William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote the poem entitled “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” on 3rd September 1802 after his first visit to London in July of the same year. Along with his sister Dorothy he passed through London on his way to France to visit his former lover (and mother to his daughter Caroline) Annette Vallon, prior to his marriage to Mary Hutchinson.
Due to his impending marriage to Mary and his subsequent visit to France, it may be read that perhaps Wordsworth’s emotions were high as he and his sister passed over Westminster Bridge by coach on their way to Dover for the crossing to Calais.
This impression of Wordsworth’s lifted spirits is felt in the tone of the poem, which shows London infused with light, a beating heart of freedom, reaching out to the four corners of the civilised world and pulsing with life.
He shows the city as an impression, not necessarily of what he actually sees, but as a reflection of the natural beauty of the summer’s day, iridescent in the brilliance of the morning light.
However, Dorothy’s journal (from which we glean an insight into Wordsworth’s earlier poetry) notes that in September 1802 their return home through London from France took place late in the evening, on a misty day when they “could see nothing.” Wordsworth may have used Dorothy’s earlier entry in July to inspire this composition which he subsequently dated September 1802.
It is generally agreed that he must have confused his dates; but it may also be suggested that during his visit to the capital in July, or on his return journey from seeing both his child and former lover, his spirits were high, as this sonnet is surely a dedication to the glory of nature, reflected in the beauty of a summers morning.
His first sighting of London must have been enriched by what he saw on Westminster Bridge that day, in order for him to be inspired to compose such a soulful eulogy to “the mighty heart” of the city, “all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” It may even show his present sense of the divine manifestation of God’s handy-work in the creation of that morning. What Wordsworth does convey in the poem is a London of light, life and liberty; and it is these three elements of the poem that shall be looked at.
There are two good references to light (and cleanliness) in the poem. One of the most striking of these is in line 8 “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air”. This is a reference to the “ships, towers, domes and temples” in line 6, which “lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky.” By referring to the “bright” and “glittering” “smokeless air”, Wordsworth gives us an image of a crisp, clear morning in summer; where the early morning sunlight bathes the “towers, domes and temples” on either side of the Thames; and upon the ships themselves that may have been seen to dance upon the reflected sunlight from the river itself. Imaginatively, he impresses a morning of beauty and purity, with the clear, intense light that you can only get on a summers morning – even in a city. By this, it is as though he were witnessing God’s work itself in the new day before him.
The second sense of light we get in the poem is shown in the lines “Never did sun more beautifully steep / In his first splendour, valley rock or hill.” Here, Wordsworth is portraying the light of the sun soaking the city landscape (perhaps in antiquity, before the city were even there); or as purely as it would seep into a landscape more natural- that of the very valleys, rocks and hills mentioned. Wordsworth’s reference to “his first splendour” is that of the sun personified; and perhaps he is comparing his sight of London on this morning with the sun’s first rays bathing the natural landscape on the very first morning of creation.
It is with this personification of the sun as “his” (amongst others) that Wordsworth conveys a London of life in the poem. By his reference to the sun’s rays as “his first splendour”, he is lending the sense that the sun is a person, and alive. Wordsworth uses personification in this way at other times in the poem, all with a will to breathe life into his words. Notably, “The river glideth at his own sweet will” and “The city doth, like a garment wear”, and also “All that mighty heart is lying still.” Here, the personification of the river and of the city gives the impression of them being alive.
The line “This city now doth, like a garment wear” portrays the city as a living being, wearing “The beauty of the morning” as though it were a garment. Also, in the line “The river glideth at his own sweet will”, we are left with an imagery of a river flowing liberally, wherever it wishes to, not constrained by the city or its own banks, but freely roaming, with a will of it’s own. The line “And all that mighty heart is lying still” gives a strong conveyance of the beating heart of the living city, or the pulsing heart of commerce and trade, and the paths of freedom reaching out to the far flung shores of the world. It may be felt that this line gives an impression where all Wordsworth sees and mentions in the poem seems alive, has a “mighty heart” that beats to its own rhythm of life.
One other personification Wordsworth uses, be it not as great as the other examples given, is in line 13 “Dear God! The very houses seem asleep.” The reference to the houses sleeping is an impression of the actual bricks and mortar appearing to be asleep on this morning- just as its inhabitants may well have been.
Other ways the poem conveys life is through the lines “Open unto the fields, and to the sky”, and “valley, rock or hill”, a clear reference to nature. Wordsworth uses a number of similar references to the natural world in this poem, notably: river, sun, fields, sky, valley, rock, hill and Earth. Through these, the reader has a sense of the natural within Wordsworth’s vision of London: an impression of life.
