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In the summer of 1802, William Wordsworth traveled with his sister, Dorothy, to Calais, France. They stopped in London where, as Dorothy charmingly wrote in her journal, they ran into "various troubles and disasters." Dorothy frequently traveled with her brother – the two were like best friends – and her journals provide an interesting counterpoint to Wordsworth's poetry. They left London early on the morning of July 31st, and Dorothy wrote about crossing over the famous Westminster Bridge to get out of town:
Left London between five and six o'clock of the morning outside the Dover coach. [Note from Shmoop: a coach is a small carriage drawn by horses.] A beautiful morning. The city, St Paul's, with the river – a multitude of little boats, made a beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge; the houses not overhung by their clouds of smoke, and were spread out endlessly; yet the sun shone so brightly, with such a pure light, that there was something like the purity of one of Nature's own grand spectacles.
Hmm, now this sounds familiar. Yes, it's the same scene described by her brother in "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802." Only poor Wordsworth got the date wrong when he published the poem under this title in 1807 – it was the end of July, not the beginning of September.
No matter. The poem is remembered not as a biographical record, but as a beautiful depiction of London in the morning, written in plain language that any Englishman could understand. Wordsworth apparently wrote the sonnet while sitting on top of his coach. Maybe he was so awed by the city because he didn't live there: he was a country mouse who spent much of his time up in the scenic Lake District of England. When he finally made his way into the city, he was like, "Whoa. This is actually pretty cool."
At this point in Wordsworth's career, in 1802, he was writing at the peak of his powers, having already published the hugely influential Lyrical Ballads with his friend and fellow genius Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" was not published until 1807, in Poems in Two Volumes.
"Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" captures the feeling of those lucky moments when it seems that the tired, old world is made completely new again. Everything becomes simple and bright, like a freshly-minted penny. Everyone, we assume, has these feelings at one time or another, whether on the first day of spring or after falling in love or, as in William Wordsworth's case, while traveling. You think to yourself, "Yup. This is it. I couldn't possibly find a more beautiful vision than this." And it's true, because if you were to go hunting for beautiful sights, even that activity would probably get old after a while.
Instead, that "freshly-minted penny" feeling tends to come when we least expect it. For Wordsworth, it happened as he rode across the Westminster Bridge in his coach. We imagine him all groggy at 6 in the morning, and then he looks out the window is like, "Whoa, there, stop the coach!" And he hops out, climbs atop the coach, stares out at the scene, and jots down the notes that will become this poem.
As you probably know, the feeling of newness usually comes when you're actually looking at something new or unusual. Even if you lived in the most scenic place on earth, you'd probably grow accustomed to it after a while. In fact, Wordsworth did live in one of the most scenic places on earth, the Lake District in England. Although he had been to London before, it still felt like a different world to him. On the other hand, if he had lived in London, he might not have been so impressed. Contrast this sonnet with a poem written about a decade before by William Blake, called "London":
I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
Pretty bleak, right? Well, Blake lived in London for much of his life, so he had grown painfully aware of the grunginess of the city, not to mention the injustices it contained. It just goes to show how a change of scenery can make a great difference in whether the world looks fresh or faded. Whenever you start to fall into a rut, it might be time to take a trip to see new sights and new people.
If you ever need to look up a Wordsworth poem but don't have your "Collected Works" book handy (and why don't you?!), you can find all 800-something poems here.
The Wordsworth Museum and Art Gallery
Wordsworth wrote many of his most famous works at Dove Cottage, in the heart of the Lake District in England.
Crossing Westminster Bridge
An old, black-and-white video about the experience of crossing the Westminster Bridge in modern times. Remember, though, that both the bridge and the surroundings looked completely different in Wordsworth's day.
"Composed Upon Westminster Bridge"
A good British reading of the poem with an image of the original Westminster Bridge before it was replaced.
Original Westminster Bridge
The first Westminster Bridge as it appeared to the Italian painter Canaletto in about 1746.
William Wordsworth: A Life, by Stephen Gill
This biography by Stephen Gill explains how Wordsworth went from a "solitary visionary" to one of the most respected intellectuals in England.
The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, by Dorothy Wordsworth
Dorothy Wordsworth was an accomplished journal writer, and she wrote about the day she and her brother crossed the Westminster Bridge early in the morning.