On His 250th Birthday, Wordsworth Addresses (Indirectly, but Pointedly) the Pandemic

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”


That line has rung in my head for years. Every time an online sale reaches through the screen and forces me to click. Every time I watch someone brilliant and creative forced to do a soul-killingly monotonous job just to stay alive. Every time I open a whopping bill for a new furnace or car repair and scheme up some freelance gig to iron out the dent in our checking account.

When coronavirus ground the economy to a halt, it was at least a relief to know that for once, there were things more important than commerce.

Except, there were not. Those forced to remain at work, exposed daily, were those in the soul-killingly monotonous, low-wage jobs. Ventilators were deemed too precious a commodity to distribute. And it took only a few days from lockdown for someone to estimate that each life saved cost $9 million. How, exactly, does one make that calculation? How do you appraise the monetary value of all the wisdom lost, all the knowledge and ideas and disposable income and stability?

(Image: Steve Buissinne from Pixabay)

We are still so driven by greed that we cannot step away from its transactions, even in a deadly pandemic. This massive economy could not produce enough test kits or protective gear for medical professionals, yet could busy itself promising stimulus checks to keep itself alive—ultimately profiting investors far more than the individuals receiving those checks. The priorities were clear. In a different society, we could have chosen a universal shelter-at-home directive at the very beginning, agreeing that we would all shelter and feed and care for one another for two months, at a safe remove, for no charge. Instead we fought to keep getting and spending—and we sickened and died.

William Wordsworth would have shut his eyes in pain. The poet was born 250 years ago, on April 7, and when he wrote “The World Is Too Much With Us”—its very title foreshadowing a pandemic—he was only thirty-two. Young enough to lack cynicism, he was grieving the way industrialization was ripping apart England’s serene countryside, shredding that soft quilt of greens and browns. As a boy, he had roamed through Cumberland, splashing across the mountain streams of the Lake District. Later, when he traveled, it was often to hike in the Alps.

In 1802, just barely able to sustain himself full time as a poet, Wordsworth turned his eye on the fragile, endangered delights of nature. By his own definition, this poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility,” honoring the beauty he had seen and felt on those long walks even as it was being destroyed.

He knew the risk, even told his friend Lady Beaumont that the reviews were bound to be unfavorable because people would consider the subject matter of some of these new poems “trifling.” Still, as literary critic James A. Butler notes in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth, “it is clear he did not anticipate the firestorm of scathing ridicule.”

One after another, the reviewers excoriated Wordsworth and his “flimsy, puerile thoughts.” “Puerile” was a favorite word, repeated several times and joined twice by “namby-pamby.” The Critical Review could not fathom such “nauseous and nauseating sensibilities to weeds and insects”; the Edinburgh Review called Wordsworth “a very paragon of silliness and affectation” and wondered why he would stoop to address subjects that the “greater part of his readers will probably persist in thinking low, silly, or uninteresting.” The Satirist offered its favorite example: memories of some daffodils blowing about in the wind.

Not one of them dreamed that by 1843, Wordsworth would be Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria, “raised up,” as the poet John Keble put it, “to be a chief minister, not only of noblest poesy, but of high and sacred truth.”

An early intimation of that sacred truth was his appreciation of, yes, daffodils. His sense that the world of artifice could be overwhelming. And his prophetic fear that industry would destroy nature in irreparable ways.

Today, he would at the very least be hailed by the Sierra Club and Rebecca Solnit. Back then, people were excited, if neurasthenic, about the economic boon of industrialization Wordsworth termed “sordid.” Steam engines hissed and railroads chugged across the pastoral landscape, where mills and mines were replacing cottage farms. England’s population was increasing exponentially, and it was no longer possible to make a living that close to the earth.

Unlike Wordsworth’s first collection, Lyrical Ballads, which went through four editions in seven years, the 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes had only a single printing, and many copies were remaindered

Much of his work does strike me as a bit soppy, but “The World Is Too Much With Us” has a simple strength I have never been able to dismiss. Why did it stick so well? There are technical answers, I suppose: It is a Petrarchan sonnet, turns out, with an unusual rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdcdcd. I read the lines aloud, liking their clean rhythm. But for me, it is the word choice that gives this straightforward little poem such power.

“Getting” and “spending” are not pretty words; their crudeness makes his point. The line then flows into a softer, old-fashioned phrase that slow the inexorable at least long enough for us to think about it: “…lay waste our powers.” What stays with me is the reminder that we have powers, reserves of spirit and intelligence and energy, and they are entirely separate from our net worth.

When Wordsworth writes, “Little we see in Nature that is ours;”—I know what he means by that, as well. I have become hungry to know the names of trees and birds, to be able to recognize them and stake at least that small claim of intimacy. But we have lost our natural domain, and those trees and birds are in far greater danger now than the poet dreamed. Why? Because for so long, we were, as he put it, “out of tune,” unmoved by sea or sun or winds.

We preferred the excitement of commerce, the getting and spending that are now so fraught. Anything we get can infect us, and nearly all of us have far less to spend than we had just a few months ago. Those online sales are like a drift of some intoxicating perfume from a dark room, beckoning me into a future in which I will dress up again, embrace friends, meet strangers without fear. Hope washes over me, yet my hands rest quiet on the keyboard, unwilling to commit. There is freedom in this new state, a realization that I have enough already, that people who have seen me in sweats with my hair a mess will not judge me next fall if my outfit is long out of fashion.

Nancy Bristow, author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, talked to me recently about the flawed policies and structural injustices that a pandemic cracks wide open. People in low-wage jobs, people of color, people without adequate health care, suffered far more from the Spanish flu. They are suffering far more from COVID-19 as well. “We had the opportunity in 1918,” she said, to better fund public health and disaster planning and repair the cracks through which so many people fall. But instead of making lasting, fundamental changes, “people learned not to spit in the street and we got rid of the common drinking cup and that was it.”

This time around, there have been gestures, small tweaks, but again, the larger economy has made no fundamental changes. It will be interesting to see how it responds after the crisis subsides, though, if we emerge determined to live a little differently, ignoring the desperate urgings to buy more than we need because that is the only way anyone has yet been able to imagine a vibrant U.S. economy. We might stop allowing the world to overwhelm us; we might pay more attention to nature and cherish other powers.

Or would that be puerile and namby-pamby?