‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ was a poem written by the famous poet, William Wordsworth in 1802. Poets traditionally studied pastoral images because cities had not evolved into the important place which they have now. Wordsworth realized that more people where beginning to live in cities and that they were becoming more important and more significant in peoples’ lives. Ian McMillan created a 21st Century version of Wordsworth’s poem, which shows how much places can dramatically change over a period of time. I shall compare and contrast the way in which each poet uses their language to convey their different images of past and present day London.
William Wordsworth was born and raised in the Lake District, in England. He had a great appreciation for nature, which is apparent in many of his poems. He also had strong beliefs in pantheism. He was a crucial figure in the English Romantic Movement. He wrote the poem ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ in the early hours of the morning on the third of September 1802. He composed it as he travelled across Westminster Bridge in a carriage and looked over London city, while most people were still sleeping in bed and when London was at its most dormant. The message of the poem is very clear, that London is one of the most beautiful landscapes at that time of the morning. The whole poem is perfectly formed around a Petrarchen sonnet. As it is a sonnet it consists of only fourteen lines in which Wordsworth has to write the poem. This means his language has to be specific and meaningful to make his message clear by the end of the poem.
Wordsworth sets the tone for the rest of the poem in his first few lines of the octave:
“Earth has not any thing to shew more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty;”
These lines capture the audience by telling us that London is the fairest thing on earth, which is a bold statement. He suggests that only ‘dull’ souls could not recognise its splendour. This emphasises the beauty of London dramatically, as he does not imply it is beautiful, but tells us it is the most beautiful sight.
Wordsworth uses several linguistic techniques throughout the poem to create picturesque images.
“This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, ”
The use of personification here creates the image of the city wearing beauty, where beauty is a garment. Like a garment the beauty would be taken off or removed during the day, when the city is at its busiest and therefore least appealing. Wordsworth uses a semicolon and commas to make a caesura. This creates a small pause for the reader to absorb the silence. This gives a better picture of how peaceful London is and also adds a slow rhythm to the reading of the poem, which ties in with the relaxed nature of it.
Moreover Wordsworth uses a persuasive style to communicate his message. The choice of language, which is used, is important to how the audience perceives the poem.
“Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!”
The use of the word ‘never’ leads us believe that this view is so spectacular that it does not compare with anything he has ever seen before.
Furthermore Wordsworth uses personification to create an image.
“The river glideth at ‘his own sweet will:
Wordsworth almost gives the river its own character by saying that it glides at its own sweet will. The use of the verb ‘glide’ makes it sound peaceful and calm.
Wordsworth was a strong believer in pantheism and he was also quite religious:
“Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;”
Wordsworth’s use of ‘God’ in this line makes it sound as if he is astonished at how beautiful it is. He also builds personification into it once more, by saying that the houses seem asleep. This enhances the image of outstanding beauty which Wordsworth is trying to create.
Wordsworth’s poem builds a clear message, which is enforced in many linguistic techniques and styles. He uses several examples of personification to share his message. He makes an extremely clear message that London is at its most beautiful during sunrise, and possibly the most beautiful sight ever.
Commissioned by the Globe Theatre in the year 2002, Ian McMillan wrote the poem titled ‘Wordsworth’s Return To Westminster Bridge’. It strikes me immediately how very different both poems are. This is most definitely because of the effect 200 years has had on London. In the space of two centuries an industrial revolution has occurred making the city of London larger, with more people and more buildings. In fact, land which used to be fields is now covered with buildings and roads, in contrast to Wordsworth’s time. The message of McMillan’s poem is that London is an awful dirty place and that he is reluctant to live there. As McMillan is working off Wordsworth’s poem, it seems that he is arguing and trying to prove a point to Wordsworth, that his image of London is wrong.
McMillan’s poem is structured around a Shakespearean sonnet. The rhyme scheme, which he has achieved, is not exactly a Shakespearean sonnet, but very similar to one. Nowadays this is not unusual for a poem not to follow the rhyme scheme precisely. Most poets improvise on it, which gives it originality. The fact that the poem lacks punctuation is also a more regular occurrence in present day poetry. This style lacks order and reflects the message that is being portrayed.
The first two lines of McMillan’s poem show us immediately what he is doing with the tone of the poem:
“Earth has not any thing to show more fair
(Well, to be honest, actually it does)”
McMillan begins with almost the same line as Wordsworth to make it apparent that he is reviewing Wordsworth’s poem. McMillan begins his criticism of London by the second line by stating that he disagrees with what he has said. The brackets used to punctuate this line give it a personal touch, as if McMillan has just read the beginning line and has added his own opinion. This would capture the audience, because he is sharing his opinion, which makes it more interesting. It also quite informal to use brackets, which builds upon the tone of disorder within the style of the poem.
Once again McMillan gives us an insight on how different London has become since Wordsworth’s time:
“I can’t hear myself think above the buzz”
The use of ‘buzz’ is a good example of onomatopoeia and creates an idea for the reader of what it is actually like. This gives us a clear message. McMillan suggests that he cannot concentrate because of the intense noise, whereas Wordsworth increasingly built upon the image of tranquillity.
McMillan also uses linguistic techniques to create an image with his words.
“Who move across the bridge as slow as sludge
Who point and gawp and spit and swear and trudge”
The use of a simile ‘as slow as sludge’ gives a very good image of what is happening. It also sets a mood. The word ‘sludge’ is in my opinion very negative and dreary, therefore passing that dreary image on to the people. The use of ‘and’ repeatedly creates a list. All the things, which are in this list are negative verbs. It emphasises the iambic pentameter and gives it a slow rhythm. This makes it seem like there are lots of negative points because of the way it is so dragged out. This greatly enhances the image created.
Furthermore McMillan alters Wordsworth’s lines to convey the opposite message. The opening of the sestet in Wordsworth’s poem:
“Never did sun more beautifully steep”,
is transformed into:
“Never did sun more grudgingly shine”
This slight alteration to the adverb portrays a totally different image. ‘Grudgingly’ implies that the sun does not want to shine over London because it is so ugly, in contrast to Wordsworth who implies that the sun is proud to shine over the city.
There is also a tone of confusion in the third line of the sestet:
“Which drop like confetti on empty bottles of wine”
The image of ‘confetti’ dropping is generally related with weddings and celebrations, a good positive image, whereas the wine bottles are empty. This confusion makes the audience unsure, which gives the impression of London being a mess.
The final line of the poem shows how much McMillan loathes London. He says how he is happy that he lives in the ‘civilised’ north, referring to the north of England. This would imply to the audience that London, the south, is not civilised, but savage and dirty.
I have compared and contrasted the differences in poetic style and imagery in both poems. Wordsworth’s poem brings out the full potential beauty in London, whereas McMillan’s poem shows the modern day reality of dirt and pollution, which is now found in most cities. London would have dramatically evolved from what it was 200 years ago because of advances in technology, meaning people depend on machines more than manual labour. This would draw people from the countryside into the city and the city would therefore get larger with more and more buildings. Personally I prefer McMillan’s version of Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge ‘. ‘Wordsworth’s Return To Westminster Bridge’ is more realistic and a clearer picture of what a city is, for me. This is probably because I could not depict a city as being beautiful.