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William Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’ is a Petrarchan sonnet on the beauty of London in the early morning and the calm that such a scene induces. The poem can be read with varying interpretations, the most notable of which concern London’s beauty, a critique of the rapid growth and industry of London, and as an allegory for mankind’s connection with nature.
Perhaps the most immediate response to the poem is that Wordsworth glorifies London in its splendour. The opening line of the poem, ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’, exalts the scene to the apex of earthly beauty. This opening line may strike one as being perhaps anomalistic of Romantic poetry, of which Wordsworth was a key figurehead, because of its glorification of a city that contemporarily held connotations of industrialisation and mechanisation - a move away from nature. This is further emphasised in the third line of the poem, stating that the scene is ‘touching in its majesty’.
However, it soon becomes clear that what Wordsworth finds so majestic is not ‘This City’, London, in its everyday and well-known state, but a particular moment of it. Wordsworth emphasises the temporality of the scene in the poem’s fourth line ‘This City now doth’ (emphasis mine). And the reason as to why this particular scene has such an effect on the narrator is due to the city’s relationship with nature. We are told London ‘like a garment, wear / the beauty of the morning’. This personification of the city wearing the morning not only emphasises the beauty and uniqueness of the scene (just as a particular piece of clothing may make someone look more beautiful, so too does the morning on the city), but it highlights how the city is complemented by nature. This is exemplified in the following two lines: ‘Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky’. The list of ‘ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples’ cover London’s economic trade, religious and entertainment powers respectively. This, to a Romantic poet, conventionally represents all that is detrimental to humankind (perhaps with the exception of theatre) in that they confine and distance us from nature and our natural state. So, for these symbols of institutions, of which London is the cultural hub, to be ‘Open unto the fields, and to the sky’ illustrates how Wordsworth is not glorifying London for such man-made institutions, but how they, in this particular moment, are open to nature. This is emphasised in the first two lines of the sestet: ‘Never did sun more beautifully steep / In his first splendour, valley, rock or hill’. Again, the idea that the sun shining on a city is more beautiful than it on a hill or valley seems odd to be penned by a Romantic poet, but Wordsworth finds beauty in the city’s potential for change. It calls to mind the biblical notion that ‘those who are healthy don’t need a doctor.
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