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Literature is not a static, fixed entity, confined to the parameters of its initial creation. Literary pieces are forever evolving, adapting to new cultural, historical and social contexts through the processes of revision and reinterpretation. The grand scheme of literature is best represented as a vast web of interconnections, where various authors and individual works continue to have reverberating effects beyond their respective literary periods. Because new authors remain influenced and moved by their predecessors, works of the past are brought into the present, and begin to engage in a kind of call-and-response relationship with contemporary literature.
Such an intertextual dynamic exists between William Wordsworth’s poem, “The World is Too Much with Us,” and Denise Levertov’s correlate, “O Taste and See.” Both poems examine the question of the individual’s connection to nature. Both poet-narrators yearn to achieve total spiritual communion with their surroundings. Wordsworth, however, argues that his world, at present, cannot offer him the spiritual satisfaction, the intimacy with nature, he so doggedly seeks. By contrast, Levertov feels that rich stimulation and beauty are abundantly present in her surroundings. For Levertov, it is not a deficiency in her environment but rather, a deficiency in her own self (i.e. her inability to experience the world simply, unmediated by thought) that might leave her spiritually bereft. By exploring the authors’ individual opinions of city life, their use (or non-use) of archaisms, and their particular treatment of a common “Garden of Eden” trope—while emphasizing the role of register, meter and form in both works—one begins to discover how “O Taste and See” is a direct, intertextual refutation of “The World is Too Much with Us.”
In “The World is Too Much with Us” (1802-03, 1807) William Wordsworth believes that his capacity to achieve harmony with nature has been sullied and compromised as a result of urbanization. For Wordsworth, city life is the root cause for the destruction, the purification, of humanity. In his poem, he uses the competing registers of the industrialized city and its focus on materialism, with that of the natural world, to argue that his present urban setting is somehow “unnatural,” or in direct opposition to the beauty of nature. He evokes this image and conveys his disdain for industrialized society, by using such terms as “getting and spending” and “lay waste” (Norton Anthology, 484, 3) to describe the activities that unfold in the material world. The latter fragment is particularly condemning (and thus effective) because the word “waste” implies some kind of irresponsible over-indulgence, or an inappropriate, immoderate usage akin to exploitation. Wordsworth describes the faculties of connecting with and understand nature, the faculties which his fellow-man has sacrificed and let atrophy, as a “sordid boon” (4) or dirty gift. Thus, Wordsworth is comparing the act of shamelessly forsaking one’s capacity to be in touch with nature (“We have given our hearts away” ) to a vile, bankrupt commercial transaction, again using contradictory registers to articulate his critique.
In stark contrast to contemptible, anesthetizing city life (in that in dulls the active senses), nature is vibrant and pulsating. Wordsworth incorporates the register of motion into his descriptions of the natural world to reinforce this point, this vitality of nature. The winds, for example, are “howling” and “up-gathered” (6-7). However, despite its enlivening, charging effects, nature still retains its delicate beauty, “like sleeping flowers” (7). “For this, for everything” (8), meaning for all the dimensions and nuances of the dynamic natural world, urbanized society lacks appreciation. Therefore, according to Wordsworth, city life has rendered humanity careless, ignorant, and pitiably “out of tune” (8) with nature’s divine melody. Denise Levertov, on the other hand, assumes a different view of the city and its effect on sense experience, and this departure frames her discordant intertextual relationship with Wordsworth’s poem.
If William Wordsworth believes that urbanization has tainted or impinged upon the pure, intimate connection between man and his environment, Levertov sees no such problem in “O Taste and See” (1964). Unlike Wordsworth, Levertov recognizes all the elements of her setting as offering possible stimulation, fulfillment, and personal understanding in relation to nature. A direct allusion to Wordsworth’s poem, and immediately setting her piece as a critical counterpoint to his work, Levertov asserts that “The world is/not with us enough” (Norton Anthology, 1043, 1-2). In other words, she is not sufficiently engaged with all facets of her rich environment. While Wordsworth’s use of registers establishes a diametrically opposed, exclusive relationship between city and natural life, Levertov makes no such distinction. Her wide variety of registers (or categories) reflects Levertov’s more open reception of her setting. For example, whereas Wordsworth focused his attention on nature’s physical characteristics, Levertov includes discussion of several other environmental components in her poem, such as emotions (“grief, mercy” ), language, color (“tangerine” ), fruits in nature (“plum, quince…in the orchard…plucking the fruit” [13-15], and even scenes from city life (“crossing the street” ). In fact, it was during her ride on a city subway that she viewed the Biblical poster that suggested she “O taste and see” (3) , which in turn triggered her thoughts and reflections on nature. Therefore, in Levertov’s poem, the city actually plays an instrumental role in drawing her closer to her surroundings. Levertov wishes she could imbibe all of these elements rather than mediate on them, which she suggests with her registers of eating and consumption: “to breathe them, bite, savor, chew swallow” (9-11). She is content where she is, whereas Wordsworth needs to escape his present industrial world. This urgent desire is evident in “The World is Too Much with Us” as a result of Wordsworth’s use of archaisms, and in his treatment of the “Garden of Eden” trope.
