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William Wordsworth’s "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

Introduction and Text of "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"

Once the notion of pastoral, rustic, country life has taken over the imagination, it becomes customary to disparage city life with its crowded thoroughfares, noisy traffic, and industrial soot and smoke. With its tall buildings blocking out the sunlight and concrete walkways pounding the feet and legs, the city offers the Romantic philosopher/poet the perfect adversary, and thus beauty comes to belong only to the country. But what if one possesses a mind that is more inclusive, and less attracted to negativity? After all, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"—or so the old proverb goes.

William Wordsworth’s sonnet, "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802," delivers a message that is not always associated with the Romantics: a detailing of the beauty of the city. Country life surrounded in nature is thought to be the domain of the Romantics, but in this insightful sonnet, Wordsworth’s speaker describes a beauty that many folk, Romantic or otherwise, often overlook.

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!

Reading of "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"

Commentary

One of the leading voices of the Romantic Movement, William Wordsworth crafted this poem in the traditional Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet form. From the speaker’s first Romantic effusion to his appeal to his Creator, he is offering a celebration of the subject of beauty that the Romantics often overlooked.

First Movement: Romantic Effusion

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:

The opening three lines of this Wordsworth sonnet offer a typical Romantic effusion. The speaker claims what he is observing has no equal on the earth. What he sees is as "fair" as anything he has ever seen before. He adds that only someone whose soul is dulled could fail to register the "majesty" of "a sight so touching." Without identifying the beautiful sight, the speaker mysteriously lures his audience into his narrative.

The use of hyperbole by master craftsmen enhances the force of their works; Wordsworth was one of those master craftsmen. The first line offers such an exaggerated statement that one must immediately form some doubt, but then the consummate poet supports his hyperbolic claim with a statement which cannot be doubted.

Even though the claims are ultimately the opinion of the speaker, the reader understands the benign nature of the claims and that they remain simply in service of describing the subject clearly and completely.

Second Movement: Majestic Motivation

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;

The speaker then reveals this majestic sight which has motivated his claim that there is nothing on earth more beautiful than the sight he is now experiencing. It is not some wondrous field of flowers; it is "[t]his City." The speaker is viewing the city in the morning, and it seems to be wearing the morning’s beauty as one would wear a lovely piece of clothing, such as a beautiful gown or finely tailored suit.

The city is "silent" and simple, and the speaker observes various entities such as "ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples." These man-made structures, however, seem not to be enclosed and finite; they seem to be offering themselves "open" unto the fields and sky, as would a field of flowers or a valley sculpted by the hand of nature’s Creator.

Third Movement: A Calming View

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!

This beautiful morning is revealing these city structures without their usual specter of smoke and soot that ordinarily smear the atmospheric face of the city’s environment. Instead, the speaker feels the urge to confess that his usual feelings of calmness and peace only brought forth by nature have been aroused by this "bright and glittering" view.

Again with an exaggerated effusion, the speaker suggests that even the sun has never shed light on a more serene and lovely sight as it has risen over "valley, rock, or hill." The speaker is suggesting that he is surprised to be finding himself being delighted by a city scene. His ordinary preference is for a country scene with the God-sculpted rocks, hills, and valleys, or perhaps flowers and trees with birds singing all around.

Fourth Movement: Exploding in Wonder

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Finally, the speaker observes that the river is moving on as it is accustomed to do. He figuratively explodes in wonder that even the houses seem to be sleeping, while the very heart of the city is still. As the river glides and the houses themselves seem to be sleeping, he is finding a large measure of tranquility in the beauty of the city scene.

The speaker burst forth addressing the Creator with "Dear God!" He has become so enthralled in the observation that he must cry out to reveal the marvelous tension building from his joy at experiencing such unexpected loveliness in a place wherein he never expected to find it.

Peace, quietude, calmness, and stillness of the natural world untouched by humankind inform the Romantics’ notion of a pastoral scene. But this speaker is successfully demonstrating that the city in the morning with the sun rising over it can offer equal tranquillity to the Romantic notion of that quality.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 24, 2015:

Thank you, Venkatachari. Really appreciate your feedback. Have a blessed day!

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on November 24, 2015:

Beautiful presentation of the Sonnet's meaning and context.

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