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
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
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
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.
- - - - - -
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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