Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

by William Wordsworth

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What is Wordsworth's attitude towards London in "Composed upon Westminster Bridge?"

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In the canon of English literature, few poets have eulogized nature as Wordsworth has. The poems expressing his love and wonder for the countryside and nature abound in the oeuvre of Wordsworth. However, his poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge,” is all praise for the city of London. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, London was the center and pivotal point of industrial revolution. Therefore, when Wordsworth, the leading romantic poet of his age, sings the praises of the city of London, it takes his readers by surprise.

The very first sentence of the poem about London sets the tone of the sonnet:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

It’s actually the sight of London at the time of dawn that has evoked such powerful lines from a worshiper of nature. The poem captures Wordsworth’s experience of witnessing the splendor of the industrial capital in a morning when he along with his sister Dorothy Wordsworth was on the way to France.

The “touching” sight of the city leaves him completely spellbound. Praising its beauty, he says, one must be devoid of any taste for beauty that would “pass by” Westminster Bridge without stopping for a while to appreciate the magnificent scene:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:

The city looks extremely beautiful chiefly because of the effect of the dawn. Personifying London, the poet says, “like a garment” it has worn “the beauty of the morning.” The first rays of the sun make the industrial town look dazzling and impressive.

Wordsworth, in a way quite unlikely of him, picks up man-made objects and structures to describe their elegance.

... silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

“Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” are “silent” and “bare.” They are “all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” The city air is unpolluted and fresh. When the rays of the rising sun fall on the city and its structures, he feels the joy and peace he had never experienced before. He claims,

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

He then goes on to describe the beautiful Thames that glides at its chosen slow pace. The houses “seem asleep” in the early hour of the day. In the final line, the poet describes London as “that mighty heart” now “lying still.” This implies that soon it would awaken to its hustle and bustle as the sun rises higher in the sky. 

This powerful sonnet rhapsodizing about the most powerful industrial city of its time takes Wordsworth’s readers by surprise. Consider the following hyperbolic statements about the city of London:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;

 And,

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

It seems that the poet must have been surprised to discover the splendor of London in the early morning. The poem exaggerates his own experience of surprise.

However, it must not be forgotten that Wordsworth doesn’t praise London in the absence of nature. In the poem, the city is not in discord or disharmony with nature. Instead, it appears enthralling when it's seen against the backdrop of beautiful nature. It’s the morning sun that makes the city look so beautiful. The following line further expresses the effect of nature on the city:

silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky.
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How does William Wordsworth vividly portray the city of London close to nature in the sonnet "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802?"

Wordsworth usually praises nature, as opposed to cities and man-made structures, in his poetry. However, in this poem, he praises the city of London in the early hours of the morning. In the first line, he notes that nothing, presumably in nature, is as "fair" as the city in this still, quiet state: 

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty: 

The man-made structures were literally within sight of the more natural landscapes of the area. 

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

Since it is early in the morning, none of the factories and/or chimneys are bellowing much smoke. The city is quiet and "glittering in the smokeless air." Wordsworth then notes how calm the scene is, remarking that this scene seems more calm than the sun shining on any valley, rock, or hill. Even the houses seem alive, part of nature: "the very houses seem asleep." The quiet city in the morning seems like a natural landscape because the daily activities of the city have not yet begun. The scene seems even more calm in juxtaposition to its usually busy interactions and smoke-filled skies. Therefore in comparison to the city's usual busy, noisy state, the quiet city of the morning seems much more serene: as serene as a natural landscape. 

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What does the poet want to suggest by describing the beauty of London in the poem "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"?

Wordsworth is effectively saying that here is a place right at the heart of the city which is as beautiful as anywhere in nature. As with most Romantic poets, Wordsworth derived much inspiration from the natural world. Yet here he is, in the middle of one of the world's biggest cities as the dawn begins to spread, marveling at the unlikely beauty of this urban environment in much the same way that he'd marvel at the beauty of a mountain or waterfall.

To a considerable extent, the beauty of the city is related to the fact that there's no one around. Soon the place will be a heaving mass of humanity, with thousands upon thousands of people going about their business. But until then, it's deathly quiet, a characteristic it shares with a remote mountaintop or distant forest. And it's this tranquility that allows Wordsworth to contemplate the sheer beauty of a scene to which he would otherwise be blind.

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