William Wordsworth

 <  Upon Westminster Bridge >
poem, analysis, commentary, criticism 
The sonnet first appeared in Poems in Two Volumes (1807, 37) 
composed 1802 (32)

Daniel Turner View of Westminster Bridge c1800
currently in the Government Art Collection

 

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!

 

Commentary

This sonnet has the slow, almost hypnotic rhythm of most of Wordsworth's poetry, but most of Wordsworth's poetry is, of course, about the country, while this one celebrates the city. Still, it is the city asleep, very early in the morning, when it is stripped of one of its essential elements, life.

Wordsworth records his emotions whilst crossing Westminster Bridge on top of a carriage with his sister Dorothy. They are on the way to Dover, then Calais, where he is going to meet his former lover, Annette Vallon, and her nine year old daughter by him, whom he has never seen. There are other sonnets in the series relating to this visit.

Dorothy Wordswoth writes in her Journal of 31st July 1802 : ‘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.’

The poem has the normal structure of a sonnet, being fourteen lines of ten syllables each line with a definite break at line eight, similar to the format used by Shakespeare for the series of 154 sonnets he wrote about the fair man and the dark lady. But there is no such complex emotional backdrop here. The only antithesis to what is being recorded is our knowledge of the fact that most of Wordsworth's other work relates to country subjects. To find him here praising a city landscape is therefore surprising, though, as mentioned above, the city has been stripped of its population. In fact, the streets and buildings might as well be 'valley, rock or hill'. The depopulation has given the scene a certain poignant appeal, which the Wordsworths perceive despite their prejudices against the city. But they only appreciate the scene because it approximates to the aesthetics of the countryside. In Dorothy's words, 'there was something like the purity of one of nature's own grand spectacles'.

 The poem begins with two conversational lines of emphatic judgements with heavy stresses on the first syllables, 'earth' and 'dull' respectively. It's as though the poet wants to hit us over the head with these statements before continuing with the poem, which is presumably going to explain how he comes to these conclusions. The rhythm of the iambic pentameter asserts itself in line three, but is quickly interrupted in line five at the seventh syllable with a caesura. This is followed by the hanging three syllables of that line, and an enjambment to the following line. Line six, which exceptionally has eleven syllables, stretches itself out luxuriously with its list, and another enjambment. The effect is to give a rhythm more like prose than poetry at this point, before returning to the regular rhythm of the iambic pentameter to finish the first part of the sonnet at line eight. We feel these changes as if we have participated in a little adventure. The ride was not simply the straightforward da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum of the iambic pentameter. The variations are experienced as rhythmic and therefore also subtle emotional changes. The judgements made at the beginning have been proven by logical statements, lists, facts, or so it appears.

The variations to the rhythm of the iambic pentameter are more subtle in the sestet, which is effectively split into two tercets, the first of which reprises the effect of the sun on the scene, and the poet's response to it. The second is a strange jumble of ideas for which it is difficult to find an adequate ending. Our attention is drawn to the river in the first line, the houses in the second, and the 'mighty heart' in the third. Where exactly, we may ask, is this 'mighty heart' situated? We can imagine turning our attention from the sun to the river, and thence to the houses stretching into the distance, but the sudden introduction of an anatomical simile in the last line is bizarre, jarring, and unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, the rhyme scheme of the sestet (ABABAB) acts like a piece of tight knitting to hold the thought together, and unless we unpick the stitching and examine the thought in detail, we are left with the superficial impression that the conclusion is sound. Shakespeare consistently used a final rhyming couplet for his sonnets, but to succeed with this, the final thought needs to be genuinely profound or witty, or the conclusion will sound trite. Wordsworth avoids this problem. Here, the conclusion becomes the final six lines and the variety of thought contained in those lines avoids the feeling that the conclusion is trite, but the movement of thought leaves us in mid air, still thinking about the river and London, and the blood running underneath the streets.... No, it doesn't work. But the rhymes are very strong.

Charles Lamb on the delights of mountaineering

Wordsworth invited Charles Lamb to the Lake District. This was his reply:

Charles Lamb : Letter to William Wordsworth, Letter LXXXV, 30th January 1801
'I ought before this to have replied to your very kind invitation into Cumberland. With you and your sister I could gang anywhere; but I am afraid whether I shall ever be able to afford so desperate a journey. Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes - London itself a pantomime and a masquerade - all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.  But consider, what must I have been doing all my life, not to have lent great portions of my heart with usury to such scenes?

'My attachments are all local, purely local. I have no passion (or have had none since I was in love, and then it was the spurious engendering of poetry and books) for groves and valleys. The rooms where I was born, the furniture which has been before my eyes all my life, a book-case which has followed me about like a faithful dog (only exceeding him in knowledge), wherever I have moved myself, old chairs, old tables, streets, squares, where I have sunned myself, my old school - these are my mistresses. Have I not enough, without your mountains? I do not envy you. I should pity you, did I not know that the mind will make friends of anything. Your sun, and moon, and skies, and hills, and lakes, affect me no more, or scarcely come to me in more venerable characters, than as a gilded room with tapestry and tapers, where I might live with handsome visible objects. I consider the clouds above me but as a roof beautifully painted, but unable to satisfy the mind: and at last, like the pictures of the apartment of a connoisseur, unable to afford him any longer a pleasure. So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of nature, as they have been confinedly called ; so ever fresh, and green and warm are all the inventions of men, and assemblies of men in this great city.'


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