Example of an 'A' Response to the Mid-Term Exam
October 29, 1998

Instructions: Write your response in ink and use an exam booklet. I ask also that you hand in this exam along with your blue book(s), though you should feel free to write all over this paper if you wish.

Provide me with a detailed reading of the following poem, paying special attention to such issues as the following: the reasons the poet chose the verse form he did; the relation between the form of the poem and its content; the effect of such stylistic devices as alliteration, assonance, regular, internal and slant rhymes, meter variation, caesuras, enjambement, line breaks, etc.; and the relation of the poem to its literary historical context. You may also comment on the design but be sure always to relate the design to the poem itself, which should always remain your focus.


from Poems in Two Volumes (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 coming from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Things to note about this response:

1) The paper has a clearly articulated thesis in the introduction, one that is developed in different ways in each of the paragraphs of the paper.

2) The student has used a good deal of textual evidence from the poem to support his/her case.

3) The student never rests at paraprase but always seeks to interpret the descriptions s/he provides.

4) The response not only pinpoints stylistic devices in the poem but explains their significance in relation to his/her thesis.

5) The essay clearly situates the poem in the Romantic period, discussing larger Romantic ideologies, specific social issues, and other Romantic documents, like Wordsworth's poetry and prose.

6) The paper has almost no grammatical and stylistic problems.

What few problems I find in this response I have jotted in red. Note that this essay does not represent the "right answer"; there are many different ways that one might approach the sonnet and many more things to be said about the poems' ideas and stylistic elements. Indeed, one could quite well read the same lines discussed here in different ways. The response represents just one of the many ways one might go about interpreting this particular poem. What distinguishes the response is that it's well supported, well structured, and well written.

"The world is too much with us" might almost be considered Wordsworth's credo. It certainly echoes, in both content and form, the ideas of his romantic manifesto, the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. All the ideologies for which he is best known—sublime, even violent natural forces as good and necessary, anti-materialism, the relationship between the subject and the outside world, and an almost pantheistic nature worship with the child as the priest—are present in this sonnet in full force. It is, perhaps more than any of his other works, a poem glorifying romantic poetry through deprecating its opposite.

Wordsworth's choice of that most regular of forms, the sonnet, emphasizes by contrast the numerous metrical variations he forces on it. These trochaic, dactylic, spondaic, etc. variations alienate the poem from the essential nature of a sonnet—just as people are alienated from nature, that ought to be an essential part of them. [excellent, but you need to spend some time pinpointing specific examples.] This lack of synchronization between the real sonnet and the idealized one makes the poem, like its subjects, "out of tune." The very sound of the poem thus echoes the lack of harmony between people and nature that Wordsworth so deplores. This gap between the subject and the object, people and nature, the specifics of the form and the essence of the form, must be closed. It is a misfortune that "little we see in nature that is ours"; we ought to be more interfused with it.

Wordsworth's pantheistic conception of nature, begins, as always, with appreciation of it in its most sublime and, indeed, violent forms. The things he says must be admired. This "sea that bares her bosom to the moon" and "the winds that will be howling at all hours" are very violent images, and their harshness is emphasized by the alliteration of the hard 'b' sound in the first line and the aspirated sounds ('w' and 'ow') in the second, which make it sound very like howling wind. Wordsworth's doctrine of the child as the priest that links mankind to this violent beauty is also present. He would rather, he says, "be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn," passively standing and observing his surrounding as a child does, than engage in the more adult-like but erroneous activities of "getting and spending."

The poem is also a tribute to Wordsworth's philosophy about the actual writing of poetry, that it should be "a spontaneous outburst of powerful feeling... recollected in tranquillity." The basically Petrarchan form of the sonnet (though the rhyme scheme is, again, irregular in the sestet to emphasize discord [explain further]) allows him to follow this procedure very closely. The octet is the "spontaneous outburst"; the feeling that "the world is too much with us" and "we are out of tune," bursts seemingly out of nowhere; his reflections appear to follow no order, but to be the result of an instant's inspiration. This reflection is, like all good romantic inspirations, a fragment; it breaks off in the middle of the line, and a caesura followed by the forceful spondaic apostrophe "Great God!" announce the sestet, the "recollection." It is presented as the more rational, philosophical conclusions he draws from the outburst, that even an infantile appreciation of nature, paganism, is better than no appreciation at all.

Wordsworth is able to condense a remarkable amount of romantic philosophy into this credo-sonnet. The form and content both exactly echo his beliefs.