Analysis of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

 

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The Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, were unlucky not to have lived in the smartphone era!  Then again maybe we’re lucky that no such modern technology existed in 1802!  If Wordsworth were alive today his camera phone would surely be filled to capacity and the scenes and events he captured would be relived and enjoyed later in the comfort of his study – ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ brought into the twenty-first century!

This poem is noteworthy in particular because of its location.  Instead of the leafy banks of the Wye or the rolling hills and dales of Cumbria, he brings us to the heart of the city in the early morning.  He wants to stress to us that his philosophy of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ will work just as well in the grubby city as it would by the shores of Lake Windemere.

In this case, he is inspired by the view he saw from Westminster Bridge on the morning of 31st July 1802, although he didn’t write the poem until September of the same year.  In fact, the more correct title of the sonnet is ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’.  He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge on a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France.  We know all this because Dorothy mentions the event in her diary:

‘We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross.  It was a beautiful morning.  The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and a Multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight …. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.’

I’m sure we have all experienced a city in the early morning before the sleeping giant awakes.  The early morning light gives the impression that the city has been recently washed and is now clean in the morning air.  The gaudiness of the night before with its neon lights flashing on the water and the constant rumbling and screeching of traffic has yet to begin anew.  This fleeting moment of peace before the storm is what Wordsworth is describing here as he crosses London Bridge on an early morning stagecoach.

The theme of the poem is London as it lies asleep in the early morning sun. We get the impression here of a sleeping giant, perhaps rather terrifying when awake as some cities tend to be, but, now it sleeps so peacefully that those who see him are no longer afraid and are able to admire his elegance and splendour.

The tone of the poem is one of awe and breathless admiration at the sight before him.  He feels a deep sense of peace and contentment at the sight of such man-made things as ships and towers.  These sights are made even more wonderful in his eyes because of the closeness of Nature herself – the fields, the sky, the sun, and the river Thames itself.

His opening line shows that to him this is the ultimate in beauty; he cannot understand how anyone could ignore such a sight.  We must remember that the poem, like most of Wordsworth’s poetry, is one of feelings and emotions.  He refers to this scene of grandeur (‘majesty’) as ‘touching’ whereas often we consider grand and majestic things to be somewhat cold and distant.  The city, to him, is a living thing; it is clothed in the ‘beauty of the morning’.  The city is also silent at this time of the morning and this impression is reinforced by his use of the sibilant ‘s’ sounds in ‘silent’, ‘ships’, ‘sky’, ‘smokeless’ and also in the line:

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples….

There is a lovely juxtaposition when he uses the word ‘bare’ to describe the ships and towers without their human activity in sharp contrast to the city wearing its beautiful morning ‘garment’.  Wordsworth is suggesting to us that all these man-made things are ‘bright and glittering’ only because they are exposed to Nature; that the air is clean only because man is not yet awake to stain it with his smoking fires.  The idea of the sharp, clear and clean air is suggested by the words ‘sky’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’.

His long list of man-made objects conveys to us what makes the city different: not just one ship but many; not just one tower but tower blocks.  The use of alliteration in ‘towers’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’ also conveys a sense of wonder in the reader and adds to their importance.

There is a sense that the sun is dressing the city to meet another day and that it has never steeped the countryside in the same manner as it does the sleeping city.  Gradually the city comes alive: the river is moving gracefully (‘glideth’), unimpeded by the small boats who ply their trade up and down the Thames all day long.  The houses have yet to come alive and they will do so as soon as their eyes (windows) are touched by the sun’s rays.

The poet’s prayerful exclamation of ‘Dear God!’ is ambiguous and it seems as if the thought has entered his head that everyone in the houses is also dead.  This is a striking example of the poet’s imagination.  The final line reintroduces us to the idea of the heart of the city, our sleeping giant.  The ‘mighty heart’ suggests something huge, whose heart is gently and soundlessly beating.  We all have seen what happens next on our TV screens as the camera uses time-lapse shots to show the ever-increasing flow of people and traffic and shops opening their doors, as the city slowly, relentlessly comes to life – the great giant stirs.

The poem presents us with a very compact series of images.  His use of the classic Petrarchan Sonnet formula shows his discipline and craft.  (The rhyming scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd).  His use of run-on lines suggests the movement of the rising sun over the city.  They also emphasise the poet’s use of ordinary speech rhythms, which was a strong feature of Romantic poetry.  The run-on lines may also mirror the poet’s rush of emotions as he encounters and strives to capture the scene before him.

