A Study of Wordsworth’s We are Seven and The World is too much With Us and how it Pertains to the Beliefs of the Time
William Wordsworth (1770- 1850) was a dominant poet of the Romantic literary movement which took place in England during the 18th and 19th century. His life was not an easy one, as it was filled with loss. At the young age of eight he lost his mother, and his father passed away just five years later (Damrosch 371). He was born in the Lake District, which was known for its exquisite landscape, this formed his early love of nature which is featured in many of his poems. In 1805 his brother, John, drowned and in 1812 Wordsworth lost two of his children (Damrosch 372). The death of his children and the search for enlightenment in the natural world served as his inspiration for his poems We Are Seven and The world is too much with us.
We Are Seven was written in the spring of 1798; Wordsworth met the little girl that this poem was written about in 1793 in the Wye Valley (Damrosch 377). The poem centers on a girl who has lost two of her siblings, yet she continues to say that they are a group of seven, not five. To her these siblings are not dead and gone, they are still very much a part of her life; she goes out to sit with them by their graves where she knits, sings, and even eats her dinner sometimes. Considering that Wordsworth lost two of his children he could be writing from the perspective of how his remaining children feel about loss. A significant detail is that the child is eight years old: “I met a little cottage girl, /She was eight years old, she said” which is the same age he was when his mother died (Wordsworth 5-6). The first stanza states: “A simple child…What should it know of death?” (1-4). Because of his experiences he sympathizes with the girl. No child should be exposed to death at such a young age.
The most important aspect to this poem is the child’s innocence. The theme of innocence, especially pertaining to youth, is repeated throughout much of the Romantic poetry. There is something touching about it, and Wordsworth makes her believable as a character. She talks and reasons like a little girl: “So in the church-yard was she laid; / And all the summer dry, / Together round her grave we played, / My brother John and I” (53-56). This demonstrates how she does not see walking on the grave as a taboo, but that she is trying to include her sister in the fun too. Even though her siblings are gone, she still keeps them company Another parallel with Wordsworth and the child is that her brother’s name is John, and he passes away in the poem. She also mentions summer in the above quote; the concept of seasons and nature runs throughout the poem, as it does in much of Romantic poetry.
Another instance of nature in We Are Seven is when she speaks about her sibling’s graves after the narrator has, yet again, told her that they are only five. “Their graves are green, they may be seen” (37). She rationalizes that the graves are green, which is the color of earth and vitality. In a way, they are still alive. She also contradicts him by saying “they may be seen”. Her simplistic way of thinking shows that if she can still see their graves, then they are not gone. When speaking of her sister Jane’s death she says: “In bed she moaning lay, / Till God released her of her pain, / And then she went away” (50-52). She understands that her sister’s pain was not natural and that God released her from this. Her death was natural, and seen as a blessing because she did not want her to suffer anymore.
The child in the poem is even described with pastoral attributes: “Her hair was thick with many a curl/ That cluster’d round her head… // She had a rustic, woodland air, / And she was wildly clad” (7-10). With her unkempt hair and demeanor she seems as if she is actually a part of nature. In a criticism by Maureen McLane she explains that Wordsworth was captivated with the idea of the ‘rustic’: “Praising what he called the rustic’s ‘plainer and more emphatic language’, Wordsworth turned to rustic speech as a cure for the maladies of the poetic diction of his day” (McLane 438). She explains that he wanted to use the simple language of the ‘rustic’ people to “refigure the relation of ‘poetry’ to the literate and literary” (438). This idea is seen in modern poets such as Robert Frost. By exploring the everyday language of the common people, Wordsworth opens up his poetry to them, as well as shows the contrast between the child and narrator of the poem. It certainly enables the poem to be more accessible. The concept of rustic life and language is used repeatedly in Romantic poetry, especially with Burns who wrote in the vernacular and had odd topics associated with the lower class such as mice and lice.
A strong contradiction to the natural language of the child is the brash voice of the narrator. McLane goes so far as to call him “increasingly pompous” (438). He grows impatient with the child for not realizing that her dead siblings do not count towards her family as a whole, even though her mother gave birth to seven children. In the last stanza, it is written as if he is yelling at the girl. “’But they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in Heaven!’/ ‘Twas throwing words away; for still/ The little Maid would have her will, / And said, ‘Nay, we are seven!’” (65-69). His anger and frustration is seen through Wordsworth’s use of exclamation points. The narrator is a character Romantic poets despised; those that attempt to break the innocence of a child. Perhaps he is jealous of her innocence, or he just wants her to say what he wants to hear. What is important is that the child holds strong to her beliefs and is not swayed by his incessant demanding: “Her siblings, though dead, retain a vitality for her, a vitality registered in her counting them as present in her insistent refrain: we are seven, we will always be seven” (McLane 439). Wordsworth wants readers on the girl’s side. Even though it is told through the eyes of a grown man, Wordsworth made the decision to title it We are Seven, and not something along the lines of “Ye are only five” (McLane 439). It is clear that the little maid is the victor in the conversation between them.
