Upon Westminster Bridge

William Wordsworth

Many of you did well on your pensum on Westminster Bridge, but some had trouble with certain details. That's to be expected: even specialists in Romantic poetry have had trouble with them.

Let's look at them. As the headnote in your English 219 reader told you, the speaker of the poem is someone who has come to London from rural surroundings, and who has been accustomed to seeing nature -- this is the usual landscape of Romantic poetry, what the speaker means when he mentions valley, rock, and hill -- as a revelation of the Divine in ordinary life.

Westminster Bridge, on which the speaker is standing in early morning.

He has also been accustomed to seeing great cities like London -- dirt, smoke, noise, crowds -- as the "unnatural" opposite of nature and reflective solitude. But now, standing in early morning on Westminster bridge, he suddenly realizes that this human cityscape also belongs to the divinity he has previously associated only with unspoiled nature.

What prompts this moment of personal revelation? This is where the details of the poem matter most.

Smokeless

It's easy to read right past the word smokeless in the line All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. But for those living in the speaker's 19th-century England, it was a detail that spoke volumes. The image of London as a "fallen" or "corrupt" scene of mindless human striving had been associated, since the seventeenth century, with the gigantic cloud of smoke that gathered over London for many weeks every year.

Part of the reason was meteorological: London is close to the English Channel, and changes of weather very often produced temperature inversions that prevented the smoke blowing away. But more of it was due to an increase in population. Even in Shakespeare's time, England was on its way to being deforested -- except for a few "royal forests" where it was illegal to cut wood -- and people had to use soft coal ("sea coal") to heat their dwellings in cold weather.

In his angry tract Fugifumium -- published nearly a century and a half before Wordsworth's speaker is standing on Westminster Bridge -- the diarist John Evelyn demanded that measures be taken to relieve London from

that which renders her less healthy, and which darkens and eclipses all her other attributes. And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismal Cloud of SEA COAL which is not only perpetually imminent over her head, but so universally mixed with the otherwise wholesome and excellent Air, that her inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour.

By Wordsworth's day, Evelyn's "impure and thick mist" had begun to look like what the great social critic John Ruskin called "the storm cloud of the nineteenth century," an outward reminder of the way in which humans were desecrating the natural world through industrialization:

Blanched sun, -- blighted grass, -- blinded man. If you ask me for any conceivable cause or meaning of these things, I can tell you none, according to your modern beliefs. But I can tell you what meaning it would have borne to the men of old time. . . . Of states in such moral gloom every seer of old predicted the physical gloom, saying, "The light shall be darkened in the heavens thereof, and the stars shall withdraw their shining." All Greek, all Christian, all Jewish prophecy insists on the same truth.

So part of what the speaker is seeing is the "majesty" of London when the canopy of smoke that normally hides her beauty and grandeur has unexpectedly vanished. It is early morning. The streets are empty. The night breezes have blown away the "hellish and dismal cloud" that so often overhangs the urban scene. Now, bright and glittering in the smokeless air, it reveals itself to him in a new way.

Open unto the fields

There's more. The speaker is living at a time before modern refrigeration, so that the large urban population had to be fed from farms and dairies close enough to the city that food didn't spoil before it reached market. (Cattle were actually driven into the city and slaughtered there.)

Today, when food can be brought immense distances from where it was raised or grown, we're used to suburban landscapes -- houses, shopping malls, highways -- that surround our cities for many miles. But in the nineteenth century the agricultural landscape was still continous with the city. This is what the speaker is wonderingly remarking upon when he says that he now can see a scene that lies open unto the fields that lie immediately beyond the city.

If you want to get a sense of how abrupt the transition from city to countryside could be in an older England, read Milton's great simile in Paradise Lost of the man who takes a walk from the crowded city to the fields outside on a spring morning. Wordsworth would have known those lines in Milton by heart.

Towers, domes, theaters, and temples

These are details that have so often misled even those who specialize in Romantic poetry. One sees why. Domes is a word that has come narrowly to denote the vaulted structures we associate with cathedrals, and that kind of dome -- for instance, the dome of St. Paul's -- is present in the London the speaker is looking at, so it's easy to assume that that's what he means.