A poem with such feeling must be musical.  Note his use of broad ‘o’ sounds in the first quatrain, ‘show’, ‘more’, ‘so’, ‘doth’.  These broad vowel sounds combined with the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘by’, ‘sight’, ‘like’ also convey the poet’s sense of awe and wonder.  I have already mentioned the sibilant ‘s’ sounds that occur throughout the poem and these are associated with the silence and calm of the early morning scene.  Finally, in the final three lines, this harmony is brought out by the assonance in ‘sweet’, ‘Dear’, ‘seem’, and ‘asleep’ and in ‘glideth’, ‘mighty’, and ‘lying’.

This poem is similar to ‘Daffodils’ and other masterpieces like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in that it furthers Wordsworth philosophy of what poetry is.  He is yet again storing up photographic images using his ‘inward eye’ so that they can be recalled and enjoyed again in the peace and quiet of his own study at a later time.  Nature is here presented from a different perspective.  It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress and amid the ‘din’ of towns and cities.  It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore our mental health, prompting him to exclaim as he does here on Westminster Bridge that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’

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Read a more comprehensive analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry here

Read a detailed analysis of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth here

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William Wordsworth’s Poetry

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Wordsworth was a poet who had a huge influence, not only on poetry, but on the whole thought of the 19th century and beyond.  His avowed aim was to make poetry out of the commonest experiences of life and in the language of the common man.  The essential part of his poetic work is almost entirely comprised in the period 1797 – 1807.  He believed that his poetry was not an immediate response to the stimulus of beauty, but the welling up of feeling long stored in the heart, and brooded over, resulting in the ‘spirit of a landscape rather than the detail’.  His poems were ‘delayed action’.

(He attempts to explain his theory of poetry and to defend it in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.  Below are some extracts from this, but it would be worth your while to read the Preface for yourself to obtain a greater understanding of his work.)

Wordsworth was one of the earliest of the Romantic poets.  He was one of a number of poets who composed in a new way and who treated subjects that had previously been shunned in poetry.  The Romantic poets sought to reject artificiality; they appear to be sincere to themselves and to their readers.  Wordsworth, unlike his predecessors, sought out his subject matter in the simplicity of rustic life, which he had grown to love as a child.

Wordsworth rejected, therefore, the traditions of the Augustan poets that preceded him.  Poets such as Alexander Pope had composed poetry with an emphasis on elegant expression and emotional restraint.  For the Romantic poet, imagination rather than reason, became central in shaping poetry.  Freshness and spontaneity were the new key ‘buzz words’ at the beginning of the 19th. Century

Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798!) marked the beginning of the Romantic Movement in English poetry.  The work met with critical hostility and so Wordsworth added his famous Preface to the second edition, which was published in 1801.  He intended the Preface as a defense of his unconventional theory on poetry.  The main assertion of the Preface was that the source of poetic truth was in the direct experience of the senses.  This theory went completely against poetry of the day, which was very intellectual in approach and tended to shun personal emotion.  The critics, however, were unconvinced by Wordsworth’s methods, and their opposition to his principles continued until the 1820’s, when his reputation began to grow.

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EXTRACTS FROM PREFACE TO THE LYRICAL BALLADS

  • ‘The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.’  In other words, he does not invent imaginary worlds; rather he directs our attention back to the real world in which we all live.
  • ‘For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, poems to which any value may be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.  For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of our past feelings.’
  • ‘Poetry is the image of man and nature.’  Nature was to him a living soul that reveals herself in the movements of the stars, the yearnings of the heart, the sleep of a great city, or the decay of a flower.  His poetry makes no division between man and the world in which he lives.  He thinks of all created things, human and inanimate, as part of one great whole, filling their appointed place, moving in their established order.  He wanted to open up to the reader the ‘loveliness and the wonders’ of nature and to write poetry that would ‘interest mankind permanently’.  He wanted to encourage people to look at nature, and at themselves, in a new way.
  • ‘I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.  In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment.’

To a greater or lesser degree within individual poems, Wordsworth’s subject matter and his style conform to these principles.  Tintern Abbey, for example, certainly justifies the conception of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,’ a kind of poetry that takes its origin in ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’.  However, there are passages of language in the poem that are nothing like that of ordinary men.  Nonetheless, Tintern Abbey also includes conversational language and phrasing.  If you read the poem aloud you should be able to hear the way his language moves in eddies, as it would in conversation – there are moments of certainty, moments of hesitancy, pauses to reflect or to doubt, backward reflections and forward glances.  These are as much features of conversational language today as they were 200 years ago.