Although Wordsworth was interested in the rustic and childhood innocence, how do some of these quotes look if examined from the narrator’s point of view? The opening states: “A simple child…What should it know of death?” (1-4). Again, Wordsworth may have been sympathizing with her, but not the narrator. From his point of view, “simple” takes on a derogatory connotation. This connects to his description of her unkempt hair and miss-matched clothing (7-10). He sees her as a primitive child who lives outside of urban life. She is foolish and uneducated, so how could she understand death? There are small details throughout the poem that contribute to this. It is significant that he describes her as being a “little cottage girl”, she does not live in a large or fancy home (5). Also, readers are given the image of her knitting her own stockings and hemming her “’kerchief” (41-42). In a wealthier society a maid would have done this, or the mother would have had extra time to do so. The mother of this little maid most likely needs to spend her time working, so the daughter must do the menial household tasks. Lastly, in line 64 she calls the man “master” as well as “Sir” in line 45. Although a sign of respect, this designates a class difference between them. Through his language, Wordsworth does an excellent job of painting a picture of a wealthy man speaking down to a small, wild “cottage girl”.
Wordsworth remarked in the preface of We are Seven that the poem serves to show “the perplexity and obscurity which in childhood attend our notion of death, or rather our utter inability to admit that notion” (Damrosch 377). He is commenting on how, as people age, they forget the way they viewed life as a child. This is why the narrator of the poem is ignorant to the child’s feelings on life and death. He forgot that at one point he was a child too, and has been corrupted by age. However, in a way, both characters completely deny and disregard the other’s beliefs. The narrator consistently tries to get the little girl to admit that they are no longer seven children, while she disregards this notion completely.
This concept of innocence and corruption was a major theme for the Romantic period. This is due to what was happening socially and politically at the time. In response to the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s many children starting going into the workforce to help support their families. A job often fulfilled by children was a chimney sweeper, and they worked under terrible conditions. These children were sometimes sold into labor and “among the hazards were burns, permanently blackened skin, deformed legs, black lung disease, and cancer of the scrotum” (Damrosch 168). In William Blake’s, The Chimney Sweeper, he tells the story of a child sold into labor and how terrible the situations were. This also caused many people of the time to start turning against organized religion. Blake’s idea was: how could people sit safe in church while children were dying in the streets? Also due to the Industrial Revolution, Romantic writers longed for the solitude of nature away from the hustle and bustle of city life. With the rise of capitalism, especially with maritime trading, they wanted to experience the enlightenment of the natural world and discover something bigger than themselves.
Wordsworth directly comments on the rise of capitalism and destruction of the Earth in his poem, The world is too much with us. This work focuses on how people are relying less on nature for survival now, and he also blatantly knocks on Christianity. “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” (1-3). He sees that humans are destructing nature and that it is not ours, there is no true ownership of land. All that people are doing is “getting and spending”, it is a world based around money, and not that which is everlasting: nature. In Thompson’s criticism of this piece he remarks: “The melancholy speaker longs for a spiritual union with the natural world, an elevated existence that shuns the pursuit of material wealth. He fears that consumerism has become modern humanity’s driving force, and he abhors such a limited— and limiting— worldview, preferring instead to celebrate the simple joys of nature” (Thompson 180). This quote perfectly sums up everything that the Romantics stood for. The idea of a “spiritual union with the natural world” was the driving force behind these poets. They revoked traditional, organized religion, and instead found faith through the outside world. In the last few lines of The world is too much with us the narrator tells readers he would rather see the Greek gods and not those of Christianity: “Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; / Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; / Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn” (12-14). This is due to the fact that the Greek gods represented the natural elements and can be seen in nature. He scrutinizes Christians as destroying this earth that God created. Hundreds of years before his time Wordsworth predicted a world that would continue to revolve around materialism and destroy nature.
The child in We Are Seven embodies the beliefs of a romantic poet. This is due to her innocence and the way she questions what it means to die. Wordsworth uses simple, rustic language and descriptions to contrast her with the narrator of the poem. Between We are Seven and The world is too much with us, readers get a sense of how the poets of the time were searching for a spiritual enlightenment in nature and away from a capitalist-driven society. These ideas were in response to the societal changes such as the Industrial Revolution and the rights of children in the labor force. The Romantic poets found that the answer lay within themselves and their imagination.
