Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802: Wikis

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"Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802" is a sonnet by William Wordsworth describing London, viewed from one of the bridges over the Thames, in the early morning. It was first published in 1807.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Contents

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet. The Romantic Movement describes a group of people who threw off the rigid scientific world created by Isaac Newton and his other followers. Wordsworth led the romantic poets, along with William Blake, beginning a revolution in thought and expression. He believed that through nature and communion with nature, we find happiness. He chose "rustic" people because:

"in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language" (Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, second edition).

Context

The poem was written in 1802 when Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, were going to Calais, France, to meet with his former French mistress Annette Vallon and Caroline, his illegitimate daughter by her. Wordsworth had not seen her since 1791 when he had expressed to her a wish to marry but had been forced to return to Great Britain because of the increasing likelihood of war between Britain and France. In 1802 the Peace of Amiens once again allowed travel to France. Wordsworth now wished to marry his childhood friend, Mary Hutchinson. The purpose of their journey was to arrive at a mutually agreeable settlement regarding Wordsworth's obligations to Annette and Caroline and free his conscience to marry Mary.[1]

A coach they were travelling on paused on Westminster Bridge, and the view of the city somewhat surprised Wordsworth. Despite the city being made totally of man, and not nature; despite it being that dirty place that had grown so much in the Industrial Revolution that people in the villages had starved to death, rather than move to such an unknown, dirty place, Wordsworth was surprised at its beauty in the early sunlight.

Wordsworth's "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" can be closely compared with Blake's "London". "London" gives an impression of contempt for the city and what it has become, whilst "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" is a looser, friendlier approach to a poem about London.

Structure

Westminster Bridge as it appeared in 1808, only a few years after the writing of the poem

This poem is written in Petrarchan sonnet form. This scheme divides the poem into two- the first eight lines (octave) and the next six (sestet). Between these two is a break called a volta which emphasises the traditional change in mood or subject between the octave and sestet. In the first eight, he describes early morning London in detail, and then goes on in the final six to compare the city in that moment to natural wonders. The rhyme scheme is ABBAABBA CDCDCD, as is fairly common for a Petrarchan sonnet.("Majesty" in the third line of this poem is changed to sound like "by" in the second line, by the poet himself in order to fulfill the ABBAABBA, rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet.)

Summary

In the beginning of the poem, the poet is describing the beauty of the morning scene at Westminster Bridge. He says there is nothing more beautiful on earth - a scene which is "touching in its majesty". Wordsworth puts the beauty of such a scene down to the "smokeless air", an unusual thing for London in the 1800s, and part of the beauty that only the earliest morning can bring. He even goes so far as to suggest that no "valley, rock, or hill" has been so beautifully lit by the early morning, which, considering Wordsworth's preference for rustic figures and nature, would seem surprising until the penultimate line of the sonnet half-answers our questions. The beauty of the city is that it is sleeping. There are no people bustling about, there is no smoke... the sun (which note, is Nature) may only have such a deep effect on the city at this time, before the city becomes a city - whilst it is still just buildings.

Themes, Language and Imagery

The dominating theme in the poem is Nature. London is not introduced in its negative aspect, but it is inserted in natural scenery. The author describes the beauty of the city as the towers, the cathedrals, the theatres and the temples. Wordsworth personifies the city along with the earth and the sun. This reiterates his conviction that the city, at this particular point of day, does not clash with nature but becomes a part of it.

In Wordsworth's view, the air is clean and only the light of the sun illuminates the city. The poet transmits to the readers the calm and the tranquillity described in his poem. There are neither sounds or noises, there is only silence. In Blake's poem, hearing is the prevailing sense. In Wordsworth's one, it is the sight that emerges, while the hearing is absent. On the one hand in Blake's composition, the town is presented through the smoke that pervades the walls of the Churches. On the other hand, in Wordsworth's poem, London shows clean air and the sun illuminates the whole city.

In this poem, Wordsworth brings the scenery around him to life (an example of the Pathetic fallacy). Wordsworth personifies the Earth by giving it a capital letter, and describing it as having the ability to "show". He also personifies the city, by describing it as wearing the morning beauty "like a garment". The image of the sun is powerful, as it is referred to as “he”, with actions described by diction such as “steep”. This diction creates the image of sunlight slowly submerging into the Earth's splits. The river is personified when it is described as having its "own sweet will", and the houses are personified by their description of being asleep. Lastly, the city itself is personified with the line "and all that mighty heart is lying still". These personifications again help us to draw the conclusion that Wordsworth is considering a sleeping city as part of nature. The compact description of London in lines six and seven emphasize the compactness of the city, and long vowel sounds such as "glideth" and "silent" emphasize the calm feeling of the occasion.