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WILLIAM WORDSWORTH – THE OVERVIEW

Much of Wordsworth’s poetry was composed out of doors.  He often composed while walking, speaking the words aloud, but he rarely wrote as a tourist.  He felt that he belonged to or lived in the places he describes and celebrates in his poetry and his poetry was startlingly original in its day.  ‘Wordsworth was a revolutionary in that his writings ultimately changed the way in which most of us now perceive the natural world’, argues Ronald Sands.  Dorothy Wordsworth, his sister, said of her brother that ‘starlight walks and winter winds are his delight’ and Wordsworth’s love of nature marked a significant change from the preceding age, during which Dr. Samuel Johnson pronounced that, ‘The man who is tired of London is tired of life’.  For Wordsworth, however, ‘High mountains are a feeling, the hum of cities torture’.

Wordsworth belongs to what is now known as the Romantic Age and the age preceding it was known as the Augustan Age.  In Augustan England people wore wigs and dressed elaborately and social life centred on the city.  The countryside was preferred when eventually it had been tamed, arranged, controlled, ordered; buildings were ornate and landscaped gardens were very popular.  The Augustan poets favoured heroic couplets while Wordsworth frequently wrote in blank verse, as in Tintern Abbey and The Prelude.  The Romantic poets focused on rugged, wild, untamed nature.  They also focused on the imagination and, in Wordsworth’s case, on how in nature we can discover our own nature.  The Augustans, on the other hand, preferred to view nature through their drawing room window!

For Wordsworth, the poet is ‘a man speaking to men’.  He deliberately chose ‘incidents and situations from common life, and wanted to relate or describe them … in a selection of language really used by men.’  and yet Wordsworth is not an ‘easy’ poet by any stretch of the imagination, not even in his language, as he sometimes liked to think.  By and large his poetry can be described as Pastoral, a poetry celebrating the countryside and rural life.  He writes about shepherds, beggars and ordinary people living ordinary lives in a fresh and original way.

In Wordsworth’s poetry we are not only reminded of how nature affords us great pleasure but it also allows us to understand ourselves as creatures living in time and place.  Nature, for him, is the great teacher.  Tintern Abbey documents how his relationship with nature has grown and developed over time.  First there was the physical response and boyish delight, then ‘the aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’ of the young man and finally the combination of the senses and the intellect.  Indeed growth can be said to be a central theme in his poetry and his wife subtitled The Prelude – Growth of a Poet’s Mind.

Wordsworth has also been credited with being the poet of childhood but this description, a view encouraged by the Victorians (late 19th Century), does not do him justice.  He was more interested in the development of the adult mind, the adult moral sense.  Seamus Heaney puts it very well when he points out that Wordsworth, more than any writer before him, established how truly ‘the child is father to the man’ – in other words, our early life often determines how we will live as adults.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) defined the poet as ‘an inventor; an author of fiction; a writer of poems; one who writes in measure’.  Wordsworth’s definition saw the poet as comforter, moral guide, prophet.  He believed that poetic, creative minds ‘build up greatest things / From least suggestions’.  Thus the poet is an observer, a watcher and Wordsworth definitely fits this bill because he was a poet who kept his eyes open and he wanted to hear what people had to tell.  He was, in Robert Woof’s words, ‘a poet who listened’ and he is also a poet who shares with the reader his understandings and insights.

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SAMPLE ANSWER:

 ‘There are many wide-ranging attitudes to nature in Wordsworth’s poetry’.  Discuss.

 

One of the principal concerns in Wordsworth’s poetry is nature.  In reading his poetry, it becomes apparent that he explored nature from a number of different perspectives.  Certainly, he celebrates its beauty; it is often also a source of delight and joy.  In other poems, nature is presented as a great teacher.  He also examines the way in which nature acts as a comforter.  Finally, Wordsworth, in his more mature relationship with nature, sees it as a means of developing his own visionary insight, when nature’s almost divine presence seems to awaken a spiritual wisdom within the poet.