 

View of Westminster Bridge by the great Venetian painter Canaletto. If you look off the right, you can see part of what the spaker of the poem is looking at.

 

In the same way, we think we know what theaters are. We ourselves go into the city to see plays in theaters, and during the eighteenth century major theaters like Drury Lane and Covent Garden had appeared in London, so it's easy to assume that the word has its modern meaning. Likewise, temples had become a general name for cathedrals (as, once again, St. Paul's in London) So, for instance, one writer in Wordsworth's own period remarked that "There is not a more beautiful temple in the world than the great Cathedral of Seville."

But now there is a problem. Whatever the speaker means by theaters, it's obvious that he can't mean the kind of theater in which modern playgoers see theatrical productions, because he says the theaters he's looking at lie open to the sky. So we begin to see that he must be thinking about a kind of theater, like those in ancient Greece, that were not enclosed. This gives us OED definition I.a., "A place constructed in the open air, for viewing dramatic plays or other spectacles. It had the form of a segment of a circle: the auditorium was usually excavated from a hill-side, the seats rising in tiers above and behind one another."

What, then, about domes? Well, if theaters has alerted us to the fact that the speaker is imagining this modern urban landscape as somehow resembling those of classical Greece or ancient Rome, domes will direct us to the Latin word domus, which for many centuries was used to describe any large or stately building. (A memorable example is Nero's Domus Aurea, a huge palace built by a Roman emperor as a monument to his own crazed vanity.) So the OED definition that fits the context is 1: "A house, a home; a stately building, a mansion." This was the most common meaning of dome in earlier English poetry -- Spenser, Milton, and other poets whose work Wordsworth knew well -- and it comes naturally to the speaker's mind as he gazes upon a silent London in the early morning.

Another view by Canelleto. The arch is one of those sustaining Westminster Bridge.

By now, you will have figured out that temples doesn't just refer to modern churches -- though it is continuity with a more ancient past that has led to their being called that -- but to any building that fits OED definition I.1: "An edifice or place regarded primarily as the dwelling-place or 'house' of a deity or deities." In a poem entitled The Ruines of Time, for instance, Edmund Spenser speaks about

High towers, faire temples, goodly theaters.

Such details permit to see what is going on in Upon Westminster Bridge. In general terms, the speaker is someone who comes to realize that, for all his readiness to see a divinity in nature -- what one great scholar called the "natural supernaturalism" of Romantic poetry -- he has so far permitted his mind to be imprisoned within excessively narrow or limited categories. Until this moment, he has simply been assuming that a Divine Spirit is present in nature but not in cities. In the same way, he has assumed that a sense of the divine once universal -- attested to by, for instance, Greek and Roman temples, the Temple of the Hebrew Bible, Christian cathedrals -- has vanished in the modern age. The poem is in this sense about the way this moment on Westminster Bridge has freed his imagination from those categories.

Biographical Fallacy: "Wordsworth" v. the speaker of the poem

In one class discussing Upon Westminster Bridge, a student using a standard college anthology asked about Wordsworth's illegitimate daughter with a French woman named Annette Vallon. She read us a footnote saying that Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet's sister, had recorded in her journal that the poem described Wordsworth stopping in London on his way to France, where he was going to see his daughter Caroline.

In the age of the internet and Wikipedia, it's getting harder and harder to explain to students why this kind of biographical information is misleading. Some members of the class did point out that there is no mention of Annette Vallon, or Wordsworth's daughter Caroline, in the poem. That's an essential point.

In this case, though, the student with the anthology kept returning to the footnote concerning Dorothy Wordsworth's journal. Surely Dorothy knew where her brother was going when he left for London? Surely she knew that he was the speaker in Upon Westminster Bridge?

At this point, another student came up with what I still think of as a wonderful reductio ad absurdum of what in literary theory is called the "genetic fallacy" or the "biographical fallacy." This student said: "Wait a minute. If Dorothy Wordsworth reported in her journal that her brother was wearing a purple necktie when he left for London, would that mean that the speaker of Upon Westminster Bridge was wearing a purple necktie?" We all agreed that it wouldn't.

Then we all went back to smokeless, domes, theaters, temples and the other matters discussed above.