In the age of technology and computers, materialism is a preoccupation that probably impacts our life in one way or another. It refers to the universe as being comprised entirely of material objects without any spiritual or intellectual components (“Materialism”). An initial impression from William Wordsworth’s poem “The world is too much with us”, published in 1807, implies that the author would rather have a Pagan religion worshiping the Greek gods as natural forces than being completely untouched by nature because of worldly materialism.
The second impression of Wordsworth’s poem conveys a deeper realization of the author. As a romantic, Wordsworth describes the bleak effect of neoclassicism on humanity throughout his poetry.
Romanticism is recognized as a “philosophical, literary, artistic, and musical movement” of the 18th century (Frein 20). It is further attributed as the reaction to neoclassicism’s overwhelming obsession with rationality and fine detail (Egan 64). Romanticism was presented as an exciting new awaking in the literary world inviting exploration of human experiences (Egan 64).
It opened a new understanding of the human mind with the realization of its creativity and insight (Frein 2). Romanticism encouraged “values of individuality, creative expression, empathic understanding, and social transformation” (Frein 18). Opposed to neoclassicism, romanticism explores human emotion and seeks to find the meaning of life.
Neoclassicism enjoyed an overemphasis on perfection and primarily appealed as a “stylistic novelty” (O’Byrne 98). Rather than having any meaning full value, neoclassicism focused on the order, classification, and perfection of objects and ideas. Robert Rosenblum, a late art historian describes neoclassicism as a “largely lamentable episode that slowed the pulse of Western art with static rhythms and glacial temperatures of Greco-Roman models unfeelingly imitated” (qt.
in O’Byrne 98). Neoclassicism seeks to obtain “greatness through the thorough reformation of art” (O’Byrne 98). There is nothing creative or unique about neoclassic art and literature. It is the creation of cold calculations and strict formulations which bow to the desires of a certain style.
To obtain a solid understanding of Wordsworth’s poem, one must understand the meaning of his first line, “The world is too much with us: late and soon”, this can be understood as we are too involved or obsessed with the world (1). “Late and soon” can be taken as a reference from John Keats’ works Hyperion and The Fall, meaning an “orientation toward the inaccessible past, ever watchful of the shadows that futurity casts upon the present” (Jackson 311). John Keats was also a romantic poet drawing upon many of Wordsworth’s poems. Keats includes references to the character in his work Endymion with principles taken from Wordsworth’s poems “Poet” and “Michael” (Jackson 327). Thus, this line claims that we focus too much on what has happened in the past and what to expect from the future, this is our obsession.
With such an emphasis on the past, we have simplified living as an operation of getting and spending while ignoring our powers, thereby seeing little that is ours (Wordsworth 2-3). To understand these “powers” to “see in nature” it is important to review the Romantic values that Wordsworth is implying. These values are creativity, individuality, empathy, and social functionality, when combined these values comprise the imagination (Frein 18). These traits are important for the experience of nature. It can also be understood that in all of nature, humanity sees little that is capable of these traits or values, making humanity unique.
Despite what precious powers we have as humans, we have nonetheless given them away in selfishness and greed. “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” (Wordsworth 3). This is the replacement of the natural powers of humanity in exchange for the promises of greatness found in neoclassicism. This is seen in authoritarian governments through their love of orderliness, rules, regulation, and ultimately control of populations in exchange for promises of greatness. It was not the style of neoclassicism that interested Hitler, but rather its fervent pursuit of greatness that inspired his architectural tastes (O’Byrne 98). There is a dangerous link between achieving ‘greatness’ by the ‘correction’ of others via regulations and dictatorial rule.
As neoclassicism overwhelms the population with its oppression and promises what can be said of the “sea that bares her bosom to the moon…” and “the winds…howling at all hours…” (Wordsworth 5-6). During the first impression of this poem, the fifth and sixth lines of allegory correspond to the thirteenth and fourteenth lines of Greek mythology. Thus, the sea bearing her bosom to the moon can be identified as Proteus rising from the sea and the howling winds at all hours can be identified as Triton blowing his horn in this second impression. The key to this transformation is the use of imagination.
