William Wordsworth was one of the founders of the literary movement we now call Romanticism, a period covering (roughly) the years 1790 to 1824. One of the most prominent features of Romantic poetry – that means poetry from the Romantic period, not that lovey-dovey stuff you see on greeting cards – is an obsession with nature; there are a whole lot of poems about mountains, flowers, birds, you name it. In addition to talking about nature, the Romantics also spent a lot of time on gross inequalities among social classes, industrialization, the government, etc. In many ways, they resemble a lot of our modern-day advocates for the environment and social equality.
William Wordsworth, the biggest nature-lover of them all, lived most of his life in a rural part of northern England called the Lake District, a land of beautiful hills, vales, and lakes. If you head over to "Best of the Web," you can see some pictures of Wordsworth's beloved Lake District. Having grown up and lived in one of the most beautiful places in England, it's no surprise that Wordsworth was worried about the potential destruction of that landscape (through deforestation, urbanization, etc.) and about humanity's increasing inability to appreciate it.
It is humanity's inability to "feel" nature that most concerns the speaker of "The World is too Much with Us," a poem Wordsworth probably wrote in 1802 but didn't publish until 1807. The speaker claims that our obsession with "getting and spending" has made us insensible to the beauties of nature. "Getting and spending" refers to the consumer culture accompanying the Industrial Revolution that was the devil incarnate for Wordsworth and other "lake poets" like Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Only something as malevolent as that evil red guy with horns and a pitch-fork could make people insensible to something as beautiful as (hold your breath) the wind! But that's just it. Wordsworth's point is that our obsession with "getting and spending" has made it impossible for us to appreciate the simple beauties of the world around us.
Despite that little gap of about 200 years, the Romantic poets speak to us more than you might think. Take "The World is too Much with Us" as an example. Possibly now more than ever, people are obsessed with "getting and spending." The rise of the Internet has made anything we want, from groceries to video games, just a click away. If Internet shopping isn't your thing, just think about the number of strip malls and stores that you could potentially visit on any given day. Why bother with nature when you could wander around the mall or download a movie? That is precisely the attitude that irritated Wordsworth so much.
Now, let's face it – a lot of us appreciate the natural world, but ever-increasing urbanization has made nature more and more remote. For some of us, it feels like we have to drive for hours and hours just to get to a place where there aren't a ton of street lights obstructing our view of the stars. Even though the government works hard to preserve some of the choicer parts of the natural world through natural parks, wildlife preserves, and the like, no one can deny that cities are getting bigger; bigger cities means more shops, parking lots, and freeways, and a lot less nature.
William Wordsworth was an advocate for nature, and nowadays there is certainly no shortage of activists that make similar claims as Wordsworth. Sure, there are a number of differences, such as the fact that modern-day environmentalists tend to focus on how the ozone layer and forests are necessary if humanity is to avoid getting skin cancer or running out of fresh air. While things like pollution and the ozone layer weren't understood in Wordsworth's time as well as they are now, the fundamental issues are the same. Both Wordsworth and his modern-day ancestors realize that there is something in nature that keeps us alive and healthy, whether literally (modern activists) or spiritually (Wordsworth).