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Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

by William Wordsworth

Earth has not any thing to shew more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in it's 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!

 ---- from Poems In Two Volumes, Vol. 1, Sept. 3, 1803

 



The City as Landscape: "
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," by William Wordsworth

This sonnet is arguably not a true nature poem so much as a poem in which a city appears as part of a natural landscape. In it, Wordsworth (or his speaker) gazes at the industrial city of early 1800s London before it wakes up for the day, and sees it as beautiful and in harmony with its natural surroundings.

In fact, his description of the city has a deeply idealized quality, as if he is talking about a heavenly rather than an earthly city. It uses beautiful and descriptive language, an easy flow of meter, and satisfying rhymes to convey a sense of the exalted feeling that has been evoked in the poet/speaker.

These lines convey that sense of exaltation:

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.

The poem also describes the city as if it is a person since we are told that it is wearing the beauty of the morning and, later, that "the very houses seem asleep."

As the title suggests, the poem is based on something the poet himself experienced since it was, "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge." Of course, as has been pointed out before, the speaker sees the city's beauty only because it is asleep. In a sense, he has to rob it of its identity -- idealizing it and catching it when it isn't manifesting the activity and work we most associate with it -- to appreciate it. Catching it in this state, he depicts it as being in harmony with nature when it really isn't at all.

It is interesting to compare "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" to Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem, "God's World," which expresses a similar state of mind involving a deep enthusiasm for the beauty of the world. Like this poem, Millay's poem "humanizes" nature by giving it qualities such as primeval mystery that are about our own thoughts and perceptions.

In both poems, the speaker also describes a state of mind that matches what he or she is experiencing in nature. In the case of "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," the speaker suggests that his calm state of body and mind is inspired by the same state in nature:

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Similarly, Millay's poem suggests her passion is inspired by the dynamism and beauty of nature -- by  "Thy winds, thy wide grey skies! / Thy mists, that roll and rise!" The speaker also says:

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,óLord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;

But the calm and dynamism that the two claim to observe really has more to do with them than nature. At most, they have come to nature ready to have these states of mind evoked.

"Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" can also be compared to another Wordsworth poem, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," which offers another idealized depiction of the world, but one that expresses delight rather than awe at the sight not of a city that is "sleeping," but "dancing" flowers. But then Wordsworth tended to idealize and romanticize his subjects, and produce beautiful word combinations, just as Millay tended to speak with great power, because their personalities predisposed them to both respond to the world and express themselves in certain ways.

-- Ken Sanes


Here are a few excerpts from commentaries on other sites (which I haven't fact-checked):

Poetry analysis: Upon Westminster Bridge, by William Wordsworth:

The coach taking him and his sister to the seaside dock paused on the Westminster Bridge that crosses the Thames. Looking back in the brilliant morning sunlight at the sleeping city of London, the poet composed his Petrarchan sonnet in a tone peaceful and serene....

The poet has personified London through his use of the simile "like a garment" and the verb "wear." The catalogue of manmade structures includes "Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples."

...The magic performed by the sun on the City, while the Thames "glideth at his own sweet will," induces in the poet a feeling of calm, as though the personified houses were peacefully asleep, and the mighty, throbbing heart of the metropolis is wrapped in stillness.

- - - - - -

Wikipedia:
Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

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 (emphasizes) 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.)


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