3

I have two questions regarding this sonnet by William Wordsworth, first published in 1807:

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 wreathed horn.

First, does this mean that the writer wants to be a pagan? What does the line mean:

A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.

Second, in this pair of lines:

so might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.

Is the poet 'standing on this pleasant lea' in his imagination, or in the future?

4
  • 1
    A pagan suckled in a creed outworn means he wants to have been born to a pagan family (suckled) who believed in archaic Gods (creed outworn).
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 9 '20 at 16:15
  • Reagarding standing on a pleasant lea?
    – Faizan Bashir
    Feb 9 '20 at 16:41
  • 1
    English grammar actually doesn't tell you whether that phrase is imaginary or future. You'll have to base that on your understanding of the poem. But since the previous phrase is imaginary (Wordsworth is not going to go back in time and be raised by a family that believes in the Greek gods), one presumes this one is, as well.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 9 '20 at 16:46
  • 1
    @PeterShor: The fact that the pagan creed is specifically identified as outworn strongly implies that the poet doesn't wish he'd been born into such a family. It's just that the alternative (being too much preoccupied with the physical world at the expense of "spirituality") is so much worse. So it's a case of making the best of things.
    – FumbleFingers
    Feb 9 '20 at 16:49
2

TL;DR: The speaker does not actually want to be a pagan.

In this sonnet, the octave describes the spiritual inadequacy of modern life, and the sestet describes a more attractive but still untenable alternative. The question that is implied by the poem is thus: since we have lost our spiritual relationship with Nature, and since we cannot go back to paganism, what must we do instead?

This rhetorical structure was clearer to Wordsworth’s contemporary audience (see quote below), who were living in a Europe that had been solidly Christian for centuries, the last pagans having been exterminated or forcibly converted in the Northern Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, their religious rites and practices lost and forgotten. Wordsworth’s use of ‘outworn’ meaning ‘wasted, destroyed, or obliterated by the action of time’ (OED) makes it clear that however attractive he might find the idea, of standing on a meadow by the sea and watching for Neptune in the waves, it’s not a realistic answer to the question posed by the poem.

The latter part of this sonnet has been misapprehended by some persons, who have supposed that pagan superstitions were commended absolutely, and not merely as being better than a total absence of devotional and natural sentiment. All that Mr. Wordsworth contends for, is a preference for Triton or Proteus to Mammon.

Henry Taylor (1849). Notes from Books, p. 154. Quoted in David M. Main, ed. (1881). A Treasury of English Sonnets, p. 372. New York: R. Worthington.

1

Suckled here means 'raised', or 'brought up '. Outworn means old-fashioned or outdated. So it means 'I'd rather be a Pagan brought up in an outdated religion'.

So might I means "then (or thus) might I". But 'So' also has a sense of 'if'.

"I had been happy if the general camp,/Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body./So I had nothing known."[Othello 3, iii]

Othello was written 199 years earlier: a shorter span than from the composition of the sonnet to 2020. Wordsworth may well have known the usage.

So the meaning is either:

I'd rather be a Pagan; then I would be allowed glimpses... or
I'd rather be a Pagan; if that would allow me glimpses...

'Does this mean that the writer wants to be a pagan?' Yes! But in the second interpretation, only IF he'd be allowed glimpses of the gods.

'Is the poet standing on this pleasant lea in his imagination, or in the future?' He says he is standing on it now: longing for glimpses of the gods right here.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy