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Sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

Sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth

Wordsworth's sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3,


1802 falls into the category of Momentary Poems. The poet is describing what he
sees, thinks and feels on a specific day at a specific moment. Had September 3,
1802, been a dismal day of rain, fog or overcast skies, we would not have this lyric
to enjoy. Fair weather is often an inspirational awakening to the muse of poetry.
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy had traveled to London to take a ship to
France, where Wordsworth's mistress Annette Vallon was living with the tenyear-old Caroline, whom Wordsworth had sired but had never seen. The coach
taking him and his sister to the seaside dock paused on the Westminster Bridge
that crosses the Thames. Looking back in the brilliant morning sunlight at the
sleeping city of London, the poet composed his Petrarchan sonnet in a tone
peaceful and serene.
The poet records his impressions of the scene at early dawn when no mechanized
activity is going on and the air is clean and devoid of smoke. He is touched by
the beauty and splendour of the city. Only those whose souls are dull would not
be touched by the awe-inspiring scene; the greatness is majestic.
He presents a panorama of London. Here is a romantic who spends most of his
time in the Lake Country, in fields of daffodils, exulting in an urban morning
cityscape, unconcerned with the getting and spending that he decries elsewhere.
All objects natural or otherwise are now visible because of the glitter of the
morning sun which spreads over the landscape. Never before has the poet
witnessed such beauty which the splendour of the sun radiates over valley, rock
or hills. Not only is the beauty enchanting, but also the peace and calm which the
scene has on the mind of the poet: In such an atmosphere even the houses seem
asleep and all is still.
The second quatrain generalizes about the skyline shapes without detailing
them. The poet has personified London through his use of the simile "like a
garment" and the verb "wear." The catalog of man-made structures includes
"Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples." Paradox intrudes as the garment

worn by the city is bright and glittering sunshine that does not conceal, clothe, or
protect but emphasizes bare beauty.
The next personifications are of the sun and the river. The verb "steep" in the
opening of the sestet can support a variety of definitions including cleansing,
softening, bleaching, bathing, imbuing. The personified morning sun performs
these actions on "valley, rock, or hill."
The magic performed by the sun on the City, while the Thames "glideth at his
own sweet will," induces in the poet a feeling of calm, as though the personified
houses were peacefully asleep, and the mighty, throbbing heart of the metropolis
is wrapped in stillness.
In the scene there is no activity. The air is smokeless because the truckers have
not started to pour their emissions into the atmosphere. The poet is deeply
impressed and stunned at the calm and beauty of the morning. His exclamation,
Dear God! tells us that his response has reached spiritual and divine
dimension.
"Dull would [they] be of soul" who do not feel the power and excitement of this
lyric.
Another Review
"Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802" is an Italian sonnet,
written in iambic pentameter with ten syllables per line. The rhyme scheme of
the poem is abbaabbacdcdcd. The poem was actually written about an experience
that took place on July 31, 1802 during a trip to France with Wordsworth's
sister, Dorothy Wordsworth.
The poem begins with a rather shocking statement, especially for a Romantic
poet: "Earth has not anything to show more fair." This statement is surprising
because Wordsworth is not speaking of nature, but of the city. He goes on to list
the beautiful man-made entities therein, such as "Ships, towers, domes, theatres
and temples." In fact, nature's influence isn't described until the 7th line, when
the speaker relates that the city is "open to the fields, and to the sky." While the
city itself may not be a part of nature, it is certainly not in conflict with nature.
This becomes even more clear in the next line, when the reader learns that the air
is "smokeless" (free from pollution).
Wordsworth continues to surprise his reader by saying that the sun has never
shone more beautifully, even on natural things. He then personifies the scene,
giving life to the sun, the river, the houses, and finally to the whole city, which

