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Explication of Wordsworth's "Upon Westminster Bridge"
Wordsworth chose for the subject of his poems the serene setting and the rustic folk because "in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language." This poem is unlike his other poems that typically depict the landscapes of the Lake District.
The prescribed poem “Upon Westminster Bridge” reveals the pristine beauty of the city as it is untouched by the multitudes, and the sound and fury of everyday life. The poem, although written in 1802, was published in 1808.
The context is Wordsworth’s visit to his former French mistress Annette Vallon and their illegitimate daughter, Caroline. His sister, Dorothy Wordsworth accompanied him during the meeting.
Although he wanted to marry Vallon in 1791, he had been forced to return to Britain owing to the possibility of war between France and Britain. The Treaty of Amiens (1802) enabled him to travel once again to France.
However, by then, time and space had altered relationships. Now, Wordsworth wanted to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mary Hutchinson. Therefore, the primary purpose of the visit was to arrive at a decision regarding Caroline’s future. As they travelled by coach to the ship dock, their brief stint at Westminster Bridge enthralled Wordsworth as he was wonder-struck at the glory of London at the crack of dawn.
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The poem was penned as a Petrarchan sonnet. It can be classified under his Momentary Poems as it is born out of a specific moment. In the poem, London is apostrophized as a fair lady, and the sonnet is dedicated to her magnificence. The earth has not “to show” anything more fair. The phrase ‘to show’ has the meaning ‘to showcase’. Besides, it also possesses the meaning ‘to boast of’. The aesthetic nature of the same is so captivating that even an ordinary being could not pass untouched by the same; unless he was ‘dull’. For, even those without any inherent taste for beauty could fathom this opulence. The sight is not only beautiful but also majestic. It is not only aesthetically inspiring, but emotionally ‘touching.’
"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."
It is royalty personified as the city wears a garment of the beauty of the morning. Cleanth Brooks enumerates the paradoxes in the poem in his essay “The Language of Paradox”.
The organic beauty of Nature is foregrounded in a commercial city. The city wears a garment, yet it is bare. The garment seems to come across as pure as its birthday suit, since it described as ‘silent, bare’. The poet may also signify the situation of the city at dawn: bare of the populace and signs of industrialization that mar the serenity of the city. All the landmarks of civilization lie within its domain, “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples.” All these signify different aspects respectively: transportation, infrastructure, monuments, culture and religion. The city of London is depicted in all three dimensions as it traverses ‘the fields’, the ‘sky’ ,and as it shimmers through ‘the smokeless air’.
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The sestet marks the change in mood. From sheer contemplation, the poet moves to a mood of declaration. The sun is said to ‘steep’ or rise in full splendor. The word ‘steep’ is used to signify the zenith of its reach or height. Like a mountaineer, the sun is personified; he reaches his peak (aim) as signified by the word ‘steep’. The satisfaction of the mountaineer-sun is internalized by Wordsworth as he senses ‘a calm deep’ within. The river is also apostrophized as a person who glides at his own will with a spirit that flows as freely. The poet exclaims that even the houses seem to be sleeping in all tranquility.
"Never did the 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!"
And the stillness is such that even the mighty heart of London seems to be ‘lying still’. That is, the city appears so tranquil and silent that one cannot sense the heartbeats of the mighty London. The verb ‘lying’ functions as a pun here. It has a dual implication. London is known as the commercial capital; the city has this label as its identity. The poet asserts that it is ‘lying’ still, uttering an untruth, as its distinctiveness lies in the serene side of it without the hustle and bustle of city life.
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Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, second edition.