A summary of a classic William Wordsworth poem about London, analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
William Wordsworth’s sonnet ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’ is one of his most celebrated poems. Here is the poem, and a few words by way of analysis:
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!
First, a few words about the poem’s title: although it’s dated ‘September 3, 1802’, the London morning scene which inspired the poem probably occurred on 31 July of that year, when Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy left London for Dover, before heading to France. Although the title announces that it was ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’, this was probably the date on which Wordsworth completed the poem, a few days after he and Dorothy had returned to London. But then ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, July 31, 1802, but Completed Somewhere Else, September 3, 1802’ wouldn’t be as good a title.
The poem is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, arranged into an octave or eight-line section and a sestet or six-line section (although unlike some Petrarchan sonnets, Wordsworth does not have a blank line dividing the eighth and ninth line), rhyming abbaabba and cdcdcd (the abba abba rhyme scheme in the first eight lines is the giveaway that this is a Petrarchan sonnet). The first eight lines praise the beauty of London in the early morning light, as the poet stands on Westminster Bridge admiring the surrounding buildings. It may seem odd to find Wordsworth (1770-1850) – a poet who helped to revolutionise English poetry in the 1790s and early 1800s by being a leading figure in Romanticism – praising the beauty of London, a city. Much of Wordsworth’s poetry – as with other poetry by Romantic writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge – tends to focus on the rural, the countryside, the world of nature. London, even by the early nineteenth century, was a world of industrialisation, smog (that is, smoky fog, created by industrial activity), as well as the centre of government and empire, two things that came under heavy scrutiny from the early Romantic poets.
Yet Wordsworth finds London a glorious sight in the early morning light, because the city has not yet woken up and these industrial processes and governmental activities have not yet begun. (Wordsworth, standing on Westminster Bridge, is a stone’s throw away from the seat of government.) London is instead ‘bright and glittering in the smokeless air’, ‘silent, bare’, and at one with nature: the man-made buildings lie ‘Open unto the fields, and to the sky.’ Indeed, the sun shines as beautifully on these structures as it does on the natural world of ‘valley, rock, or hill’. London is described as a ‘mighty heart’ in the final line, which reminds us of its centrality as the seat of government, empire, and trade, but also presents this centrality by way of a natural metaphor: just as the heart slows while one is asleep, only to speed up when one wakes, so London seems to lie still, plunged into a calm state that is not unlike a pleasant sleep.
But what makes the poem more than a simple ‘look how beautiful nature is’ exercise in Romanticism (which to the untrained eye much Romantic poetry can appear to be: a simple glorification of beauty and the natural world) is the sense of something darker lurking behind these words of praise: the ‘river glideth at his own sweet will’ now, but once London wakes from its slumber this gentle calm will be disrupted by man-made activity. The world of trade, of ships and boats coursing along the Thames, will override the river’s own natural pace. The ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples appear to lie in passive submission to the natural world now (‘Open unto the fields, and to the sky’), but this will be overturned when London wakes: in reality, the world of nature is at the mercy of mankind and the systems of trade and industry which rule from the city, just as the sky will be polluted by the plumes of smoke from the chimneys of factories.
This analysis of Wordsworth’s poem is hardly exhaustive, but we hope it gives a sense of how the poem fits in with Wordsworth’s other Romantic poetry, despite some superficial differences in subject-matter.
Continue to explore Wordsworth’s classic poetry with our analysis of his famous poem about daffodils, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. For another Wordsworth poem about London, check out our discussion of his classic sonnet ‘London, 1802’; for another sonnet, see his classic poem ‘Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room’. Discover more Romantic poetry with our analysis of Blake’s ‘A Poison Tree’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Westminster Bridge and Abbey by William Daniell, 1813; Wikimedia Commons.