Themes and Meanings
Between July 31 and September 3, 1802, William and Dorothy Wordsworth traveled to France to visit William’s former lover, Annette Vallon, and William and Annette’s illegitimate daughter, Caroline. Even though at this time Wordsworth was preparing to marry someone else, one should not assume that the visit was at all traumatic. The reader gets quite the opposite impression from the poet’s account of a walk with his daughter that he describes in another sonnet, “It Is a Beauteous Evening.” War had separated Wordsworth and Annette for ten years, and any idea that they might marry had been put aside. Undoubtedly, Wordsworth was living intensely at this time, but the reader should resist trying to find any specific autobiographical meaning in this poem.
To a reader of Wordsworth’s other poetry, the most unusual thing about “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” is its subject matter. In most of his poetry, Wordsworth describes natural scenes: streams, hills, mountains, woods, and meadows—natural sights located in Switzerland, Wales, and most of all in the Lake District in northwestern England. He not only describes those scenes but also explains how experiencing them refreshes and ennobles the human spirit. In contrast, he usually pictures cities in general, and London in particular, as the opposite of the country, as places where those ennobling experiences do not happen, places where human nature is degraded. He celebrates his own escape from a city in the opening lines of The Prelude (1850), and later in that poem he describes the depravity of London at great length. He often sympathizes with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge because he was unlucky enough to have spent much of his boyhood in London.
So it is unusual that in this poem Wordsworth finds the city fully as beautiful as natural scenery. He celebrates London’s beauty in many of the ways he talks about natural sights. As in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” what one sees on the earth’s surface in London blends into the sky and harmonizes with it. The London scene is suffused in glorious light. As in other poems, this scene and its observer are “calm”—a word that to Wordsworth never means simply “without motion,” but rather describes a profound and life-giving peace.
Wordsworth knows that he is not seeing the city in all of its aspects. He sees London at its best, early in the morning of a beautiful summer day. He knows that, later, the city will awake and that the streets will fill up with their normal noise and bustle. In colder seasons, smoke from fireplaces will darken the sky. Wordsworth’s simile in lines 4 and 5 makes this point clearly: The beauty of the morning is like a garment which makes its wearer beautiful, but which can be taken off—presumably to reveal a different, less lovely city underneath. If line 6 contains an allusion to the insubstantial, soon-to-disappear “cloud-capp’d towers” of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611; act 4 scene 1), one sees even more vividly how ephemeral is Wordsworth’s vision.
Nevertheless, the vision is real. Its effect is powerful, and it lasts in the memory. It is a vision of calm beauty—and something more. In other passages in his poetry, most notably in Book 1 of The Prelude, one senses a force outside the poet, pressing upon him. This force can be terrifying (as when great hills stride after him) or simply exciting or invigorating. In this poem, many readers sense that the poet has seen and evoked such a force in the autonomous river gliding “at his own sweet will,” in the soon-to-awaken houses, and in the energy and potential activity of the sleeping collective heart of the inhabitants of London.