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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Tintern Abbey – An Analysis

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The importance of this poem cannot be overstated.  It is, in a way, the Gospel, according to Wordsworth and he is an evangelist for Pantheism – seeing the Divine in Nature.  The poem consists of five sections and these represent his developing relationship with Nature.  The poem, therefore, illustrates better than any other his rather strange relationship with Nature, which was more personal and intense than his relationship with any person.

Tintern Abbey is a reflective ode written in blank verse.  It is set in Tintern Abbey on the banks of the Wye, which Wordsworth had revisited with his sister, Dorothy, after an interval of five years.  As I have said already it is concerned with the revelations of the Divine in Nature (or perhaps the Divinity in Nature).  It is a double revelation; that which he experienced five years previously, and that which he experiences in the present.  He compares the sort of man he was on both occasions.  (Can you detect here a connection with Yeats’ poem, The Wild Swans at Coole?).

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ANALYSIS BY VERSE PARAGRAPHS

Lines 1 – 22: A Word Picture of the Wye Valley

He describes here the place that was the source of his inspiration simply and with touches that suggest mystery.  This is a formal philosophic statement of the presence of the Divine in Nature.  This verse-paragraph is a painting in words, but at the same time we are kept at a distance, the recollections are only ‘half-remembered’.  The word-picture is very effective in its colour and implied colour, and in the sounds that reflect the images he creates for us, the waters ‘rolling from their mountain springs / With a soft inland murmur’, and the silence of the place emphasised by the sibilants in ‘wild secluded scene impress / Thoughts of more deep seclusion’.  There is a breath-catching pause as he tries to recollect the hedgerows, ‘hardly hedgerows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild’.  The final five lines of the paragraph again emphasise the silence with a magnificent use of sibilants.  The repetition of ‘once again’ lends a distancing effect underlining the passage of time.

Lines 23 – 50: Emotion Recollected in Tranquillity

These lines are a perfect example to us of what Wordsworth meant by the phrase, ‘Emotion recollected in tranquillity’ – which he uses in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads.  He first states his doctrine: the memory of this scene has been not only soothing and healing, but has aroused feelings of pleasure, which have resulted in impulses of kindness and love.  He lists the gifts he has received from this scene in order of their occurrence: ‘tranquil restoration’ – refreshment not only of intellect but also of the soul; the moral benefit; and lastly, ‘the serene and blessed mood’ – the emotions begin the process and then all is left behind and the soul is naked.  Here we get glimpses of this new religion – his Pantheism, in which his love of Nature leads to his love for man – ‘feelings too … of kindness and of love’.  He refers here, too, to poetic inspiration which comes and helps us solve the mysteries of life: ‘While with an eye …. We see into the life of things’.  He sees through the eye, not with it; he has moved into a spiritual world.  He does not explain or defend his doctrines; but merely states it as an experience.

Despite his efforts to speak in the language of ordinary men, his diction here is complicated and he cleverly creates a tension between the heavy, weary and unintelligible world and this serene and blessed mood; between the body and the soul, between the din of the cities and the quiet of harmony.  Although this passage is reflective he uses images for his emotions and the things that give rise to them: ‘as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye (indicating his awareness), ‘In which the affections gently lead us on’ (the notion of a blind person being guided by a good and kindly friend).  There is frequent use of parallelisms (repetition of an idea using different words) so characteristic of his work, ‘slight or trivial’, ‘the burthen’ and ‘the heavy and the weary weight’.

Lines 51 – 59: Apostrophe to the Wye (In Praise of The Wye)

These lines are written in the classical style and are in praise of the Wye.  He praises it as the soother of the tribulations of life.  Again there is the contrast between the fever of the world and the tranquil wanderings of the Wye.  Darkness and joyless daylight are equated.  The alliteration in ‘fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world’ links the ‘fretful’ and ‘fever’ in the notion of a heartsick patient.

