While William Wordsworth was taken with the glory of nature, that does not mean to say that he was unaware of the beauty offered in other places as well. London, although considerably not natural, has attracted the attentions of several poets, among them Wordsworth. His poem Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 is a celebration of this city.
Westminster Bridge is a road and foot traffic bridge stretching over the River Thames, linking Westminster and Lambeth. It is a Grade II structure – meaning that it has historical and cultural significance – and it was designed and built between 1739-1750 by the architect Charles Labelye; it proved essential in ferrying traffic to the developing South London and south coast ports, thus avoiding the congested London roads.
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge Summary
In the early morning, the poet stands on Westminster Bridge, which connected the poor and the rich areas of London, and reminisces on the beauty of London in the early morning.
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge Analysis
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 splendour, 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!
Wordsworth’s poems were a celebration of the natural beauty provided by the earth, and it is thus unusual to come across a poem of his that so celebrates the beauty of man-made structures. Wordsworth’s admiration takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, an Italian sonnet that was primarily used to express romantic love. It is made up of 14 lines: an octave, followed by a sestet.
The first thing of note is the poem’s punctuation. At regular intervals, the poet intersperses commas, semi-colons, and exclamation points seemingly at random, thus giving the poem a forced method of reading. As the reader progresses through Composed upon Westminster Bridge… , he is made to slow and thus to reflect upon what he is reading; the punctuation itself acts as a limitation on how quickly the reader can rush through the poem, thus lending aid towards imagining what is being stated in the poem itself. The imagery itself is hardly complicated, but it is richly flourished, such as ‘the City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning’.
Furthermore, note that the repetitive rhyme scheme gives a flowing sense of time – it beats, as the city beats, sluggish and slowly. The emphasis that is placed on the lines due to the stressing of the syllables is what provides much of the poem’s nuance and beauty – for example, in the first line ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’, the emphasis of the phrase would be upon ‘Earth’ and ‘anything’ and ‘fair’; it is a regular, flowing heartbeat, lending the idea that the city itself is alive. It thrives and slumbers and sleeps as the poet walks upon Westminster Bridge, and watches it doze. In the second part of Composed upon Westminster Bridge… , when he is closer to the city, the stanzas become more and more empathic through the use of exclamation marks, thus forcing a warped emphasis upon the ends of the phrase, and thus changing the flowing nature of the poem, mimicking the bodily excitement that the poet himself must have felt.
The imagery of Composed upon Westminster Bridge… is very quiet. It is peaceful imagery, providing the reader with the idea of slumber and of quiet – and the few bright flashes of colour illuminate it enough to give it a nearly divine air, such as the use of the phrase ‘bright and glittering’, and the description of the sun as ‘fully steep’-ing the city in its light. In contemporary times, London was hardly considered to be a place of beauty: it was an ugly, smoke-choked, overcrowded city filled with too many people trying to survive the onset of widescale unemployment, and so Wordsworth’s attempts to beautify it seem almost at odds with the nature of London. In fact note that he makes no reference throughout Composed upon Westminster Bridge… of there being people; London is beautiful, the poet seems to imply, when people are taken out of the equation, when it is quiet and still and it is early in the morning. Note the lack of life throughout the poem, aiming towards an almost alien landscape, a familiar icon turned completely unfamiliar due to the way that it is completely silenced. London that Victorian Londoners knew would not have been silent – in fact, London in modern day is not silent – and so a side-effect of Wordsworth’s attempts to beautify it is to err too much on the side of completely unfamiliar. There seems to be an almost threatening emptiness to Wordsworth’s London.
Also, the City herself seems alive. Note the use of the capital letter to refer to the city, and the use of the word ‘majesty’. Therefore, not only is the city empty of people, it is alive: it is higher ranked than anything else in God’s creation, as Wordsworth states, and has a peculiar majesty. The simplified beauty of London in the early morning is stating that London itself is a regal entity, but only when it is empty of the people that sully it. In this way, Wordsworth is treating the city much like one of his regular landscape poems, and providing her with attributes that all hinge upon the total absence of man and of people. ‘The beauty of the morning’ references natural beauty, thus showing, in a rather roundabout way, that London herself is still connected to nature; it is built on the bones of nature, and thus beautiful in a secondary light. It has been created through the marriage of nature and man, and produced in its infamy to stand there upon the Thames.
‘Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie’, writes Wordsworth, ironically filling the city, not with people, but with attributes; by listing these creations, Wordsworth appears to be making the argument that, because they exist, they are enough, and thus the beauty of London is in multiple forms.
In the end, the poet appears to be stunned into complete silence by the beauty of London. ‘Dear God! The very houses seem asleep; and all that mighty heart is lying still’, he writes, using the exclamation to bring to a head the point that he has been labouring towards the entire poem: the beauty of London in the early morning is a stunning sight, and one that should be seen to be believed.
Historical Background to Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802
We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St. Paul’s, with the River and a Multitude of little boats, made a most beautiful sight…. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.
– Dorothy Wordsworth, July 31, 1802