Sunday, 9 October 2011

Wordsworth's 'Upon Westminster Bridge': London as Sacred Force of Nature


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.
Never did 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!

I have lived in London for more than six years and I have come to think of it as the relationship you can't leave. As infuriating, exhausting and frightening as it can be, it is the only city out of the three I have lived in for which I have a grand passion. Many of my fellow Londoners (both those who have adopted it, like me, or those who have lived here for much or all of their lives) agree that it is a city which brings out the best and worst in its inhabitants. London will either be the making of you, or it will shatter you - there is very little middle ground. The variety of experience available here is hard to match. It is the most protean of cities and that is what makes it so exciting.

The cultural life is one of London's biggest draws, and personally I think that it would be difficult to really enjoy life in the city without live music, art, poetry, and other pastimes - the very best available, whatever your preferred genre - on a fairly regular basis. There are other antidotes to the stresses of big city life. I love the parks - there are so many in London and each has its own very distinct character. I have also realised for several years that walking across one of the Thames bridges is a pretty sure cure for a bad day, or it will at least make things a little better. On a good day, it can easily be the highlight. Waterloo Bridge is one of the still points of the turning world: sweeping views west toward Westminster and the London Eye, east toward the glittering towers of commerce and St Paul's in the City. I also love Millenium Bridge, where I had one of my most wonderful London moments before I even moved to the city: Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre to my right, St Paul's to the left, the curve of the Thames and Tower Bridge ahead, and incandescent contrails all across the clear sky.

Wordsworth famously chose Westminster Bridge. I have to admit that Wordsworth has never been one of my favourites - in fact, I had a bit of a dislike for him when I was younger, finding him somewhat twee (or whatever Canadian equivalent I would have used.) My brother used to annoy me by reciting the opening lines of 'It is a Beauteous Evening'. By the time he reached "The holy time is quiet as a Nun," I would probably have thrown something at him. However, I am no longer the ultra-critical teenager I was, and I do recognise Wordsworth as a great Romantic - although I still prefer Keats and Coleridge.

Wordsworth was a master of the pastoral, of course, and what I love in this poem is that he sees the city as a force of nature - which in a sense it truly is - and a beautiful one. I have yet to see London lying under this kind of dawn quiet, and in the 21st century it would be a lot harder to find. The closest I have come is an early morning departure for some airport or other. But even Wordsworth, prophet of the Lake District and some of the most awe-inspiring British landscapes, says "Earth has not anything to show more fair...Never did sun more beautifully steep/In his first splendour valley, rock or hill". I am more likely to walk across Waterloo Bridge at dusk than Westminster Bridge at dawn, and I wonder how Wordsworth would have felt about the changes to London over two hundred years. However, this poem still resonates with a sense of the sacred in an urban setting, a moment of transcendent peace in "the mighty heart."

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