Blake and Wordsworth were both Romantic poets yet their views of London are opposed to each other. What are these conflicting visions of the same city and how do they differ from one another?
“To say the word Romanticism is to say modern art- that is intimacy, spirituality, colour, aspiration towards the infinite, expressed by every means available to the arts.” – Charles Baudelaire
Romantic poets were preoccupied with the idea of the pastoral idyll; a rural landscape where man was “spiritually” and physically at one with nature.
These Pastoral fantasies typically invoked Pagan deities and ideology.
Romanticism, according to Baudelaire is “colourful” and lively. Blake and Wordsworth are both Romantic poets yet their views of London, as portrayed in their poems; ‘Westminster’ and ‘London’, are very different. Wordsworth’s poem ‘Westminster’ has a joyful, exultant tone towards London and the diction could be considered “colourful” and “spiritual”. However, Blake’s poem ‘London’ has a pessimistic tone, more typical of a Romantic poet.
Blake’s ‘London’ shares a view which is expected from a Romantic as the Romantics did not want industrialisation of Great Britain to occur. The negative effects of the Industrial Revolution were especially prominent in London, so this miserable, urban landscape is anathematic to Blake. Romantics wanted the countryside to remain untouched and bucolic. The gloomy diction in ‘London’ shows this funereal tone. “Cry of fear”, “marks of weakness, marks of woe”, “hapless Soldier’s sigh” and “blights with plagues the Marriage hearse” are all examples of the diction used to build a sense of vulnerability and repulsiveness in ‘London’.
The perspective that Blake uses also shows that he is projecting his own Romantic feelings onto London. He uses the first person, “I” repeatedly throughout the poem and also opens with it. For example, “I wander”, “I meet” and “I hear”. This illustrates that his view of London is subjective. The poem is also written in the present tense and this gives the sense of living the experience with the narrator. Thus the poem seems more immediate and intimate.
The imagery used in Blake’s poem is also depressing and there are many examples of aural, tactile and visual imagery. The “marks in every face” he meets are examples of visual imagery. He uses words such as “marks” and “every” repeatedly and this stresses the ubiquity of misery and moral decrepitude in the city. Examples of the aural imagery that Blake uses are “cry of every man”, “cry of fear” and “the mind-forg’d manacles I hear”. These aural images convey the negative effects and emotions that can be found within the people of London. The tactile image of the “mind-forg’d manacles” is also particularly interesting as it is an example of figurative language rather than literal. It is a metaphor for the restrictions or constraints that are placed on people, either by society’s expectations and demands or perhaps by themselves. It appears that Blake suggests that people in London are manacled by their own moral “weakness”.
During the Victorian period, men who paid prostitutes were disgraced, not only for the moral reasons of committing a sin, but for the fact that they may have contracted a venereal disease such as gonorrhoea or syphilis. The “marks” which Blake relates to, such as the “marks of woe” may be moral “weaknesses” that men would have been ashamed to be associated with, for example when paying a prostitute for sexual pleasure. However, these “marks” may also have been literal scars from diseases they had caught.
In the last stanza, Blake uses the word “midnight”. This has dark connotations to it and gives the sense of an evil atmosphere. Blake also adds to this wicked atmosphere in the lines, “How the youthful Harlot’s curse/Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear” as he uses diction such as “Harlot”, “curse” and “Infant’s tear”. These lines also inform the reader about the “harlot” and her baby. The “curse” which Blake relates to could be infecting of the harlot’s baby with gonorrhoea. This is shown as her baby has a “tear” in her eye and probably has a problem with it, a symptom of gonorrhoea. In the last line, Blake writes “And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.”
This line suggests that the city is married to death as it uses the oxymoron “marriage hearse”. This is a conflation of two opposed ideas since a “hearse” is associated with a funeral because it carries a coffin. Blake may be implying that the city is married to death, or is doomed since the majority of infants in the city are possibly associated with venereal disease. This is shown as he uses the word “most” when discussing the most common thing that he sees in the streets of London. However, these lines could be considered ambiguous since Blake may be telling us of what he hears in the streets, for example, a ‘Harlot’ cursing, or swearing at her baby when it cries.