Wordsworth’s love of nature had been nurtured in his early childhood, when he swam in the local rivers and lakes and walked through woods and over hills.  There are numerous sketches and portraits of nature’s beauty in his work.  In To My Sister, the poet celebrates the ‘first mild day of March’ which awakens in him the desire to leave the indoors and immerse himself in nature, to ‘Come forth and feel the sun’.  In Tintern Abbey, the poet sees again those ‘steep and lofty cliffs’ and other ‘beauteous forms’ such as ‘plots of cottage-ground’, ‘orchard tufts’, and ‘sportive wood’.  His account of his escapade on the lakes in Boating includes several very evocative and quite beautiful descriptions of nature, such as the movement of his small boat out onto the lake, ‘Leaving behind her still on either side, / Small circles glittering idly in the moon, / Until they melted all into one track / Of sparkling light.’

In Wordsworth’s poetry, however, nature is not merely a landscape, a background or setting.  It also becomes a source of sustenance and comfort.  In Tintern Abbey, he touches on several aspects of nature and his relationship with it.  He seems convinced in this poem that a communion with nature can restore well-being and provide hope to those who have endured moments of despair and disillusionment.  In the poem he proposes a deeply held conviction that nature and humankind can and should exist in a form of partnership, out of which inner peace and calm may be attained.  While the poem opens with scenes of beautifully visualised landscape, it soon becomes clear that Wordsworth is keen to explore the effect of these surroundings upon his own inner well-being.  The poet reflects on how memories of the scene have comforted him during times of dejection and restored his more tranquil state of mind, when ‘oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet.’  Paradoxically, in his poem about London, Upon Westminster Bridge, the glory of a summer’s morning veils the city with a beauty that fills the poet with awe, and prompts him to remark that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’

In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote that ‘Every great poet is a teacher.’  Wordsworth believed that his poetry could be instructive to people.  He is often the solitary thinker, alive to his feelings and thoughts and sincere in his convictions.  However, although the experiences he describes in his work are very local and arise from particular circumstances in his own life, the conclusions he draws from those experiences, feelings and thoughts are intended to have universal significance.  The idea of nature as teacher is quite evident in Tintern Abbey and also in To My Sister.  This poem is an explicit statement of the poet’s belief in the power of feeling over reason as the ultimate source of truth.  In the poem the speaker calls on his sister to forego her chores and her studies.  He encourages her to enjoy the beauty of a spring day, in which, ‘One moment now may give us more / Than years of toiling reason’.

A further development in Wordsworth’s perspective on nature occurs when he avows that the landscape has also shaped his moral development.  One childhood experience that shows the beginning of this development is recalled in his poem The Stolen Boat.  Here, the slightly troubled boy rows from the shore in the stolen boat only to see the mountains loom before him, dark and threatening.  In the boy’s imagination, nature is admonishing him for his theft.  The terrified boy returns the boat to its mooring-place and crosses the meadows towards home ‘in grave / And serious mood’.

Nature as moral guide is very evident in Tintern Abbey.  Here, Wordsworth explains that in gaining pleasure from nature he has been enabled to enter into a ‘serene and blessed’ mood, which culminates in his seeing beyond the superficial and into the ‘life of things’.  Nature has, therefore, facilitated the development of the poet’s understanding of things that previously remained unintelligible.  It is very clear in this poem that nature is not merely an object of love; it has become an inspiration, a provider of moral and spiritual guidance.  The poet seems deeply indebted to nature which has become, ‘The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being’.

In the final section of Tintern Abbey the poet prays to nature to be a similar source of guidance to Dorothy, his sister.  He is confident that nature will bestow on her similar gifts of understanding and trust, ‘Knowing that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her’.  (This invocation is very similar to The Memorare, a prayer addressed to Mary, Mother of God, ‘And never was it known that anyone to fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession was left unaided …. ).  Wordsworth reminds Dorothy of nature’s power: he tells her it can ‘lead from joy to joy’, ‘can so inform the mind’, ‘so impress with quietness and beauty’ and ‘so feed with lofty thoughts’ that she can be assured that even the ‘dreary intercourse of daily life’ shall not destroy her ‘cheerful faith’.

Wordsworth, therefore, presents nature from a number of perspectives.  It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress in the ‘din’ of towns and cities.  It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore mental health.  It can teach us lessons about our humanity, and it can inspire a fellow-feeling for humankind, so that we too might respond with ‘acts / Of kindness and of love’.

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 Note: You might also like to have a look at ‘Tintern Abbey – An Analysis’ in my Archives for a more detailed exploration of that poem.  Read it here