World Lit: Creation Myth Plagiarism
In reading world lit one thing is apparent: similar creation myths appear repeatedly in very separate texts. Since the term plagiarism did not exist during these time periods a different conclusion must be made. The repetition of the flood story shows readers what was important to some of these ancient societies, that religion was being born, and that globalization was happening. Although it is obvious to recognize the repetition of flood stories, it’s imperative to see why they reappear in creation myths. Water is essential to life and most ancient societies centered on it. Water was their nutrients, their economy, and their key to agriculture— the only way to survive. By studying these myths and learning about history it is easy to see which societies were scared of floods and why. There was a migration of epics that often gets tied to religion because of their appearance not only in the Bible, but other holy books stemming from similar creation stories in Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses, and the Popul Vuh.
Gilgamesh is the best place to start because it is the oldest written text that scholars have access to. Any similar creation myths can all be traced back to this source. “I loaded onto her everything precious that I owned: all my silver and gold, all my family, all my kinfolk, all kinds of animals wild and tame, craftsmen and artisans of every kind. Then Shamash announced that the time had come. ‘Enter the ship now. Seal the hatch.’ I gazed at the sky— it was terrifying. I entered the ship” (Mitchell 184).
This quote from Gilgamesh presents what the Mesopotamians valued. Gilgamesh speaks of everything “precious” and the order in which he lists them points to the fact that material possessions were very important in their society. He lists his family and countrymen second to silver and gold. Additionally he brings craftsmen and artisans onto the ship, affirming one of the themes of the text which is the trappings of society. He could not imagine living without people skilled in making products: again, focusing on the dominance of material objects. Interestingly enough he brings different types of animals which shows readers two things. One, is that earth and nature are valuable to Mesopotamian society; but it also fits quite snug with Noah’s Ark. Since Gilgamesh dates back to 2750 BCE then it came before the Bible, which raises some questions. It appears that there was some sort of globalization happening. As Gilgamesh was an epic most likely recited, then those who wrote the Bible must have heard the story and were greatly influenced by it.
“At the first glow of dawn, an immense black cloud rose on the horizon and crossed the sky. Inside it the storm god Adad was thundering, while Shullat and Hanish, twin gods of destruction, went first, tearing through mountains and valleys…For six days and seven nights, the storm demolished the earth. On the seventh day, the downpour stopped. The ocean grew calm. No land could be seen, just water on all sides, flat as a roof. There was no life at all. The human race has turned into clay” (Mitchell 185-87).
The way the flood myth is described in Gilgamesh is unique in the way that natural events are attributed to the gods. Adad is the name of the storm god, and Shullat or Hanish for destruction. As is known, science and natural events such as floods were not understood and this becomes the basis for religion. Religion originates from these times when science could not describe the reason rivers did flood. By making sacrifices to ‘river gods’ and performing rituals they thought they might stop the destruction. In places like Egypt where they knew what time of year the Nile would flood and could plan accordingly, religion was much less prevalent in their society; they had need for fewer gods. Gilgamesh can be taken as a sort of warning to the Mesopotamians, something resembling a lesson story. If one does not properly treat the gods and the earth then a flood could come wipe out the human race. They also mention that the flood lasts seven days which appears in the Bible; it is on the seventh day that the flood starts, again showing globalization and influence. Even in the end of this quote all of human life turns into clay; another prevalent theme in creation myths.
Another source from world literature that includes creation myths clearly influenced by Gilgamesh is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This book has a flood story strongly emphasizing human connection to the earth.
“Maybe the earth that was freshly formed and newly divorced from the heavenly ether retained some seeds of its kindred element- earth, which Prometheus, the son of Iapetus, sprinkled with raindrops and moulded into the likeness of gods who govern the universe. Where other animals walk on all fours and look to the ground, man was a towering head and commanded to stand erect, with his face uplifted to gaze on the stars of heaven. Thus clay, so lately no more than a crude and formless substance, was metamorphosed to assume the strange new figure of Man” (Raeburn 9).
This quote starts off saying that earth is a heavenly entity created by gods themselves which was made with the next most essential element: water, in the form of raindrops. The idea that man is made from earth displays that the Romans believed it to be the source of life, that we can all be traced back to it. Earth is a holy being full of life. The second part of the quote is interesting in the way it compares man to animals. It sets up a hierarchy, similar to a food chain, with man being on top. They recognized the power of humans over animals. Most intriguing is the idea of gazing on the stars of heaven. Indeed astronomy was prevalent in Roman society but there is something even deeper behind this. Animals do not have the ability to recognize a god or form a religion while man does. By having one’s face uplifted to the heavens in the text this proves that religion was crucial and even advocated. Although the earth is spoken of as being holy it is “crude and formless” before touched by the hands of gods to be made into man. This suggests that without man to control nature and earth then it is somewhat savage. This change from clay into humanity connects with the main theme of the text which is metamorphosis. The idea of change starts here and is used to show how man develops and society progresses from the golden age to silver and so on.
