Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 by William Wordsworth

Just because it's no longer National Poetry Month doesn't mean that we're finished with poetry. Leastaways not around here. I very nearly shared this poem on April 13th, in follow-up to Emily Dickinson's It's All I Have to Bring Today, based on the lines "This, and my heart, and all the fields–/and all the meadows wide". I went with a different Wordsworth poem then (The World Is Too Much With Us, Late and Soon). But I woke up this morning thinking of Wordsworth and sonnets (don't ask) and so here's today's pick. First the poem, then the discussion.

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802
by William Wordsworth

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 I hinted in the introductory paragraph, this poem's a sonnet (as many 14-line poems are wont to be). It's an Italianate variant, written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) with the rhyme scheme ABBAABBACDCDCD. Wordsworth appears to me to have cheated in the third line, since I doubt that majesty rhymed with by, lie, and sky in 1802. He went with a near-rhyme that is a visual rhyme (by and majesty both end in Y after all), which is a bit of a cheat - and also, a bit of a nod toward what started to happen in the next 200 years, where slant-rhymes became far more common in poetry.

Before analyzing the content of the poem, I want to back up and look at the title, which conveys quite a lot of information, I think, some of which is a lie. Westminster Bridge crosses the Thames, and is located in London, right near Westminster Abbey. The bridge on which the Wordsworths (William and his sister, Dorothy) paused to look at London is not the same one that is currently there (and featured in lots of films), as the current Westminster Bridge was opened in 1862. Knowing this makes plain the identity of the City to which Wordsworth refers in the first eight lines of the poem (which are, in fact, a single sentence).

The date in the title may be the date on which Wordsworth wrote the poem, but it may not have been the date on which he observed the City. William and his sister went to Calais for the month of August, 1802, which allowed Worsdworth to achieve a sense of closure with a former lover, Frenchwoman Annette Vallon, the mother of his then ten-year old daughter, Caroline. (At that time, the Treaty of Amiens was in place, and open travel between England and France had resumed. The treaty was broken in May of 1803.)

As Dorothy's diaries make clear, the Wordsworths had stopped on Westminster Bridge as they left London at the end of July. Dorothy's journal for July 31, 1802, says "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." That said, by early September, Dorothy and William were back in England, and it's possible that in returning home, William stopped again to make an observation of the city. It's more likely that, coming home, he was reminded of the day he left and that he opted to write the poem at that point in time based on his (and Dorothy's) recollection of the earlier view of the city.

The poem is notable for Wordsworth's use of personification when describing the city. He describes the city as wearing garments, its buildings bare and open to the sky. Later, he says that the city is asleep, and intimates that it has a heart. The first eight lines are composed of a single sentence, in which Wordsworth waxes poetic about the city's appearance in the same sort of terms he and other Romantic poets used to describe Nature at that time. Rather than praising rocks and trees and hills, he focuses on the ships on the river and the towers, theatres, domes and other buildings on land. The volta, or "turn", in this sonnet occurs in the ninth line, where Wordsworth stops describing the city scene, and begins to discuss how he feels about it by comparing it to nature's beauties and describing how moved he was by the sight - at once peaceful and profound.

Interestingly, other sonnets written by Wordsworth in September of 1802 after his return from Revolution-ravaged France are more judgmental, as, for example, Lines Written in London, September, 1802, which blasts the emphasis on wealth and ornament in English society at the time, skewering vanity and pride and the emphasis on materiality. I think that today's poem is, therefore, decidedly based on his pre-Calais feelings, rather than on the more judgmental bent that accompanied him home from France.

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