Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802, by William Wordsworth
1. What is the main theme of Westminster Bridge?
Wordsworth’s claim that his vision of London is the best on the planet is clearly exaggerated, not to mention impossible to verify. But it is an innocent exaggeration, one that puts us “in the moment” of his passing experience. It is not dissimilar to an expression that many people use all the time nowadays: saying that such-and-such is the most fun ever, or the best movie ever, or the most awkward party ever. In other words, Wordsworth speaks in the manner of a modern adolescent.
What is strange about this poem is that Wordsworth, a Romantic poet who focuses on the beauty of Nature and the countryside, takes as his subject the city of London and treats it with a distinctly Romantic flavour. This sonnet extols the quiet and shimmering beauty of London in the early morning light. Throughout the poem, Wordsworth employs personification to present the city and its buildings as human beings, emphasising his point of view’s peace and tranquillity:
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Of course, hearts never lie still by nature, but from his vantage point, Wordsworth can imagine the “heart” of the country, London, “lying still” as he enjoys the peace and relaxation that the sight provides. Such a poem demonstrates that Romanticism is not limited to nature and that similar themes can be found in poetry describing cities, which were previously viewed as the antithesis of the simplicity and beauty found in nature.
2. Discuss how the sonnet form has been used to affect the sonnet, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge.”
There are two basic types of sonnets: English (which has two divisions: Shakespearian and Spenserian) and Italian (Petrarchan). The types are named after the most well-known authors, William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser for the English, and Petrarch for the Italian poet. The rhyme schemes vary by author, but the English line groupings are three groups of four lines (quatrains) and a couplet; the Italian line groupings are one group of eight lines (octave) and one group of six lines (sestet). All sonnets are 14 lines long.
This sonnet is written in Italian. Every sonnet introduces a problem or situation, then discusses it before solving it or making a final comment. Usually, there is a TURN between the problem and the solution, which I refer to as “the big BUT” The Turn is usually indicated by a transition word such as “but, yet, so” to indicate a change in mood, feeling, tone, or idea. As an example, “I am devoting all of my time and energy to loving this woman. She resists me, but I will always love her.”
The turn in Wordsworth’s poem is not after the octave, as it is in most Italian sonnets. It appears in the sestet between lines 10 and 11, so the reader is not as aware of it. Wordsworth, true to his style, uses simple language to make the poem flow like an everyday conversation, even within the constraints of the rigid sonnet format.
Short Questions and Answers
1. What is the rhyme and meter of this poem? What form of poetry do these schemes reveal the poem to be in?
The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, written in iambic pentameter and following the rhyme scheme of A/B/B/A A/B/B/A C/D/C/D/C/D.
2. Find and record an example of personification from this poem.
Answers may vary. Example: The river is given the human quality of having its own will and houses “seem to sleep.”
3. What does the speaker compare to a garment? Who/What is wearing it?
The speaker compares the beauty of London to a garment, with the city itself as the model.
4. How would you describe the author’s feelings toward the city? Cite evidence from the poem to support your answer.
Answers may vary. Example: The author seems enchanted by the city as he watches the sunrise over it in the morning. He is overwhelmed with its beauty, “all bright and glittering.” According to him, “Never did the sun more beautifully steep” the world around the author in its light. The author reports he has never felt “a calm so deep!”