'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' Analysis
'Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802' is William Wordsworth's sonnet to the capital city of London, written before the full effects of the industrial revolution had reached the metropolis.
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were on their way to the port of Dover in July 1802, en route to Paris. Imagine an early dawn, hardly anyone on the streets, when along comes a carriage and horses, stopping temporarily to take in the view over the River Thames. This could be the moment of inspiration for the romantic poet.
When he returned to England he finished the sonnet, and it was published a few years later in 1807. There are variations to this story but the basic idea is that Wordsworth was enthralled by the smokeless vista before him, interpreting the city skyline as a natural landscape, beautiful and quiet, most people not yet going about their business.
Some are critical of the poet for portraying London as some kind of sublime idyll when the true nature of life in the capital was far more brutal and down to earth. This was at a time when destitute kids scraped a living sifting through the mud of the Thames for pennies, when the river itself was a stinking mess and many perished from diseases such as cholera.
Poets such as William Blake were well aware of the human suffering the city caused and wrote reflective poems.
Others argue that Wordsworth had no option, being a romantic, seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses so to speak, having to express his feelings about what he saw at that time on the bridge. And in 1802, London would be relatively small, the architecture modest, the countryside, with open fields and woods, not that far from busy city roads.
- The sonnet is still causing debate between realists and romantics. On the one hand, it's nothing more than fourteen lines of sentimental invention, with hyperbole; on the other, it's a fresh perspective, an enlightened vision that lifts the spirit.
- There is also a kind of paradox in the idea that a city can be part of nature, or that an ugly, man-made city can be perceived as being as beautiful as a natural landscape. Which is it?
Somewhere between the two lies poetic craft and the question of whether or not the poet has successfully twinned form with content. No doubting though the popularity of this well-known sonnet, its scanty plot of ground, and its ability to split opinion down the middle.
- 'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, with the first eight lines, the octave, being observation, and the last six lines, the sestet, the conclusion.
'Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802'
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!
Overview of the Poem
'Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802' is Wordsworth's delicately wrought dedication to the capital of England, the city of London.
From that grand opening line, with its showy declaration, to the steady iambic beat of the metropolitan heart, this sonnet aims to do one thing: romanticise what might be deemed ugly.
This is a whole new view of a great city before it has properly woken up. The speaker is adamant that a person would have to be dull...of soul not to be affected by such a vista, both moving and majestic.
- The fourth line is interesting because it sets the reader and speaker in the absolute present; the reader is looking through the eyes of the artist as it were, as dawn lights up the architecture and the great river.
And the metropolis comes alive in the following line - it wears the morning, a calmed personified giant. Wordsworth brings in that most romantic of notions, beauty, and attaches it to what is potentially one of the least beautiful of places, a growing, heaving city.
But this is a city of dream-like quality, as yet unpeopled, set in a fresh light, at rest, at ease with fields and sky, not yet subject to the smoke of the chimney stacks or the smog of industry.
The poet could be forgiven for thinking that this is not London he's looking at but some other natural habitat, perhaps a mountain or a series of lightly lit cliffs and rocks.
In lines 9 and 10, the feelings of the poet reach a kind of fever pitch, an echo of the opening line sounding - he has never seen anything like this dawn, this splendid sunlight.
He is clear in his heart and mind. He's never felt so calm. It's as if the city has him in a trance. Perhaps we've all experienced similar feelings when waking up really early in some great city, and venturing out to take in that special atmosphere, when there's no one around at all and the streets are deserted.
Wordsworth interprets these feelings he has about the overview from that bridge; he's trying to capture the emotion generated by the things he observes. From a ship to a dome, from the river to the houses, the whole suspended shabang.
As to the sonnet's inherent beauty, that is up to the reader, but there are some intricate rhythms involved in these lines, and the pace is controlled with clever syntax.
Certain lines stand out for their sense of wonder - lines 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 - and overall the word intimacy isn't lost to the differing rhythms.
One oddity is line 13 that starts with Dear God! - you can just picture Wordsworth on the carriage top exclaiming. He liked to use such phrases in some of his poetry, an attempt to reflect the more common human response.
So, in conclusion, beyond reality lies the romantic, be it a city turned into a natural phenomenon as in this sonnet, coated, some might say, in too sweet a layer of wonder.
Wordsworth's 'strongly felt emotions' come through loud and clear and he certainly created a timeless piece that beguiles, irritates and puzzles as it takes the reader along into a shared metropolitan experience.
Rhyme and Metre
'Composed upon Westminster Bridge' has the traditional 14 lines split into an octave and a sestet. The rhyme scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd. All the rhymes are full except for lines 2 and 3: by/majesty.
Full Metrical Analysis
A traditional sonnet is made up of 14 lines with pure iambic pentameter. In Wordsworth's sonnet, the iambic beat does dominate but only one line consists of five iambic feet, without caesura or obstacle to flow, and that is the last line.
Lines 3, 4, 5 and 12 are iambic pentameter but the syntax and caesura interrupt the steady beat, reflecting the uncertainty and oddity of the scene. Wordsworth must have purposely constructed it this way to highlight the unusual nature of his subject.
The last line is the only one with a consistent da-DUM beat, the mighty heart beating, the city asleep.
Earth has / not an / ything / to show / more fair: (note opening trochee)
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by (same trochee first foot)
A sight so touching in its majesty: (caesura: touching in)
This City now doth, like a garment, wear (commas slow down line)
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, (semi-colon and commas)
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie (towers/theatres)
Open unto the fields, and to the sky; (trochee first foot)
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. (2 syllables glittering)
Never did sun more beautifully steep (opening trochee)
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; (commas to slow line)
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! (opening trochee;spondee)
The river glideth at his own sweet will: (caesura glideth at)
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; (opening spondee)
And all that mighty heart is lying still! (pure iambic pentameter)
Literary Devices Used
Lines 2,4,6 and 9 have no punctuation to end them so the reader can carry on straight into the next line, a reflection of the flow of feeling as the speaker describes the view.
Line 4 contains a simile...This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The opening line perhaps, and lines 9 and 11 show some exaggeration.
The Poetry handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
© 2018 Andrew Spacey