‘London’ is divided into four stanzas of four lines each and has an alternate rhyme scheme. The rhythm is rather constrained and this gives the impression that the poet is narrating the story as he “wanders thro'” London, this further emphasises the intimacy. In each stanza there is one main idea which develops the overall motion that London is a corrupt, morally decrepit city.
In the first stanza, the idea of London being a “charter’d” city is explored. Blake says that the streets and the River Thames in London are “charter’d”. It could be interpreted that he believes the city has been hired and brought up by commerce and through money.
In the second stanza, Blake attempts to show the unhappiness in the city and the depressing effect it has on people by using the word “cry” repeatedly whilst in the third stanza he writes about how the institutions are corrupted such as the “palace”. This is shown in the lines “The hapless soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls”. One possible interpretation of the word “palace” is that it is a metonymy for the government. Blake may be stating that “the hapless soldier’s” have been sent to die while trying to gain power for the British Empire. These lines are also a powerful fusion of light and sound and contain examples of both aural and visual imagery, for example “hapless soldier’s sigh” and “runs in blood down palace walls.”
In the third stanza, Blake implies that the “church” is becoming corrupted or is “black’ning”, either literally by the pollution that the city is creating or figuratively as it stands by and watches the innocent youths being exploited, such as “the chimney sweeper’s”, and the abuse of “soldiers”. However, the line “Every black’ning church appals” could be considered ambiguous, since the phrase “Church appals” suggests that it is disgusted by the corrupted institutions, such as the “Palace” but does not have the power to take much action against them or simply does not want to irritate the “palace”.
Therefore, Blake most likely wants the “palace” to hear his concerns that he is voicing, which he believes many other people in London share. This idea is reinforced by the fact that in this stanza, if the first letter of every word, on every line is taken, the word “HEAR” can be made, this also highlights the aural imagery used in this stanza. The word “appals” may also echo the largest symbol of religious power in London, St Paul’s Cathedral and this suggests that Blake is questioning why the church has not spoken out against the government.
Unlike the third, the fourth stanza is focused on the future of London. This is because the “infant” described has a future and eventually the infants in London will become adults who will have to take part in the daily running of the city.
However, unlike Blake and other Romantics, Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster’ has a surprisingly optimistic tone for a poem written by Romantic. This joyful tone is shown in the diction and imagery he uses. Such as, “beauty of the morning”, “sun more beautifully” and “calm so deep” are all examples of the lauding diction that Wordsworth uses. His exultant view towards the city is also shown in the form in which his poem is constructed. The rhythm is an iambic pentameter and the first eight lines have a rhyme scheme which is ABBAABBA, an octet, then the last six lines have a different rhyme scheme which is CDCDDC, a sestet. This octet and sestet suggests his powerful feelings towards London as it is a sonnet, and sonnets are usually associated with love and desire. In the octet, Wordsworth tells us in detail what he sees and introduces his idea of London being “so touching”. However, in the sestet; he develops this idea and attempts to unify London’s landscape with the beauty of the natural world, Wordsworth also informs the reader about what he feels, rather than what he sees.
The images that Wordsworth uses also show the rhapsodic tone of the poem as shown in the line “a sight so touching in its majesty”. The poet uses the word “touching” in order to convey the uncomplicated strength of his perception, touch being the most direct of the senses.
In the opening three lines Wordsworth challenges any doubters that do not believe London looked so perfect at this time. This is shown in the argumentative punctuation he uses and he writes that: “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.” In these lines, Wordsworth is praising the city and claiming that there is nothing more “fair” on earth than London on this particular day.
He also criticises any “soul” or person who could ignore a “sight” so great in “majesty” and beauty. The fact that Wordsworth opens with these powerful lines of adoration sets the atmosphere in the poem and also shows the reader how beautiful the city looked. He uses the words “majesty” and “soul” since these have religious connotations connected with them. The word “majesty” could be associated with the King or Queen; who was traditionally appointed by God, this makes the city seem almost royal or God-like. This diction and the tone of the poem, along with the examples of personification he uses, make it seem that Wordsworth is almost having an epiphany due to the spiritual intensity of the diction he uses. The words “by” and “majesty” are also particularly interesting as although there is not a strict aural rhyme, there is a sight rhyme which means that the rhyme scheme is not disrupted.
