordsworth intended it to be read this way. But there’s something else there–an implied hypocrisy that could have been intentional, but just as well could have been accidental. Nevertheless, it is there.
Let’s start with the sonnet itself:
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.
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of critical interpretations have fallen in line with the most obvious meaning—that the speaker of the poem laments for romanticized bygone days when mankind was closer to nature. But I would argue that, stripped of our understanding of Wordsworth’s intentions, the poem can be read differently.
“The World Is Too Much with Us” is written in the form of an Italian sonnet, with two quatrains and three couplets. Traditionally, sonnets are centered around love, and the poem plays on this by mimicking themes common to work about unrequited love, with the object of the speaker’s affection being nature itself. In saying “this sea that bares her bosom to the moon,” it places nature itself in place of a desirable woman. But the speaker is not satisfied with this love, as he later expresses his wish for glimpses that might make him “less forlorn”.
This lays the foundation for the speaker’s hypocrisy. Unlike a lover, nature is a neutral party. It cannot return his love, nor can it reject it. In presenting the speaker’s musings in the form of a sonnet, Wordsworth–unintentionally or otherwise–lends the speaker’s words irony. If the speaker’s feelings are indeed unrequited, it is only because he has chosen to long for something inanimate. More on this later.
While the majority of the sonnet follows standard iambic pentameter, the second line deviates slightly, instead following an irregular meter that ends with a spondee on “our powers.” The emphasis lends greater impact to the words; it’s a key phrase that’s impossible to ignore. The speaker has now acknowledged that some inherent power is being wasted. The power in question is one’s ability to connect with nature, which means that while the speaker has admitted that he (and society as a whole–note “we” and “our,” not “I” and “my”) has the power to connect in this way, he is nevertheless wasting that ability.
Another key irregularity in the poem occurs in the ninth line. The rhythm of the sonnet is broken up in order to spondee the exclamation “Great God!” The force behind these words is important in analyzing the speaker’s hypocrisy. Although he claims the desire to be a pagan, he nevertheless cries out for the God of his contemporary world. It is not a literal plea to a deity, but rather an unconscious curse. The speaker is so firmly rooted in the culture he is surrounded by that even while claiming a desire to separate from it, he is still exhibiting the mannerisms of said culture. He is making no effort to distance himself from the world he claims to hate.
Returning to the structure of a traditional sonnet, the turn or volta comes ever so slightly late. While a typical Italian sonnet would shift at the beginning of the ninth line, Wordsworth delayed this until the end of the ninth line. At this point the speaker switches from using “we” and “us” and instead begins to use “I” and “me”. The lateness of the volta holds a dual meaning. While it seems to align with the speaker’s feelings of being too late to connect with nature, it also highlights his own laziness in pursing what he desires. He is slow and sluggish in any effort toward the life he desires to lead, and so even the turn of the poem is sluggish in its delivery.
The shift from “we” statements to “I” statements is also key in understanding the speaker’s hypocrisy. Prior to the volta, the speaker’s use of “we” statements is his way of unconsciously acknowledging that he is a participant in the greater problem. He knows on some level that he is complicit in continuing the behavior he claims to detest. However, he later transitions into “I” statements that only lament his situation, while taking no responsibility for his own action or involvement. The speaker ends the poem by attempting to make himself look like a helpless bystander, but he has already revealed too much. It is clear that he is part of the problem when he says toward the beginning, “we lay waste our powers” and “we have given our hearts away”, both of which imply a willing action. Nothing in his wording implies that his “powers” were taken from him, nor that he was forced to give his heart away—he chose to participate, and yet ends with complaint.
The final trick the speaker uses in effort to excuse himself from all responsibility is religion itself. The speaker has chosen a religion that is more or less considered “dead”—paganism—as a scapegoat for his own lack of action. He claims he would rather be a pagan in order to worship nature the way he desires, but simultaneously calls it a “creed outworn,” as if to blame his lack of effort in worshiping nature on the religion being dead. The speaker’s logic has become completely circular; he knows he cannot make excuses for himself much longer.
All of this ties back to Wordsworth’s intentions. If we regard the author’s opinion as trumping what is present in the text, then it seems likely that Wordsworth did not intend for his poem to come across as hypocritical. Or maybe he did. He’s not around to tell us–unlike certain modern authors who constantly amend their published works through Twitter or blog posts. But I think his work is all the more interesting for it. We can’t know exactly what he intended; we can only interpret what is placed before us.
That’s the inherent joy in the relationship between a reader and a text, and one that I think every author should keep in mind when creating their work. Of course, we all write for ourselves, to some extent. We all have our own messages we wish to convey and themes we want to highlight. But if we’re so concerned with ensuring things are interpreted exactly how we intend, we’re denying that relationship with the reader. And without the reader–without the subjectivity of outside interpretation–published works are stripped of their purpose altogether.