Tuesday Poem – “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”

Earth hath 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 splendor, 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

Once again I’ve failed to get a poem by a contemporary British poet ready in time, so I’ve fallen back again on one of the greats of the past. Wordsworth tends to be one of those poets people either love or hate, until they read him more widely. (Whereupon they can do both simultaneously …) But even if you loathe the Romantics and all they stood for (and I certainly do not), this poem should say something to you. For me, it’s that incredible sense of suspension, of the world taking in a deep breath before opening its eyes and launching into the cacophony of day. According to sister Dorothy’s journal entry:

“It was a beautiful morning. The city, St. Paul’s, with the river, and a multitude of little boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke, and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly, with such a fierce light; that there was something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand spectacles.”

So this poem is a moment of truce between the Nature Poet and the great, bustling city. So much comes down to that last couplet. After twenty-plus years of reading and thinking about this poem, I still can’t decide if that last line is pleased or horrified …

More power to you, master William.

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4 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem – “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”

  1. I agree, it’s a lovely poem, but it always reminds me of Flanders and Swann: “Earth has not anything to show more fair, any more fares? any more fares? mind the stairs! mind the stairs!” I believe the song is called “Transport of Delight”.

  2. I, too, liked the ‘smokeless air’ line.

    About the seeming ambiguity of the ending… Interesting. Might not the “Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!” line tip the scales?

    For me, the poem, on the whole, relates how waylaid by beauty the author-observer is, by a scene so striking that it almost seems unreal. Aesthetics battling with the experience of the hard times then. Seeing and appreciating too much might have triggered the “am I dreaming” sentiment (if that is indeed what the ‘asleep’ and ‘lying still’ in the last two lines refer to). Hmm. Just a thought. 🙂 Cheers.

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