Unlike Blake in ‘London’, Wordsworth uses personification to eulogize the city, this can be seen when he says that “This city now doth, like a garment, wear/The beauty of the morning; silent, bare”. As Wordsworth uses the simile “like a garment”, this personifies “the city”. Wordsworth says that “the city… wears the beauty of the morning”, it could be interpreted that the city and the morning contrast so perfectly that they seem to be one with each other, but may also just be an example of Wordsworth attempting to reunite the urban area with nature. There is a similar example of this when Wordsworth is seeking to reconcile the urban sprawl with the bucolic scenes that a Romantic values above all else. This is why the city is described in natural terms and why Wordsworth sees the city merging seamlessly with the countryside beyond: “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie/Open unto the fields and to the sky”.
Wordsworth also lists the “ships, towers domes (and) theatres” and this gives the impression of him looking across a horizon. The word “lie” also gives the sense that the “ships, towers domes (and) theatres” rest grandly, but gently on the horizon as though they are blanketed in their own “majesty”. Unlike Blake, this is an example of Wordsworth studying and appreciating the city and its physical features, rather than the people who live in it. Wordsworth has an objective view of the city as he is literally elevated on a bridge, while Blake has a more detailed perspective which does not allow him to realize the true beauty of the of London, since he is walking through the streets. Blake seems to be immersed in this anathematic landscape, the emotional problems of the people in the city and the government who live there.
Another image that Blake uses acts on our sense of smell. He describes the air as being “smokeless” and this destroys the idea of London being a polluted city covered by smog, which was caused by the many factories. It is surprising for a Romantic to write this as the Romantics were a reaction to the industrial revolution and one would expect that a Romantic would not speak highly of an industrialised city, such as London. However, this leads the reader to believe the poem was written in the early morning, when the sun was rising since “the very houses (seemed) asleep” and the factories had not yet opened.
Wordsworth also uses other examples of personification and one of these is shown when he says “Never did sun more beautifully steep/In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill”. The poet personifies the sun by relating to it with the word “his”. The personification that Wordsworth uses is an example of figurative, not literal language. Wordsworth also leads the reader to believe that he has never seen such a perfect sunrise and that it is equal to or more than a sunrise in a rural landscape.
Another example of Wordsworth personifying something in nature by referring to it as “his” is when he tells the reader that “The River glideth at his own sweet will”. This not only personifies the river but it deifies it adding evidence to the poet’s pagan sensibility. This is because many Romanticists were connected with paganism as they believed in the worship of natural Gods, for example the Gods of Sun and Water. This line also makes the river seem as though it flows freely, peacefully and without being forced, Wordsworth further emphasises this serene atmosphere when he says “ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!” This gives the impression that the city is a peaceful place.
Wordsworth also uses other techniques to praise London apart from personification. On the last line, the poet uses a metaphor to describe London. He says “And all that mighty heart is lying still!” The “mighty heart” is a metonymy for London and he describes the city as being “still”, this further leads the reader to believe that this is set in the early morning when even “the very houses seem asleep”. This adds further evidence that London was calm and tranquil at this particular moment.
Although it seems unusual for a Romantic to write such an optimistic poem about London, the specific time, date and place: “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” is a message to the reader that the poet remains a Romantic yet could not help but succumb to this particularly powerful vision of beauty. By creating such a precise title, Wordsworth attempts to explain that any Romantic would have felt the same way and therefore, it is not meant to be unexpected; he attempts to explain that this experience was an anomaly. Although it seems that Blake only saw a certain, lower class part of London where soliciting and disease thrived alongside especially harsh working conditions for children, Blake’s poem, ‘London’ is typical of a Romantic poet who was opposed to the Industrial Revolution and therefore, this justifies the reason for him writing such a negative poem, since the Romantics were preoccupied with the idea of a bucolic landscape.