As you all know, I really enjoy English literature, and for this week’s post I will try to help you with one of the most challenging parts of the IGCSE English Lit. test – poetry analysis. I have chosen the poem, “Sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” written by William Wordsworth in the 1800s.
Question: What impression of London does the poet create and how is this achieved?
Earth hath 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 splendor, 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!
The sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” written by William Wordsworth reflects on the poet’s love of nature, and describes the magnificent sun rise over London. His thoughts and feelings are displayed in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, with the “abba abba cdc dcd” rhyme scheme, and the eight-lined octave which sets the scenario of the poem, and the six-lined sestet which respondes and contains a bit of his opinion. Through this form, we are able to grasp its message more effectively as the content is more compact in the limitations of the rules of the sonnet, and the theme is therefore more intense. By using the Petrarchan rhyming pattern, the poet is able to emphasize his feelings of love and beauty for that morning.
In the octave of the poem, the scene, London, is established and described. “Earth has not anything to show more fair”, the first line, starts the poem off unexpectedly with great exaggeration. This hyperbole emphasizes the depth of Wordsworth’s feelings. The next line begins with the word “dull” which uses syntax, as the poet created an odd rearrangement of words in order for “dull” to be stressed when read out, which signifies its meaning. Wordsworth then uses examples of personification and simile. “The City now doth, like a garment, wear the beauty of the morning”, is a meaningful simile to use as it implies to the reader that the beauty of this sun rise will be gone and removed as the day comes, but will appear again the next day – just as one wears clothes, sheds them, and then puts on fresh clean ones the next day. It suggests that beauty does not last forever, and will not be “worn” as the sun goes down. The personification in this line is also significant to how Wordsworth creates his impression of London because it creates a somewhat artistic beauty in the readers mind. Personification also helps readers to picture the scene, and describe it in everyday motions that people will be able to comprehend. Words and phrases such as “beauty”, “silent, bare”, “open” and “bright and glittering” can be found throughout the octave, and provide imagery, allowing for the reader to easily picture what Wordsworth experienced. Through these descriptive words, the poet shares his awe and admiration of the dazzling sight and are essential to help him convey his message. In addition, “silent, bare” gives a sense of tranquility in the area, not only setting a calm tone and atmosphere, but also hinting harmony with nature. The inactivity inferred here gives the sense of no human life, with only the narrator, and the individuality makes it seem more beautiful. This is highlighted in the next line, “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie” as this use of personification once again demonstrates that London is somewhat alive, emitting fascination so elegant that he can only marvel in admiration. Furthermore, Wordsworth may have used personification because he thought what he was seeing was so stunning and unbelievable that it deserved to be given human characteristics. The word “open” alongside with “fields” and “sky” present the idea that the beauty is vast and endless, stretching throughout fields and reaching up to the sky.
William Wordsworth’s choice of voice, the 1st person narrative, is also appropriate as it suggests that he is involved, and lets us hear from his opinions and thoughts. The sights from the city that he shows us in the content of the octave – the city at rest, the first glimpse of sunlight, fits in perfectly with the Romantic genre of poetry, as it depicts a landscape with a direct emphasis on nature. The tone of the poem is enchanted, as he writes in awe and peacefulness, and this further illustrates the depth of the poet’s feelings. Adding on to the concept of peace and tranquility, the pace of the poem is slow, as if the city is sleeping and not yet awoken through sunrise. The rhyming pattern (abba abba) is repeating and regular, which gives a pulse to the poem like a heartbeat of the city, and its consistency reminds readers of nature or the breath of sleep.
The sestet focuses more on nature rather than the city, as the octave did. Again, there is use of hyperbole, in the opening word “Never”. Instead of simply stating “the sun never more beautifully steep” the poet writes “Never did the sun more beautifully steep”, which despite the unfamiliar word ordering, emphasizes the depth of his feelings towards nature, and shows a definite line dividing the octave and sestet, so readers can observe the change between the two. Hyperbole is used again in the third line of the sestet, for emphasis. There also is a lot of personification – “The river glideth at his own sweet will” and “the very houses seem asleep” and “mighty heart is lying still”. Personification helps to provide life to the poem, making it more interesting for the reader, as well as stressing the beauty of the place. It shows the reader that the place is so beautiful, there is not a difference from man. “Never felt a calm so deep” in the third line suggests to the reader that this really is a special, outstanding place to the poet. The punctuation in the fifth line – “Dear God!” strengthens his feelings, and assures readers how important and significant this beautiful sight means to him.
The sestet dramatically changes from the octave, not only in length, but in tone. There are a lot more exclamations, “so deep!”, “dear God!” and “lying still!”, which changes the pace. In the octave, it was slow, but there seems to be more energy in the sestet, and the pace is faster and more lively. This fits in well with the use of human characteristics in the personification throughout the sestet. The rhyme scheme is cdcdcd, and this constant, shorter rhyming pattern also quickens the pace.
This sonnet, despite its ridged formality, did not limit Wordsworth capability in exploring and portraying the beauty of the sunrise over Westminster bridge for the readers; instead, it gives readers a more intense account from an unusual perspective of descriptive writing, which in the end, helps to signify the beauty of London in the morning.
That’s it for now! If you have any experience at all with this test, please give me feedback or comments or tips on how to do well at it! Also, do not use this for your own answer, it is merely to help you and provide an idea of what the answer should look like. Feel free to use it as a guideline, but do not copy.