“Instantly rain poured down from the sky in torrents. Juno’s messenger, decked in her mantle of many colours, Iris the rainbow, sucked up moisture to thicken the clouds. The corn was flattened; the farmer wept for his wasted prayers; and all the fruits of a long year’s labour were gone to no purpose. Jupiter’s anger did not stop short in the sky, his own kingdom; Neptune the sea god deployed his waters to aid his brother. He summoned the rivers…” (Raeburn 18-19).
What is intriguing about this flood story is the prominence of agriculture. Not only in this quote but throughout the whole section is the anguish over wasted crops, animals, and “ploughshare”. In comparison to Gilgamesh who was primarily worried about saving his gold and riches the Romans in Metamorphoses are concerned about their farms. This shows not only what was important to their society but also how their villages ran. Whereas in Gilgamesh the town is set up around the palace, which is central and prominent, the Romans wealth and primary concern is agriculture. This was the way to make a living. They no longer gathered their food, but planted it, so water would have been necessary. In this quote we see again the naming of gods, bringing in the idea of religion. It exhibits the power that the gods were thought to have over humans. At any time they could wipe out all of the crops and animals, their principal asset, for any reason. We see the gods working together in this passage, Neptune is summoning his brother and the sky and sea gods are also collaborating. This tells us that the Romans saw the earth as a connected piece; even that there are multiple gods of water shows how much life they gave to it. In these creation myths water is clearly seen as a living, breathing entity not only controlled by gods but with god-like qualities. It is not only revered, but feared. And living in fear of losing this source of life is the reason we see it so central to creation stories.
Popol Vuh is a Mayan creation myth which also includes a flood, and ties to religion.
“But it didn’t turn out that they spoke like people: they just squawked, they just chattered, they just howled. It wasn’t apparent what language they spoke; each one gave a different cry. When the Maker, Modeler heard this: ‘It hasn’t turned out well, they haven’t spoken,’ they said among themselves. ‘It hasn’t turned out that our names have been named. Since we are their mason and sculptor, this will not do” (Tedlock 67).
As in Ovid we see here that man is compared to animals. Because the animals can not talk they are deemed lower than humans and the gods feel the need to create a new, more superior species. But the question to explore is what is it that upsets the gods? Interestingly enough they state the reason for needing a new race is because the animals can not speak the names of their creators. Similar to Metamorphoses this can be linked to religion. This shows that the Mayans recognize a creator and that being able to do so is very important in life, it seems that without religion there is no purpose in life, no higher being to respect. The “Makers and Modelers” create humans with a goal that in return for life they will name them as their creator.
Next the makers try to create humans out of clay. However, this does not work, possibly because it is missing the divine breath. After their next project fails, humans or “manikins” made from wood, they decide to send in a flood to kill them off.
“A great flood was made; it came down on the heads of the manikins, woodcarvings. The man’s body was carved from the wood of the coral tree by the Maker, Modeler. And as for the woman, the Maker, Modeler needed the hearts of bulrushes for the woman’s body. They were not competent, nor did they speak before the builder and the sculptor who made them and brought them forth, and so they were killed, done in by a flood” (Tedlock 71).
Again we see the explicit themes such as man originating from nature and being destroyed for not being “competent” enough to credit their creator. Unlike the other myths there is only two central gods here that cause the destruction. However, they are extremely powerful and this flood scene is disturbingly graphic. The gods are spoken of as eating flesh and snapping off heads. Perhaps in this society religion is used to scare people; that if a citizen does not credit their creator they will die in what is presented as the worst natural disaster: flood.
What can a text tell us about the world? By looking at the Popol Vuh, Gilgamesh, and Metamorphoses we can see that the world is much smaller than we thought it to be. The creation myths in these texts have repeated themes that can not be all accredited to a “collective conscience”. For an idea to travel from Mesopotamia to Rome to Meso-America proves the influence of stories and literature in the world. It is so important to notice these connections and to see that globalization is the glue that keeps the earth together. Literature proves that we all come from a similar background and that religion and the story of creation originates from a few key ideas. There is no one true story; we are left only with the primary source and the blurry lines of globalization and dates in time. It is up to us what we choose to do with that information.