Lines 60 – 113: The Three Stages of Response

This section is the central part of the poem in which he goes on to show the stages through which his response to nature has passed: first, ‘the glad animal movements’ with their unthinking animal pleasure; secondly, in youth, the visual delight he took in nature – ‘the sounding cataract’; finally, in maturity, the intense union with nature.  In the first two he accepted nature as a sensation, almost as an appetite.  His recollection is uncertain – ‘half-extinguished thought’, ‘recognition dim and faint’, ‘sad perplexity’.  All these have given way to a new reflective attitude to Nature; an intense and spiritual union with her.

But while he abruptly sweeps away the past with, ‘That time is past’, there is a sense of loss, a nostalgia for the ‘aching joys and dizzy raptures’, the ecstasy of his youthful days.  The past has not really been compensated for by the ‘abundant recompense’.  The words ‘faint’ and ‘murmur’ and ‘mourns’ are stressed; they are emotional and are opposed by the stilted reason of ‘I would believe …’.  The ‘still sad music of humanity’ also suggests a sense of personal loss.  But the loss is not tragic; it is the universal sense of loss when youth passes.  The compensations are in his intellectual response to Nature; the awareness of a religious feeling provoked by, ‘a presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts’.  He still has an affinity with Nature; it merely differs in texture.

Wordsworth was concerned with the unity of the mental and physical worlds (unlike Yeats who tried to sail away from the ugliness of the physical world to the world of Byzantium).  Here he emphasises this unity by listing real and abstract things side by side: ‘the light of setting suns’, ‘the round ocean’, ‘the living air’, ‘the blue sky’, ‘the mind of man’.  Note too the synonyms, ‘a presence’, ‘s scene’, ‘something’, ‘a motion’, ‘a spirit’, and the repetition of ‘all’ – again emphasising this unity.  In this verse paragraph he attempts to bring all his experiences together, perhaps to create for himself a deity to whom he can offer these experiences.  There is no doubting the religious nature of these lines ‘a sense sublime’, ‘a presence’ – a realisation of something of deeper significance.  In the final lines he praises his God in a litany of images, which stress his close relationship with nature.  Nature, for him,  is the ‘anchor of  my purest thoughts’, ‘nurse’, ‘guide’, ‘guardian of my heart’, ‘soul of all my moral being’.

Lines 114 – 162:  Address to Dorothy

These lines are addressed to his sister Dorothy much in the same way as St. Paul sent epistles to the early Christian communities in Rome or Antioch or Corinth!  They advise and admonish her to place her trust in Nature.  This section is another good example of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’.  He urges her to rely on Nature in her trials and tribulations.  It is an impassioned appeal and he is very sincere, and his language underlines this.  It is a tribute to Nature as a teacher and as a friend.  Here he returns to his own first relationship with Nature, which he sees in Dorothy’s eyes, and he underlines the religious aspect of his present attitude to Nature by making a prayer to Nature to protect her, and to guide her to his own present state.  But there is a sadness in his wish that she will remember him when she too will return to Tintern Abbey.  He returns again to the contrast between the ‘evil tongues, rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men’ and ‘Nature never did betray the heart that loved her’.  The sense of loss is here also, as he almost hungrily points to his ‘former pleasures’ reflected in her ‘wild eyes’.  But he also balances against it the ‘sober pleasures’ that will parallel his own ‘sense sublime’; her mind will also be a ‘mansion’ for her memories.  Nature will be a ‘nurse’ to her also with its ‘healing thoughts’.

One feels that Wordsworth has perhaps introduced his sister to this landscape and meditation merely to prolong his own deep feeling and attitudes to Nature.

The movement of the poem is conversational (he uses the rhythms of everyday speech), sometimes to the extent that there is a tendency to run into prose (see last five lines).

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Note: You might also like to read a broader look at Wordsworth’s poetry in ‘Wordsworth’s Poetry’ in the Archives of this blog.