Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802
by William Wordsworth
Read and analysed by Dominique Spearey
I 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!
Click HERE for Dominique's reading.
Wordsworth wrote around 50 sonnets, most of them during the early 1800s and many of a patriotic nature - it was the time of the Napoleonic Wars. This sonnet, on first reading, appears a straightforward paean to the beauty of London, the Capital City - 'that mighty heart'.
Closer reading reveals something different. Wordsworth - the 'poet of nature' - was emphatically not a city man and it might come as a surprise to find him writing of a city at all. We are much more used to daffodils and the philosophy expressed in 'Lines composed above Tintern Abbey'.
The alert reader pricks his ears up at the first line. Notice the stress on the first word 'Earth' - not the world, or our country, but the ground we walk on, a personification and a stressed first syllable used also in the 'Immortality Ode' - 'Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own..' It's a powerful and positive assertion and the second line continues the strength of feeling with another stressed first syllable. Associating 'majesty' with 'touching' is interesting ; 'majesty' reminds us that London is a royal city with all the associations of splendour and grandeur; but 'touching' is a human, vulnerable word. It reminds us of Wordsworth's preoccupation with feeling and emotion. Notice the equal stresses on 'This City' - the topic of the poem.
It's the comparison in line four that points the way to the real meaning of the poem; 'like a garment wear the beauty of the morning' - the city's fairness lies not in itself, its buildings, but in the effect of nature at a particular moment when the noise, the bustle and the human life of the city is absent. Notice the pause towards the end of line four, followed by the slow separated list of words - 'ships, towers, domes' and the run on lines 'wear' 'lie', shading off the rhyme, and the longer pause after 'sky' to make the reading of line eight even more emphatic, coming as it does as the final clause of a very long 8 line sentence. Sounding out the short vowel sounds and repetitive 't' of 'bright' and 'glittering'. Even the air is unusual - it's too early for any smoke to spoil the view.
The second part of the sonnet develops the idea of nature creating the beauty in the scene and as in lines one and two, line nine starts with a stressed first syllable, an emphatic 'never'. Here is the strangeness of this sight; Wordsworth is experiencing the transforming power of nature not in the countryside but in its opposite - the city - and the strength of feeling is heard in the thrice repeated ' never'. He never saw such a thing before and as always with Wordsworth, this is translated into a feeling, one of calm. Even the river Thames is behaving differently - not a means of transport for humans and their goods but a living being following its own path, the long vowel sounds imitating the idea of slow, easy movement.
The exclamation 'Dear God!' with the stress on both words and the pause, serve to emphasise the depth of emotion felt by the onlooker as he looks out onto this transformed city. But a city not alive, not fulfilling its intended function - it is 'asleep', its heart is not beating. It is a man made beast transformed and sedated by nature. Humanity is absent. Notice the frequent pauses in lines and how only two rhymes are used which creates further emphasis and increases our sense of the poet's amazement and wonder.
Coleridge in his 'Biographia Literaria' talks of 'an inanimate cold world'...where 'objects are fixed and dead' - but this 'known and familiar landscape' may be transmuted by nature. While London is not described as dead, but sleeping, it is the transmuting effect of the sun and the morning silence that makes the city so beautiful and invokes such strong emotion in the poet.