February 21, 2018

Wordsworth's "Westminster Bridge"

On this day in 1802, William Wordsworth completed the sonnet, "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge," one of his best known short poems. The actual moment on the bridge had come a month earlier, and been described this way in notes made by Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, at the time:
    We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St. Paul's, with the River and a Multitude of little boats, made a most beautiful sight.... The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature's own grand spectacles....
Wordsworth had already moved back to the Lake District at the time of writing, and would soon devote himself to the poetry of "Nature's holy plan," but he made use of Dorothy's notes and captured her sense of urban beauty:
    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, theaters, 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!
Wordsworth was crossing Westminster Bridge because he was on his way to France, in order to see for the first time his nine-year old daughter, Caroline, and her mother, Annette Vallon, with whom he had had an affair in 1791. The three apparently found some sort of closure during the month they spent together at Calais, and Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson, as planned, that October.

The revelation of Wordsworth's illegitimate child to the literary world was not made until 1921, through the scholarship of Princeton's George McLean Harper. The news created quite a stir among the professors, but judging by the Faculty Song composed that year by the seniors, the kids took it in stride:
    Harper went to France to get
    The red-hot dope on dear Annette,
    And there performed a deed of note,
    Revealing Wordsworth's one wild oat.

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