Study Guide

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 Themes

By William Wordsworth

  • Awe and Amazement

    This poem is a classic example of someone being taken by surprise by beauty and just staring at it, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. On the other hand, the neatness and precision of the sonnet form might seem at odds with the speaker's spontaneous bursts of joy. We don't know too many people who speak in Petrarchan sonnets when they're happy. Also, the speaker spends a significant portion of the poem talking about how great the scenery is rather than describing it. The second half of the poem contains more description than the first.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. Does the amount of formal skill and concentration that must have been required to write this poem undermine Wordsworth's attempt to convey a spontaneous, childlike joy?
    2. Does the speaker seem more amazed by the city itself, by the morning light, or only by the combination of the two?
    3. How does the use of personification contribute to the speaker's sense of awe?
    4. How does the speaker's tone change in the last two lines? What do you think brings about this subtle change?

    Chew on This

    Wordsworth was attracted to the scene by the juxtaposition (or contradiction) of a chaotic metropolis that seemed to be resting or "asleep."

    Despite the absence of most people at such an early hour, Wordsworth "peoples" the city with inanimate things like the light, the river, and the houses.

  • Transience

    The poem makes clear that London is not entirely responsible for its beauty in the morning. A number of factors, including the unusual absence of any fog and the way the light strikes the ships and buildings, combine to make a perfect scene. Because the speaker knows that such a combination does not happen very often, he thinks that a person would be foolish just to pass by, assuming there will always be other chances to see such beauty. The speaker believes you have to take advantage of such opportunities when you have them.

    Questions About Transience

    1. What is it about the early morning that makes the city appear different than at other times?
    2. How do you explain the phrase, "so touching in its majesty" (line 3)? Why is this phrase almost like a paradox?
    3. What is the purpose of the speaker's claim that only a dull person would be able to pass by a scene like this one?
    4. What does the image of the light as a garment suggest about the permanence or impermanence of the vision?

    Chew on This

    The poem expresses the speaker's desire to stop time, to prevent the city from ever "waking up."

    The image of a beautiful garment implies that the city is like a blank canvas that nature adorns, rather than something possessing beauty on its own.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Wordsworth is the quintessential nature poet. In this poem, London seems like a part of nature rather than a separate sphere of existence. Contrast Wordsworth's attitude with the attitude of William Blake in his poem "London," from the Songs of Experience, in which the city teems with unnatural political and social problems. "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" takes the view that the city can be surprisingly restful, and the speaker goes so far as to compare it favorably with the solitude of nature.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What is the effect of the personification of the sun and river?
    2. In what ways does the city resemble a natural space in this poem?
    3. How might the speaker's appreciation of the city change if it were crowded with people?
    4. Why would the sunlight be more beautiful on buildings than on natural landmarks like valleys and hills?

    Chew on This

    Wordsworth's use of personification attempts to paint the beauty of nature as an achievement of human culture.

    The poem tells us very little about how Wordsworth feels about everyday city life. He abstracts the buildings and landmarks of London from their inhabitants.

  • Contrasting Regions: City and Countryside

    City, 1. Countryside, 0. The city wins! OK, so if you took the whole of Wordsworth's poetic works, the score would probably run more like: City, 6. Countryside, 250. Few writers, past or present, have expressed their love for rural life quite so much as Wordsworth. Maybe that's why it's somewhat surprising to hear him say that he never felt so calm as he did when standing on London's Westminster Bridge. He seems surprised himself. Maybe the answer to this riddle is that Wordsworth integrated the city into his general vision of the countryside, breaking down the barrier between the two. But we still think he would have been very unhappy if he had been forced to move to London permanently.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: City and Countryside

    1. Would you guess that the speaker is native or foreign to the city? Why?
    2. Do you think that the speaker is aware that he is using exaggeration in calling the vision the most beautiful that earth has to offer?
    3. Do you think that the Wordsworth's sense of calm had anything to do with the fact that he was in the process of leaving the city? Why or why not?
    4. How do the poem's images juxtapose the city with the countryside? Where can you tell these two regions apart?

    Chew on This

    The city's freshness is more beautiful than the freshness of the countryside because it runs counter to expectation. The element of surprise accounts for the speaker's enthusiasm.