Westminster Bridge Wordsworth Analysis Essay

William Wordsworth was the quintessential Romantic who rendered the natural supernatural.  Wordsworth’s “Upon Westminster Bridge” presents a different subject matter as compared to his other poems. The poet chose for the subject of his poems the serene setting and the rustic folk because “in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.” This poem is unlike his other poems that typically depict the landscapes of the Lake District.

The prescribed poem “Upon Westminster Bridge” reveals the pristine beauty of the city as it is untouched by the multitudes, and the sound and fury of everyday life. The poem, although written in 1802, was published in 1808.The context is Wordsworth’s visit to his former French mistress Annette Vallon and their illegitimate daughter, Caroline. His sister, Dorothy Wordsworth accompanied him during the meeting.Although he wanted to marry Vallon in 1791, he had been forced to return to Britain owing to the possibility of war between France and Britain. The Treaty of Amiens (1802) enabled him to travel once again to France. However, by then, time and space had altered relationships. Now, Wordsworth wanted to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Hutchinson. Therefore, the primary purpose of the visit was to arrive at a decision regarding Caroline’s future. As they travelled by coach to the ship dock, their brief stint at Westminster Bridge enthralled Wordsworth as he was wonder-struck at the glory of London at the crack of dawn.

The Octave

The poem was penned as a Petrarchan sonnet. It can be classified under his Momentary Poems as it is born out of a specific moment. In the poem, London is apostrophized as a fair lady, and the sonnet is dedicated to her magnificence. The earth has not “to show” anything more fair. The phrase ‘to show’ has the meaning ‘to showcase’. Besides, it also possesses the meaning ‘to boast of’. The aesthetic nature of the same is so captivating that even an ordinary being could not pass untouched by the same; unless he was ‘dull’. For, even those without any inherent taste for beauty could fathom this opulence. The sight is not only beautiful but also majestic. It is not only aesthetically inspiring, but emotionally ‘touching.’

“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.”

It is royalty personified as the city wears a garment of the beauty of the morning. Cleanth Brooks enumerates the paradoxes in the poem in his essay “The Language of Paradox”.

The organic beauty of Nature is foregrounded in a commercial city. The city wears a garment, yet it is bare. The garment seems to come across as pure as its birthday suit, since it described as ‘silent, bare’. The poet may also signify the situation of the city at dawn: bare of the populace and signs of industrialization that mar the serenity of the city. All the landmarks of civilization lie within its domain, “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples.” All these signify different aspects respectively: transportation, infrastructure, monuments, culture and religion. The city of London is depicted in all three dimensions as it traverses ‘the fields’, the ‘sky’ ,and as it shimmers through ‘the smokeless air’.

The Sestet

The sestet marks the change in mood. From sheer contemplation, the poet moves to a mood of declaration. The sun is said to ‘steep’ or rise in full splendor. The word ‘steep’ is used to signify the zenith of its reach or height. Like a mountaineer, the sun is personified; he reaches his peak (aim) as signified by the word ‘steep’. The satisfaction of the mountaineer-sun is internalized by Wordsworth as he senses ‘a calm deep’ within. The river is also apostrophized as a person who glides at his own will with a spirit that flows as freely. The poet exclaims that even the houses seem to be sleeping in all tranquility.

“Never did the 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!”

And the stillness is such that even the mighty heart of London seems to be ‘lying still’. That is, the city appears so tranquil and silent that one cannot sense the heartbeats of the mighty London. The verb ‘lying’ functions as a pun here. It has a dual implication. London is known as the commercial capital; the city has this label as its identity. The poet asserts that it is ‘lying’ still, uttering an untruth, as its distinctiveness lies in the serene side of it without the hustle and bustle of city life.