has a symbolic heart. The reader imagines that the city's heart beats rapidly
during the day, while everything and everyone in it is bustling about, but now, in
the early morning hours, the city's heart is "lying still." By using personification
in his poem, Wordsworth brings a kind of spirit to the city, which is usually seen
as a simple construction of rock and metal.
Another Review
Type of Work
"Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" is a lyric poem in the form of a sonnet. In
English, there are two types of sonnets, the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean,
both with fourteen lines. Wordsworth's poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, developed
by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), a Roman Catholic priest. A Petrarchan
sonnet consists of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet). The
first stanza presents a theme or problem, and the second stanza develops the
theme or suggests a solution to the problem.
Composition and Publication
William Wordsworth completed the poem between July 31 and September 3,
1802. Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme published the work in 1807 in Poems in
Two Volumes, a collection of Wordworth's poems.
Setting
The setting is London as seen from Westminster Bridge, which connects the
south bank of the Thames River with Westminster on the north bank.
Westminster, called an inner borough, is now part of London.
Inspiration
Wordsworth's inspiration for the poem was the view he beheld from Westminster
Bridge on the morning of July 31, 1802, when most of the residents were still in
bed and the factories had not yet stoked their fires and polluted the air with
smoke. He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge in a coach taking
them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France. In her diary,
Dorothy wrote:
We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The
City, St. Paul's, with the River and a Multitude of little boats, made a most
beautiful sight.... The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and
they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light
that there was even something like a purity of Nature's own grand spectacles.

Theme: Seeing the City in a New Light


London during the workday was rude and dirty. A walk across a bridge or
through streets and alleyways confronted the pedestrian with smoke, dust, grimy
urchins, clacking carts, ringing hammers, barking dogs, jostling shoppers, smelly
fish, rotting fruit. But at dawn on a cloudless morning, when London was still
asleep and the fires of factories had yet to be stoked, the city joined with nature to
present the early riser a tableau of glistening waters, majestic towers, unpeopled
boats on the River Thames--bobbing and swaying--and the glory of empty, silent
streets. The message here is that even an ugly, quacking duckling can become a
lovely, soundless swan.
Rhyme Scheme and Meter
The rhyme scheme of "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" and other
Petrarchan sonnets is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave): abba, abba; (2) second
stanza (sestet): cd, cd, cd
The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter, with ten syllables (five iambic feet)
per line. (An iambic foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed
syllable.) The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the metric pattern:
.......1......
. ..2......... ....3................4..................5
Earth HAS..|..not AN..|..y THING..|..to SHOW..|..more FAIR:
........1.......
. ..2......... ....3.................4.................5
Dull WOULD..|..he BE..|..of SOUL | who COULD..|..pass BY
..
Summary
The first eight lines present a view of the city as it
wears the sunlit morning like a garment and its
edifices glitter beneath the sky. The last six lines then
boldly declare that this man-made "formation" is just
as beautiful in the sunlight as any natural formation,
such as a valley or hill. Moreover, it is just as calming
to the observer, for even the houses seem to sleep,
like the people in them.
Imagery
The most striking figure of speech in the poem is personification. It dresses the
city in a garment and gives it a heart, makes the sun "in his first splendour" a
benefactor, and bestows on the river a will of its own. Examples of other figures
of speech in the poem are as follows:

Line 2, alliteration: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by


Line 3, alliteration: A sight so touching in its majesty
Lines 4, 5 simile: This City now doth like a garment wear / The beauty of the
morning: silent bare (comparison of beauty to a garment)
Line 13: metaphor: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; (comparison of
houses to a creature that sleeps)

Answer these questions


1. What is the theme of the poem?
2. Where and when is the experience taking place?
3. What is the mood of the poet?
4. Select the figure of speech in the first five lines of the poem.
With what does the poet compare the city?
5. Why is the air smokeless?
6. Select lines which show that there is an absence of noise in the scene.
7. What does the poet mean by the very houses seem asleep?
8. From the poets impressions of the scene, what can you tell of his
character?
9. Do you like the poem? Give reasons to support your answer.