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Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
A Poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Composition and Publication
Setting
Inspiration
Theme
Rhyme Scheme
Meter
Text and Summary
Imagery
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography
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Compiled by Michael J. Cummings... 2009
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Type of Work

......."Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" is a lyric poem in the form of a sonnet. In English, there are two types of sonnets, the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean, both with fourteen lines. Wordsworth's poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, developed by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), a Roman Catholic priest. A Petrarchan sonnet consists of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet). The first stanza presents a theme or problem, and the second stanza develops the theme or suggests a solution to the problem. The rhyme of a Petrarchan sonnet is discussed under Rhyme Scheme and Meter, below. 

Composition and Publication

.......William Wordsworth completed the poem between July 31 and September 3, 1802. Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme published the work in 1807 in Poems in Two Volumes, a collection of Wordworth's poems. 

Setting

.......The setting is London as seen from Westminster Bridge, which connects the south bank of the Thames River with Westminster on the north bank. Westminster, called an inner borough, is now part of London. 

Inspiration

.......Wordsworth's inspiration for the poem was the view he beheld from Westminster Bridge on the morning of July 31, 1802, when most of the residents were still in bed and the factories had not yet stoked their fires and polluted the air with smoke. He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge in a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France. In her diary, Dorothy wrote:

We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St. Paul's, with the River and a Multitude of little boats, made a most beautiful sight.... The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature's own grand spectacles.
Theme: Seeing the City in a New Light

.......London during the workday was rude and dirty. A walk across a bridge or through streets and alleyways confronted the pedestrian with smoke, dust, grimy urchins, clacking carts, ringing hammers, barking dogs, jostling shoppers, smelly fish, rotting fruit. But at dawn on a cloudless morning, when London was still asleep and the fires of factories had yet to be stoked, the city joined with nature to present the early riser a tableau of glistening waters, majestic towers, unpeopled boats on the River Thames--bobbing and swaying--and the glory of empty, silent streets. The message here is that even an ugly, quacking duckling can become a lovely, soundless swan.

Rhyme Scheme and Meter

.......The rhyme scheme of "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" and other Petrarchan sonnets is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave): abba, abba; (2) second stanza (sestet): cd, cd, cd (or another combination, such as cde, cde; cdc, cdc; or cde, dce.
.......The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter, with ten syllables (five iambic feet) per line. (An iambic foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.) The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the metric pattern:

    .......1......      . ..2.........  ....3................4..................5
    Earth HAS..|..not AN..|..y THING..|..to SHOW..|..more FAIR:
    ........1.......      . ..2.........  ....3.................4.................5
    Dull WOULD..|..he BE..|..of SOUL | who COULD..|..pass BY
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Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
By William Wordsworth
Text With Summary

a...Earth has not anything to show more fair:
b...Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
b...A sight so touching in its majesty:
a...This City now doth like a garment wear
a...The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
b...Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
b...Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
a...All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.......8
c...Never did sun more beautifully steep
d...In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
c...Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
d...The river glideth at his own sweet will:
c...Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
d...And all that mighty heart is lying still!...............14

Summary

The first eight lines present a view of the city as it wears the sunlit morning like a garment and its edifices glitter beneath the sky. The last six lines then boldly declare that this man-made "formation" is just as beautiful in the sunlight as any natural formation, such as a valley or hill. Moreover, it is just as calming to the observer, for even the houses seem to sleep, like the people in them. 

Imagery

.......The most striking figure of speech in the poem is personification. It dresses the city in a garment and gives it a heart, makes the sun "in his first splendour" a benefactor, and bestows on the river a will of its own. 
.......Examples of other figures of speech in the poem are as follows:

Line 2, alliteration: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
Line 3, alliteration: A sight so touching in its majesty
Lines 4, 5 simile: This City now doth like a garment wear / The beauty of the morning: silent bare (comparison of beauty to a garment)
Line 13: metaphor: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; (comparison of houses to a creature that sleeps)
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a poem describing a view of your community at dawn or at sunset.
  • Can the theme of the poem apply to a person? In other words, does a person change in relation to his or her environment or in relation to the time of day or another factor?
  • Write an essay that compares and contrasts the tone and theme of "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" with the tone and theme of Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much With Us."
  • What is the meaning of in his first splendour (line 10)?