Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

by William Wordsworth

Start Free Trial

Compare and contrast "London" by William Blake and "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" by William Wordsworth.

"London" by William Blake is a searing indictment of the modern city, with its grinding poverty and hopelessness. In this heaving metropolis, there is sadness everywhere, marks of "weakness" and "woe" on every face. In "Westminster Bridge," by contrast, Wordsworth describes London in glowing terms. The city is just waking up and there is something special about the place as it gleams in the "smokeless air." Here, there is a "mighty heart" beating, a stark contrast to Blake's soulless metropolis.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Blake and Wordsworth have very different takes on London, of course. For Blake, the city is a kind of hell, in contrast to Wordsworth, who sees it as "a mighty heart" lying asleep. These differences have less to do with the city itself than with the nature of these poets' poetic vision.

Wordsworth is a great observer. So often his poems are about a particular sight, or moment, which is given heightened effect in recollection. In the case of the "Westminster Bridge" poem, Wordsworth is characteristically conjuring the memory of a particular sight: a view of the city in early morning. The poem works to evoke the image of the sleeping city: "Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky; / All bright and glittering in the smokeless air." There is an artistic quality to these lines that both creates a mental image and evokes an emotional response. In fact, Wordsworth's purpose would see to be to recreate for the reader the conditions that led him to exclaim "ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!"

On the other hand, Blake's poem is not about a particular view of the city, but an account of the poet walking through it. The poet sees the city as symbolic of a kind of moral decay, and the poem is like a visionary revelation of this depravity. While Blake also uses concrete details, the nature of these details is not to aid recollection but to reveal moral truths. The "infants cry of fear," the chimney sweepers, the "blackening Church" all name particular aspects of London which the poet (the "I" of the poem) has witnessed, but their meaning is not in and off themselves but in their relationship to the symbolic. What the poet really experiences in his walk are the "mind forg'd manacles," the myriad ways people imprison themselves through sin. It's also significant that Blake ends with the "youthful Harlots curse," which perverts true sexual happiness.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

William Wordsworth is best known as the poet of the lakes, composing pastoral verses about the effect of rural tranquility on the human soul. One might, therefore, expect to find him out of his element on Westminster Bridge, in the heart of a great city.

However, Wordsworth's sonnet not only describes the sight that greets him from the bridge as "touching in its majesty," but evokes a city that shares the serenity of the countryside. The great buildings of the city are

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
He even says that he has never seen or felt "a calm so deep" even in the midst of the lakeland fells.
William Blake offers a more predictably Romantic view of the city. It is physically grim and grimy, with chimney sweeps, and "blackning" churches, but this physical squalor is only an outward manifestation of human misery.
Wordsworth does not specify what he thinks the people in the sleeping city are feeling. Probably they are all asleep, and in any case, they do not disturb the serenity of the scene that greets his eye. For Blake, however, the physical landscape is of secondary importance. What matters are the "Marks of weakness, marks of woe" in the faces of their people, and the cries he hears, which are evocative of slavery and despair.
It is difficult to believe that Wordsworth and Blake are describing the same city at approximately the same point in history. Blake mentions "midnight" in the final stanza, whereas Wordsworth's poem is bathed in the golden light of early morning. In addition to this, he is looking at the city from a godlike height, while Blake walks the streets, searching the careworn faces of the people. Even these differences do not account for the vast divergences between the two poems, which reflect the poets's very dissimilar outlooks and preoccupations.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

William Blake was often scathing about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the poorest members of society. What other men saw as progress and prosperity, he saw as degradation and oppressiveness. London in Blake's day may have been the largest, most prosperous city in the world, but for Blake that couldn't hide the filth, poverty, and unimaginable degradation that he saw lurking round every corner.

In "London" Blake peels back the outer layer of London to reveal the rotten heart beneath. This is a city in which misery is etched on almost every face; a place where the exploitation of children—in the form of chimney-sweeps—is rampant. Even the cries of innocent infants are full of fear; it's as if they can already anticipate the kind of life they'll soon be forced to lead. In this godforsaken place all the old values have been turned upside-down. This is symbolized in the blackening of church walls, presumably by the filth and pollution of modern life.

In "Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge" Wordsworth also digs beneath the surface of London. But what he finds there is completely different to what Blake sees. As the city is just waking up for another day, he doesn't see any poverty, or degradation, or child laborers; he simply sees the glittering "Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples" touched by the glow of dawn.

But Wordsworth isn't just enamored of the glittering surface; beneath it he senses a "mighty heart" lying still. This is a living, breathing city, and though the sordid details of life in the capital would certainly not have been to Wordsworth's liking any more than Blake's, from his vantage point on Westminster Bridge all seems well with the world. For now, at least.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team