A view of the City of London from upriver (in the direction of Westminster Bridge) in 1808, which shows the sight of "ships, towers, domes" and the smoke which would have been familiar in 1802

The description “bright and glittering in the smokeless air” creates a distinct image of the clarity of the morning. These images combine to create a breathtaking image of the morning. Despite this excitement created by the vivid descriptions, prevalent in this poem is a sense of calamity. The poem describes “a calm so deep” that “even the houses seem asleep”.

The poem depicts a vivid scene that is yet another fond memory shared between Wordsworth and his sister. He uses beautiful language and clever literary devices, especially imagery, to make the city come alive before the reader's eyes. The passionate picture that the poem paints is a memory that calms and placates.

The spondaic substitution or successive accented syllables lends emphasis to the emotional feeling that strikes the poet. Here is a romantic who spends most of his time in the Lake District, in fields of daffodils, exulting in an urban morning cityscape, unconcerned with the getting and spending, buying and lending that he decries elsewhere.[2]

The poem, written in the Petrarchan sonnet form, describes the beauty of London in the early morning just when the sun rises. We perceive the beauty of the city not so much through the description of what can be seen as through a sense of the admiration of the speaker. It is as if he is looking at a wonder, at something that cannot be but is still there. This sense of admiration is communicated through the development of a strange paradox, which states the impossible unity of two contradictory things: the industrial city and the organic beauty of nature (cf. Cleanth Brook’s analysis of this poem in his essay ‘The Language of Paradox’). This paradox is introduced through the image of dress, which the rhymes of the octave highlight: the city is fair (beautiful) because it wears ‘like a garment’ the natural beauty of the morning; but wearing the beauty of the morning in fact means that the city is bare (naked): what it wears is just ‘the smokeless air’.

The paradox is carried over and developed further in the sestet. The connection with the dress metaphor is established through the image of the city being steeped in the light of the sun and then the paradox is extended to the strange union of being dead (or asleep) and being alive. The city is now more beautiful and more alive than nature itself, but this is only so because it is steeped in the light of the sun and is thus deep asleep. The rhyming words steep – deep – asleep highlight these connections. As opposed to the city, which is ‘lying still’, the natural parts of the landscape, the sunlight, the ‘valley, rock, or hill’ as well as the river are now active, they dominate over the sleeping city, as is emphasized by the rhyming words hill – at their will – lying still. The city, represented in the last line by the metaphor of the heart, is thus alive because it is dead, because it is inactive and is dominated by its natural environment.

The thematic development of the poem is seconded by the rhythms. The enjambments (and the eye-rhyme) in the octave express the boundless admiration for this beautiful sight, the overflowing emotion of the speaker. This is further emphasized by the fact that although the lines of the Petrarchan sonnet in English should be iambic pentameters, none of these lines are exactly iambic. Even where the rhythm gets very close to this (lines 3, 4, 5, and 12); the sentence structure or a caesura disrupts the smooth iambic rhythm. This is true of all the lines except the very last one where the rhythms smoothes out and a perfect iambic pentameter ends the poem: "And all that mighty heart is lying still!"

One function of this metrical development is clearly to mark the end of the poem. Apart from this, however, the clear iambic rhythm also functions here on another level. By the sound effect it creates it contradicts the explicit verbal meaning of the line in which it appears. While the line says that the ‘mighty heart’ of the city ‘is lying still’, the iambic rhythm gives us a strong sense of the beating of a heart. Thus the paradox that is developed all through the poem reaches its final statement in this line. The city now is ‘lying still’, it is dead, it is not itself, it is dominated by its natural environment; and it is precisely because of this that it can come to life: the mighty heart begins to beat only when it is lying still.

Critical Reception

Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy Wordsworth, in her Journal July 31, 1802, described the scene seen by her and her brother thus:-

"It was a beautiful morning. The city, St. Paul's, with the river, and a multitude of little boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke, and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly, with such a fierce light; that there was something like the purity of one of nature's own grand spectacles."

See also

1807 in poetry

Notes

  1. ^ [1]Everett, Glenn, "William Wordsworth: Biography" Web page at The Victorian Web Web site, accessed 7 January 2007
  2. ^ [2]Woods, Kerry Michael "Poetry analysis: Upon Westminster Bridge, by William Wordsworth" Web page at Helium Web site, accessed 7 December 2009

External links

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