[bookmark: _Hlk717686]The origins of mythology are a mystery, yet they are often used in literature and art to explain the universal natural phenomenon (Kennedy and Gioia 540). Wordsworth uses personifications of Pagan gods allegorically in many of his writings to understand the future 19th century (“Wordsworth and pagan gods”). The usage of myth in poetry does not conflict with scientific logic but adds an existing heritage of vivid descriptions to excite the imagination (Kennedy and Gioia 540). To see the beauty and wonder of nature in motion or the battle of the Greek sea gods requires some use of imagination. The uniquely human use of imagination is essential to the emotion and experience produced from such a realization of the forces of nature. One cannot observe the moonlit sea with a neoclassic outlook, because the beauty does not lie in the number, frequency, or quality of the waves. Beauty lies instead, within the mind of the observer whose own individual mind interprets the sight as a wonder to behold.
Thus, with the romanticism in our life given away, we lose this ability to see such natural wonders. Wordsworth writes our imaginations and other human powers are “up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;” (7). “For this, for everything…” he writes, “we are out of tune;” (Wordsworth 8). This means to say that humanity has lost touch with the very elements which make us uniquely human. It is the capacity for dreaming, empathic thought, liberation through imagination, and moral awareness with understanding (Frein 40). Without the capacity to dream and think empathically we lose our humanity, thus putting our strengths out of tune.
With imagination set aside and sleeping within, we are unable to relate to the world in a meaningful way. Being out of tune and without the power to “see”, the purpose of art and literature is obscured. Wordsworth writes concerning this, that nature/beauty “moves us not.” (9). In his despair of such a bleak reality Wordsworth states “Great God! I’d rather be / A pagan suckled in a creed outworn; / Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;” (9-12). Wordsworth is not trading Christianity for paganism, but rather he is contrasting the dangerous materialism/neoclassicism of modern days to the poetic beliefs of ancient Greek (“Wordsworth and pagan gods”). Wordsworth would rather believe in an ancient myth than be unmoved by the wonders of the world and lose his ability to relate in a meaningful way with life.
It is essential for society to have some sense of romance to thrive. There are many students who despite being successful in school, feel as though they have missed rich human experiences during their education in the world (Egan 71). Perhaps this is because they are taught without a sense of romance or true imagination. It is something that is generally talked about and encouraged, but aside from that there is no real recognition of what imagination is or how to develop it in the classroom (Egan 71). Children are educated with factual knowledge and released into the world without developing a sense of fulfillment in their lives.
William Wordsworth is “one of the most underrated contributors to educational thought…” (Egan 63). Wordsworth expresses the childhood mind as being lively, and bright, as opposed to Plato’s description of childhood existing of confusion, irrationality, and delusion (Egan 63). “The educational problem for Wordsworth is to ensure that in the initiation of the child into the inheritance of human understandings, the imaginative freshness and vividness of childhood is not lost” (Egan 63). Thus, the problem of losing childhood ‘magic’ is exchanging one’s imaginative mind for the routines of adulthood and systematically falling into neoclassicism.
The ways a child is taught will greatly influence his outcome as an adult and in society. Plato and Oakeshott have insisted that childhood consists of moods, animal-like desires, and irrationality thus requiring education to turn the child into a human being with a mind (Egan 63). Too often the child’s mind is viewed as a mechanism of action and reaction, this perspective is harmful to education because it neglects to nurture the young, imaginative, romantic mind. Imagination is essential to the development of new ideas and unique perceptions (Krein 29). There is a brilliant mind behind every invention and discovery, the future will depend on the keen insights of a romantically tuned youth.
The education of romantically aware individuals requires freedom since the liberation of the mind and imagination are inseparable. Imagination and creativity are spontaneous events and are compared to natural events such as flowing creeks (Krein 32). The rules and rigid orderliness of neoclassicism puts a dame in the river of creative thought, blocking useful insights into current problems. When planning for the future, freedom must not be replaced by promises of easy solutions, they are impossible together. One will lose freedom and creative solutions to be ever enslaved by current issues. Students need to be aware of the dangerous neoclassicism of society, ever wary of materialism, develop their natural powers of a uniquely imaginative mind, and live romantically.