Through his allusions to Greek mythology and the Christian Garden of Eden, Wordsworth articulates his desire to transcend his modern time, a time that is stifling his ability to connect to the natural world. To convey this sense of feeling out of time, Wordsworth harkens back to the ancient world by invoking a series of archaisms. He makes references to mythological figures, for example (Pagan, Proteus, Triton), and uses speech that does not reflect the language of the every-day (as in the way “wreath’d“  is archaically-accented). However, Wordsworth is particular in his allusions, as he references specifically GREEK mythological figures. Therefore, he yearns to return to the dawn of time, to the cradle of Western Civilization, in the order to somehow “glimpse” the pure joy of nature (“I’d rather be/a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;/So might I…Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn” [9-12]).
Similarly, Wordsworth lives in a world after the Expulsion, but still very much within the Christian mental framework. Thus, if he cannot remain where his is in contemporary society, and longs to return to a moment of great historical importance and new beginnings, Wordsworth must look to both the archaisms of Greek civilization, and of the Old Testament’s Garden of Eden, to find his spiritual fulfillment. He introduces a new register towards the conclusion of the poem, that of birth and nourishment, as evidenced by the use of the verb, “suckled” (10). Wordsworth wishes to be born anew in this hypothetical, distant world, from which he will draw spiritual nourishment, or the healing milk of a pure, intimate connection with (the mother) nature. Wordsworth’s desire to flee to a place of high, important culture is strong, further emphasized by his use of high, traditional form in his poem.
“The World is Too Much With Us” is an Italian sonnet that follows the guidelines for this form rather strictly. It is composed of fourteen lines, where the first eight lines form the octet, and follow the standard a-b-b-a a-b-b-a rhyme scheme. The last six lines, the sestet, vary only slightly from the traditional sonnet. Rather than adhere to the typical c-d-e rhyme pattern, “The World is Too Much with Us” concludes with six lines of alternating rhyme (c-d-c-d-c-d). The meter is primarily iambic pentameter, with only slight variations, except at those points when Wordsworth wishes to capture his reader’s attention. We see such a moment in the opening line of the poem, where there is a reverse iamb in the third foot, so that “much” (1) is stressed. This irregular or unexpected stress emphasizes the degree to which Wordsworth feels encumbered by his urban setting. The other significant shift in meter occurs in the middle of the ninth line, with the phrase, “Great God!” (9). Here, both syllables are stressed, creating a spondee, and serving as an aural hint to the reader to pay careful notice. The spondee appears at the sonnet’s turn, the significant moment when the poem begins to answer or resolve the dilemma presented in the opening octet. Because Wordsworth uses such a traditional form of high poetics without too much variation, he is recapitulating both the importance of his concerns, and the unequivocal certainty that a return to high-culture dawn of Western civilization, is the solution to his feeling of disconnectedness with nature.
Because the sonnet “ends” with not so much an “answer” or realistic solution, the slight play on the standard form of the Italian sonnet by virtue of the rhyme scheme is quite appropriate, as it reinforces this slight narrative ambiguity. Wordsworth is sure of the setting or circumstances that would offer him solace from a climate of cynical overindulgence; but how can he arrive at this environment that is an artifact of a different time and place? Levertov does not need to contend with such questions, because she disagrees with Wordsworth on the fact that true communion with nature is found only with a return to the classical worlds of Greek mythology and Christianity. As supported by her poetic form and own interpretation of the “Garden of Eden” trope, Levertov asserts that her preferred place of spiritual enlightenment exists right outside her door, in the secular arena.
“O Taste and See” is an open-form, free-verse poem with a highly-irregular meter. However, as a result of its non-regularized structure, Levertov’s poem reads less like a traditional work of literature, and more like a casual conversation or series of musings. Whereas the strictly traditional form of “The World is Too Much with Us” was crucial in lending veracity and significance to Wordsworth’s concerns and proposed resolution, the very lack of traditional form in “O Taste and See” achieves the same effect. Specifically, the more colloquial tone of Levertov’s piece lends an authenticity to her message. Levertov is not struggling to express her point of view in a lofty language that is unheard in daily life, or through allusions her readers may not recognize, because she wishes to reiterate that all the tools she needs to reach spiritual fulfillment are at her immediate disposal. She need not go beyond what she sees and hears every day, or abstract her surroundings in order to render them meaningful. She has no need to “harken back” to a different time, because her contemporary society is sufficient, as long as she learns how to engage “all that lives/to the imagination’s tongue” (6-7) directly, without extraneous mediation. And, because Levertov is living in a secularized world, she must glean a sense of spirituality from her every-day surroundings. Therefore, for Levertov, her Eden does not exist in a historically Christian time and place. Rather, she has found her utopia in the present, material world, “living in the orchard and being/hungry, and plucking/the fruit (14-16). Thus, by abstaining from following strict form, by never venturing into the realm of the archaic, and by asserting that Eden exists in the current moment of sense experience, Denise Levertov continues to launch her refutation of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us.”
Intertextuality demonstrates how current authors can use “older” pieces of literature—such as canonical texts—to form and express their unique points of view. For example, Denise Levertov’s “O Taste and See” (the work of a contemporary voice) contradicts William Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us” (the work of a literary tradition) in order to comment upon the changing face of the “industrial city” over a span of time between the Romantic Era and today. Through a comparative study of the poets’ respective opinions of city life, their need to use archaisms, and their interpretation of the “Garden of Eden” trope, one can clearly see the exciting, enlightening call-and-response dynamic at play. However, these fragmented negations achieve a greater purpose, for they cohere to illuminate the intertextual relationship between the two poems, locating a fundamental commonality (the importance of man’s relationship to the nature) in spite of surface differences.
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