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William Wordsworth and Westminster Bridge
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
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, theatres, 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 splendour, 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!
-- William Wordsworth
Wordsworth came to London in 1791, and lodged in Cheapside close to St Paul's Cathedral. Romantic poets are more readily associated with the untamed natural world than with the man-made artifice of a city, but Wordsworth threw himself into London life. In particular, London-life made him politically active, and he attended debates in parliament as well as indulging a more vein tradition of dissent at public lectures and meetinghouses. Although he spent relatively little time in London, it seems that Wordsworth was able to find in the mad rush and architecture of a city, something analogous to the wildness the Romantic movement was typically supposed to pay homage to. In particular, London, with its jumble of architectural styles and periods stood in contrast to many of the regulated European cities he encountered during his life.
His famous sonnet on Westminster Bridge was composed in 1802, by which time Wordsworth was living in Grasmere in his native Lake District. It must have been composed during a visit to London. In The Poetical Works published near the end of his life, the poem's full title is "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3rd, 1802", and the precision of that title draws attention to the immediacy of Wordsworth's experience. He is simultaneously writing the sonnet and encountering the city.
The poem speaks of ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples, but of course, Wordsworth's view would have been much different from the view today. Many of London's most recognisable buildings are Victorian, and although Wordsworth would have been abele to see the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, for instance, was still fifty-six years from going up. In Wordsworth's version, the buildings he sees 'open unto the fields and to the sky', and this is literal rather than imagined. Particularly to the South West, the areas of Lambeth, Vauxhall and Camberwell would have been relatively unspoiled by construction.
Indeed the bridge Wordsworth stood on is not even the same on as today's, seven-arch bridge which was erected in 1868. The previous stone bridge has opened in 1750, but was taken down because chronic subsidence rendered it too expensive to maintain. Today the bridge is painted green to coincide with the livery of the House of Commons, whilst its counterpart Lambeth Bridge is coloured red after the House of Lords. The Bridge links the Palace of Westminster to the South Bank, where the London Eye affords a particularly good aerial view, as well as the opportunity for sonnets Composed Above Westminster Bridge.© David Thorley, 2007.
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