William Wordsworth Upon Westminster Bridge Essay

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!


As London seethes gently in a springtime stew of local pollution and Saharan dust, it’s tempting to see Wordsworth’s sonnet as a watercolour of a golden age. If the facts of commerce and empire were ugly, their machinery could still be picturesque, and the environmental and social damage invisible. Aesthetically, of course, there’s no competition between St Paul’s and the Gherkin. But any idea that the 18th-century city, unlike today’s, embodied moral innocence and ideal beauty is an illusion – as the poem itself acknowledges.

Dorothy Wordsworth phrased her own response to the view more cautiously, noting that “the sun shone so brightly, with such a pure light, that there was something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand spectacles”. “Something like” is the phrase that denotes her caution. Wordsworth’s poem has no such hesitation. He seems to be tugging his sister’s arm. “Oh, come on. Nothing’s as beautiful as this!” Of course, the poem puts it more eloquently. “Earth has not anything to show more fair.” That he already suspects himself of an exaggeration, though, seems confirmed by the second line’s amplifications (“Dull would he be of soul …”) And yet the hyperbole conveys neither dishonesty nor irony. The stooping-down tenderness of the almost-pun, “touching”, in that surprising and beautiful oxymoron, “(A sight) so touching in its majesty,” proves Wordsworth’s heart is in his rhetoric.

This is a poem which both tells and shows. The interlocking devices of the Petrarchan form allow a seamless movement between remonstration (lines one to three and nine to 11) and demonstration. But it’s a bold message – that the city is as beautiful as anything in nature – and Wordsworth never quite trusts the reader to get it. A shade cunningly, he flavours his urban scene with rural qualities: silence, bareness, fields, sky, river. Line 10, risking the blatant comparison, evokes a Lake District sunrise. But no word is more telling, perhaps, than that simple observation - “smokeless”. The city’s glittering beauty – feminised for even more affective power – depends on a suspension of one of its chief activities: combustion.

And this is how the elated poet achieves a compromise, and the argument with his inner Dorothy is resolved. “Dear God, the very houses seem asleep,” he mutters to himself, a bit lamely. (It’s the only time his super-voltage rhetoric seems to flicker). But there’s no doubting the poem’s conclusion, and that it’s a subtle mediation between sense and sensibility. London has justified the Romantic vision only in a state of suspended animation, imagined not merely asleep, but lying in heart-stilled death.

If we don’t doubt either the intensity of Wordsworth’s response or his simultaneous special pleading, we might wonder if the view from the bridge isn’t haunted by other powerful emotions. On the occasion recollected in this sonnet, William and Dorothy were headed for Calais. Might not memories of his earlier trips to France have heightened the poet’s experience in 1802? Perhaps that illusory, pristine moment before London woke up somehow evoked the political innocence of the early days of the French revolution, when “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”? Fleshing out his youthful revolutionary mood in the same poem, Wordsworth sounded a metaphorical echo of the Westminster Bridge sonnet in the assertion, “Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,/ The beauty wore, of promise …”

Is it possible, then, that the Westminster Bridge skyline, clothed only in “the beauty of the morning,” also conceals an image of his lover, Annette Vallon? This is not to trivialise the poem but to seek a richer source for its combined rhetorical insistence and its visual and tactile delicacy. There may well be two women sitting next to Wordsworth in his wonderful stagecoach of a sonnet – the thoroughly-present Dorothy and the imagined, haunting figure of Annette.

William Wordsworth:
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!

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 beautifully 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 emphasised 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, 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.

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