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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Analysis

3. Summary

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

William Wordsworth, also known as one of the major poets of the English Romantic Movement in the 19th century, was born in 1770 and died in 1850. When he wrote ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ in September 1802, London was the economical as well as political centre of England; for instance the Bank of England and England’s biggest port for overseas trade were situated in this city. In 1770, already 700000 citizen inhabited London and an upward tendency prevailed (950000 inhabitants in 1800)[1]. In comparison, other cities like Norwich had almost tiny populations (30000). London, however, set the tone for nearly everything – fashion, worn in London, was imitated in other provincial towns. The city became a metropolis and a place of consumption.[2]

But on the other hand, London’s big-city appearance had some unwelcome side effects. According to industrial production the city was covered by fog nearly everyday. Streets and other public places were noisy and dirty and a terrible smell, like in Paris at that time, must have filled the air. People there were always busy with themselves and in hectic pace – nobody had enough time to enjoy nature or something like that. According to this fact, many people neglected their religious belief and some of them might even have lost their belief in God. That might be the point Wordsworth had seen and thus he mentally digested it in his sonnet. He probably wanted to make people aware that there is something more than the big-city life which is connected with hard work for the lower classes and a life of decadence the upper classes enjoyed.

2. Analysis

The sonnet “Upon Westminster Bridge” was written in 1802. As typical for a sonnet, it consists of fourteen verses, which can be divided, in other words arranged, into four parts – there are three quatrains and one final couplet. The rhyme scheme is adapted to the form of the sonnet which leads to the rhyme pattern abba abba cdcdcd. The last striking point about the structure of the poem is the occurrence of many punctuation marks which slow down the speed of the sonnet while reading it. Therefore the reader has the possibility (is rather forced) to read and understand the poem in a closer sense and finally is able to enjoy it to the full.[3]

The first quatrain deals with the description of the appeal of beauty which can be recognized by looking around while standing on the bridge. The speaker of the poem declares the view as most impressive – the earth is not able to show people something fairer than the view from Westminster Bridge, so it is a kind of uniqueness which is shown here. This position is supported by the second verse which tells that anybody who is attracted by the view cannot evade, only if this person probably has a deaf character. In the next verse the speaker’s attraction cumulates – the sight is personified as a majesty which possibly is so heartfelt that it will touch everyone’s soul. The comparison made in the fourth verse is very interesting – the city wears the beauty of the morning like a garment. This fact implies that the beauty of the morning is something temporal in the city. A garment is a piece of cloth which can be worn but taken off as well. Consequently the beauty can only be regarded in the morning or rather the morning represents the beauty. When the day continues, the beauty vanishes, just because the life of the city begins. People go to work, factories start to produce their goods and cause a lot of smoke, in other words the arising pollution will darken the city’s appearance and charisma, too. The fifth, sixth and the seventh verse tell that the morning’s beauty is silent and bare; all buildings and ‘non-living’ things like ships and theatres can be watched without a blurred view – they are just visible. In general it is hardly possible to see any of them (caused by pollution etc., see above), especially when they are situated in some distance from the bridge, but the speaker of the poem (verse 8) describes them as “[…] bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” The next three verses deal with the charisma of the sun which starts to give the first beams of light to the landscape (valley, rock and hill) surrounding London. This kind of natural spectacle must have evoked deep emotions in the speaker of the poem who tells us that he neither saw something like that nor he experienced such a relaxed feeling connected with this sight – the whole trouble of business-like London was absent at this moment and nothing uneasy or stressful remained. The twelfth verse tells us that the river flows at its own will. In general the Thames would have been dammed up with the intention to use the water power for industries or something like that by the inhabitants of London. But in the morning the river is free, possesses its own will and is able to glide in every direction, at least so far this would be possible. The last but one verse refers to the already mentioned calmness. The speaker of the sonnet might be a little bit confused by the almost deathly silence and therefore he addresses to God. It can be regarded as a question to God when the speaker says that even the houses seem to have fallen asleep. It must have been unreal, in other words incomprehensible, to see that London, which was the biggest city on earth at this time, was lying still without a hint of movement. After having finished with a general view on the sonnet, a more detailed analysis concerning some crucial points will follow now.


[1] Cf. http://www.picturesofengland.com/history/london-history.html**

[2] Cf. Roy Porter (39-41)

[3] Cf. http://www.eliteskills.com/c/6467*

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