This Day In Literary History
On September 3rd, 1802, the legendary English poet William Wordsworth wrote his classic sonnet, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.
Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were riding in a coach on their way to Calais, France, to meet with his French girlfriend, Annette Vallon, and Caroline, the illegitimate daughter he fathered with her. Wordsworth hadn't seen Annette since 1791.
He wanted to marry her then, but because France and England were teetering on war, he was forced to return to Britain. In 1802, the Treaty of Amiens allowed British subjects to travel to France, so Wordsworth and his sister went to see Annette and Caroline.
The idea was to reach an agreeable settlement of Wordsworth's financial obligations to them, so that he could marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson with a clear conscience.
While on its way to France, Wordsworth and Dorothy's coach stopped for a moment on Westminster Bridge, giving the poet and his sister a surprising view of London, which at the time was a dirty place that had grown considerably since the Industrial Revolution.
London had grown so much in terms of wealth and population that people in the villages were starving and dying in poverty because they were afraid to move to an ominously large, dirty, and dangerous city that they barely knew.
Despite the dirtiness of the city, the surprisingly beautiful view of London in the early morning sunlight that Wordsworth saw inspired him to write the following sonnet:
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802
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 the 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!
This sonnet is a Petrarchan sonnet, (with an ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme) and makes wonderful use of paradoxical metaphors such as "touching in its majesty" and "that mighty heart is lying still."
While Petrarchan sonnets employ iambic pentameter, the lines in this poem aren't exactly that. But they do have a kind of iambic rhythm. In his depiction of the scenery, Wordsworth shows us his skill as a Romantic poet.
His sister, Dorothy, would describe the same view of London in her journal:
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.
Quote Of The Day
"Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." - William Wordsworth
Today's video features a reading of William Wordsworth's classic poem Daffodils, performed by actor Sir Jeremy Irons. Enjoy!