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?

  • 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
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 16:15
  • Reagarding standing on a pleasant lea?
    – Faizan Bashir
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 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
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 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
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 16:49

4 Answers 4


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.


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.


I think what he means is that he'd rather be a pagan than be like modern men. He'd rather be a part of an outdated religion, and have simple beliefs than to be like modern men, so 'advanced' that they forget the beauty of nature.

Since he says 'Great God,' he refers to a single God and hence obviously has religious beliefs already. Wanting to be a pagan means he admits pagans did have little knowledge and were not aware of the 'religious truth.' But he'd rather be ignorant, so that he could actually feel the need to observe nature for himself. So his ignorance would be a means of connection to nature. So he'd look for answers himself and try to see the 'gods.'

So he'd rather be ignorant, inspired, and in awe, making gods out of natural things and glorifying and praising nature (such as Proteus from the waves) than to ignore it and shun it as the modern man does.


In the sonnet's two quatrains, Wordsworth is saying that we have become so preoccupied with everyday concerns that we are "out of tune" with nature. The sestet suggests a different relationship with the world.

"Suckled" literally means nursed, like from a mother's breast, but here used figuratively.

"Creed" here means belief or faith.

"Outworn" (the past participle of "outwear") means out of date or antiquated. This does not imply that this faith was exterminated by violent means such as crusades. In fact, it implies that people still know this faith once existed, only that that faith's god or gods are no longer worshipped.

"Would rather" is a phrase expressing that "one state of affairs is preferable to another" (Carter and Mccarthy, page 669).

In other words, Wordsworth is saying "he'd rather by a pagan raised in an outdated faith".

A "lea" is an open field or meadow.

"Forlorn" has several meanings, including "lonely" and "miserable". Both meanings are probably at work at the same time.

Rewording Wordsworth's lines in a somewhat less poetic way, we could say,

(…) I would rather be
a pagan raised in an outdated faith
so that I could, [while] standing in a pleasant meadow,
have brief looks / faint ideas that would make me feel less miserable.

Proteus and Triton in the last tercet are Ancient Greek sea gods.

Wordsworth seems to be saying that if he had been raised in the Ancient Greek faith (and sucked it in like mother's milk, an expressly natural image), he wouldn't be so out of tune with nature. However, the phrases "I'd rather be" and "so might I" imply that this is something he cannot or does not realise (see the grammatical concept of irrealis mood. He is stuck in his current faith, which is illustrated by his invocation "Great God". This is presumably the God of Christianity, which does not even tolerate belief in other gods, which the Bible condemns as false gods.

Sources (Excluding Wiktionary)

  • Carter, Ronald; McCarthy, Michael: Cambridge Grammar of English: A Comprehensive Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

P.S.: Contrary to what one of the other answers says, the wish for a faith that would (in the poet's mind) bring people closer to nature is not necessarily a choice for ignorance. In July 1827, William Hazlitt quoted the sonnet's last six lines in his essay On Reading New Books. In this essay, he criticises the idea that culture had been dormant or underdeveloped before the French Revolution:

About the time of the French Revolution, it was agreed that the world had hitherto been in its dotage or its infancy; and that Mr. Godwin, Condorcet, and others were to begin a new race of men—a new epoch in society. Every thing up to that period was to be set aside as puerile or barbarous; or, if there were any traces of thought and manliness now and then discoverable, they were to be regarded with wonder as prodigies—as irregular and fitful starts in that long sleep of reason and night of philosophy. (…) There is nothing I hate more than I do this exclusive, upstart spirit.

This is followed by the lines from Wordsworth's sonnet. Hazlitt then also adds, "By despising all that has preceded us, we teach others to despise ourselves." Hazlitt is talking about something completely different than being in touch with nature. However, the reason why I mention this essay is the stance that Ancient Greek culture can't simply be equated with ignorance.

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