Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 Analysis

William Wordsworth

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem’s title, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” tells the reader its setting: William Wordsworth is in London on the bridge that crosses the Thames River by the houses of Parliament, close to where Big Ben’s Tower stands today. When he tells the poem’s place and date of composition, however, the poet may not be strictly accurate. He probably began composing the poem on July 31 as he crossed the bridge at the beginning of a journey to France; he may have then finished it by his return on September 3. His sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, records that on July 31 as they drove over Westminster Bridge they saw St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance and noticed that the Thames was filled with many small boats. “The houses were not overhung,” she reports, “by their cloud of smoke, and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly, with such a pure light” that it seemed like “one of nature’s own grand spectacles.” Dorothy Wordsworth’s description can help one to read the poem.

The reader may first think that the poet is musing to himself, but his somewhat public tone suggests a general audience. One may first be puzzled; if it were not for its title, the general subject of the poem would not be immediately apparent. Lines 1 through 3 make a forceful assertion, but it is a negative one: Whatever the “sight” turns out to be, nothing on earth is more beautiful, and only a very insensitive person...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem is a sonnet—a fourteen-line lyric poem with a moderately rigid rhyme scheme. In his sonnets, Wordsworth rhymes in the manner of the Italian Petrarch and the Englishman John Milton, not in that of William Shakespeare (the most famous sonneteer in English). Here Wordsworth rhymes abba, abba, cdcdcd. Two groups of four lines (or quatrains) form the octave (or opening eight-line grouping). This sonnet does not break down into units as markedly as do more traditional examples of the form. Although like most sonnets it changes direction after the octave, the change is less sharp than usual. The sestet’s meaning shifts between lines 10 and 11, but the shift is not abrupt.

In spite of its rather strict form, the poem seems unconstrained. In most ways, its sentences proceed in a normal conversational English way, with a list here or a parenthetical remark there. One exception to this generalization is that the poet often inverts normal word order to achieve emphasis: “Dull would he be,” “Never did sun,” “Ne’er saw I.” As a result, the poem reads somewhat like dramatic prose, even though the reader does feel a regular musical pulse. Wordsworth said elsewhere that he tried to write poetry in a language close to real speech, and here he appears to succeed. As in ordinary conversation, this poem’s language has few extravagant figures of speech. A simile compares the city’s morning beauty to “a garment” that it wears;...

(The entire section is 458 words.)