Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Friday, February 18, 2011

William Wordsworth, "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"

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, theaters, 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 splendor 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.

This poem  makes a nice counterpart to another famous sonnet by Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much With Us," in which the speaker grieves bitterly to find himself unmoved by nature, alienated from the earth.  In contrast, the speaker here is deeply moved by the scene in front of him, a scene not of nature but of the city.  With surprise, he discovers that London has its own beauty, unexcelled by nature:  "Earth has not anything to show more fair."

It is so early in the morning that the factories have not yet begun pouring out smoke, and the streets are silent.  For this brief moment, London, a center of industrial, political, and financial power, strangely evokes a feeling of tenderness. It is not that the city is not majestic, but now it is "touching in its majesty."  The speaker's tenderness grows as he personifies London in terms that might describe a beloved woman:  "This city now doth, like a garment, wear/ The beauty of the morning."  The words "silent" and "bare" and the phrase "lie/ open" suggest a peaceful vulnerability.  Instead of opposing the influences of nature, the city is receptive to them-- "Open unto the fields and to the sky."  Man-made structures, just for this moment, receive the sun's light as gently and naturally as the countryside would do.

As he suddenly perceives this tranquility and harmony, the speaker feels the "calm" carried instantly into his own psyche:  "Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!"  The two verbs in the sentence are joined together in their action; seeing and feeling have flowed together into a single motion.  After observing his own feelings, the speaker turns outward again to gaze at the peaceful movement of the river, the sleeping houses, the entire 'heart" of the city, and its strange, beautiful stillness.  Aren't we lucky that Wordsworth could describe this moment?

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