By Wordsworth referring to the “Ships, towers, domes and temples” (in line 6) being “Open unto the fields, and to the sky” (in line 7), he is giving an idea that the buildings and man made structures of the city, as they are being highlighted by the light of the summers morning, bear a resemblance to the more natural elements of tree, wood and rock. An open field, or an open sky, holds an abundance of natural life. It is this idea that Wordsworth is trying to communicate: “Earth has not anything to show more fair;” than the sight of London, filled with life, on this morning. By referring it to the natural world, he is imbuing life into his vision.
Another way life is portrayed in the poem is through the use of alliteration, especially of the /t/ sound. For example in “And all that mighty heart is lying still”, the tempo of the line gives the impression of a beating heart through regular emphasis of the /t/ sound. Throughout this line of ten syllables, five of the syllables are emphasised by the /t/ sound, which highlights the rhythm of the line.
Liberty, freedom and non restraint are represented in a number of lines in the poem, not least the previously mentioned “The river glideth at his own sweet will” and “Open unto the fields, and to the sky”. Both lines (as shown) convey life through personification, but they both also strongly represent the idea of liberty. In the first line, the reader is left with an imagery of a meandering river winding its way through green meadows, lined with willow edged banks. A scene of the open country, not one of the constrained city. In the second line, liberty is conveyed through the impression of an open vista of fields, stretching into the hazed distance and meeting the immensity of the sky. By using words to convey an imagery of liberty, Wordsworth infuses the spirit of freedom into his words.
The use of sibilance in this line and in line 11 “Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! / The river glideth at his own sweet will;” shows the use of sibilance (underlined), the repetitions of the /s/ sound, to convey a sense of liberty. This is why Wordsworth uses the pronoun “his” not “her”, which is the traditional reference to rivers and water. By using sibilance, Wordsworth’s words flow and are not restricted; the sound of the “s” moves the words along freely.
Other sounds Wordsworth uses, such as the soft phoneme /l/ sound, as well as the /s/ sound mentioned, convey a liberty of spirit within the poem. Examples of the soft /l/ phoneme sound are in line 4 and 5: “This City now doth, like a garment, wear / the beauty of the morning, silent, bare,” Also, “All bright and glittering, in the smokeless air.” And “hill”, “will” and “still” at the ends of lines 10, 12 and 14, respectively.
In fact, the entire structure of the poem as a fourteen line sonnet allows the words, sound and meaning to flow freely throughout. The iambic pentameter of the poem gives an ordered rhythm and repeated sound which flows through the poem. This conveys a sense of freedom as the sound moves from one line to the next, ebbing and flowing like a river. This also allows the sound of the poem, when read aloud, to impress an imagined babbling brook; conjuring numerous words which can be used to describe the sound of the poem from airy, gentle, soft, flowing and calm.
One other element Wordsworth uses to convey a London of liberty is the use of enjambment, where the punctuation used allows the poem to be read in a flowing manner. The reader continues from one line to the next, with no pause, which gives a sense of fluidity and movement.
Other ways Wordsworth uses sound to convey light, life and liberty are in his use of polysyllables throughout the poem. Examples of these are “beautifully”, “majesty”, “splendour” and “glideth”. By using polysyllables, Wordsworth is using the sound of these words to match the required 10 syllables for each line in order to produce the fourteen line sonnet; but, the words used are important as they can also convey life, light and liberty.
Wordsworth also uses long sounding vowel sounds, such as the /i:/ of sleep, deep and majesty; the /i:/ and /u:/ of be auty and be autiful; the /e / of air and fair and the / / of clear. He also uses /aI/ in glideth. It is through the use of assonance of these long vowel sounds that Wordsworth also portrays, light, life and, most of all, liberty in his poem. The assonance draws the reader onward and gives a quiet, calm, gentle and flowing sound to the overall composition.
Wordsworths poem “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” praises the coexistence between nature and civilization, and conveys dramatically, and sometimes subtly, to the reader a London of light, life and liberty. He does this through a number of means: imagery of words or phrases; use of assonance and soft phoneme sounds; enjambment, by allowing the poem to flow freely; personification of the sun, river and city itself; the sound and the rhythm of the poem; alliteration and the use of sibilance to encourage the rhythm and sound of the poem to freely flow. By these means, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge clearly conveys a London imbued with light, life and liberty.