With close reference to historical, social, cultural and literary background, compare Blake’s ” London” with ” Composed on Westminster Bridge” by William Wordsworth.
Both these poems are part of Romanticism, a movement that lasted from 1750 to 1870. This movement was characterised by the freedom of thought and expression, relied on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, and an idolization of nature. Often the desire to be free of convention and tyranny and the concern with nature and natural surroundings brought about a general Romantic dissatisfaction with the organisation of society. This feeling of oppression was frequently expressed in poetry, especially by William Blake and William Wordsworth.
In both poems, the background, social, and cultural statuses of the poets are reflected in their picture and view of London. Blake speaks of a working class London, he talks of Chimney sweeps, youthful harlots and plague, this is the London that he is experiencing everyday, he does not describe himself as being different to these miserable souls. Wordsworth on the other hand, describes ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples. He is describing the wider view he has of London; he does not see the smaller back streets of London, only the majestic monuments. Wordsworth is describing a richer more beautiful and grand sight of London.
The historical setting of these two poems is very important. Both poems were written at around the turn of the 19th century, in Georgian times. At this time, the industrial revolution was underway, and there was vast growth in the population, due to medical advances and people having more children.
William Blake and William Wordsworth led very different lives, and this difference is what shines through in both poems, and is what makes them so very different in their description of London. Blake led a difficult working class life; he lives in Soho with his father and spent his days helping his father in the Hosiery. Blake had therefore seen all the horrors of London on a daily basis, and describes what he has seen with strong emotions of disgusts and criticism.
Wordsworth on the other hand, led a more comfortable life and didn’t live in London, but in the Lake District. This is reflected in his poem, as he is a visitor, and outsider, he sees London only from Westminster bridge, he is not part of the picture of serenity and magnificence that he is describing. Wordsworth’s social position, the son of a lawyer, affects the poem in a different way to Blake’s; he cannot describe London in a negative way, but in the way that he has experienced: a comfortable London, a “majestic” London.
Now I shall compare the actual poems.
First the subjects of the poem. ” London” by William Blake is a hyperbolic description and attack of the streets of London by day. Blake describes the London that he sees in a grey, horrific, and gruesome way. He says that London is a dirty, grim, disease ridden, and deprived place.
” Composed upon Westminster Bridge” is a picture of peaceful sleeping London in the early hours of the morning. Wordsworth, in contrast with Blake, describes London as a city of pure exquisiteness, and calm. It immediately sets out how the author feels in the first line saying ‘Dull would he be of soul who could pass by, a sight so touching in its majesty.’ Inferring that the sight of London would evoke strong views in everyone who sees it.
Now I will discuss the titles of the two poems. Blake’s is very short almost dismissive and sharp, the title emphasises Blake’s view that London is a dull worthless town because the word “London” carries no elaborate adjectives or expressions. Blake wants the title to reflect the town’s personality, so he makes the title short and dull.
The Wordsworth title however is a lot more informative, and gives us information on the whereabouts of the poet at the time of composition of the poem. The fact that he does not mention London, the town’s name, suggests that its beauty is too immense to describe. The title also gives us the picture of a great landscape seen from high “upon” Westminster Bridge, and an allusion of great height.
Secondly, the point of view of the poet. Blake sees London from the heart of its streets, he is part of the miserable picture he paints, and we see this because he says:
“I wander, I meet, I hear”. He is present in every sense; he can hear, see and touch the misery that is London.
Wordsworth on the other hand, is not present is the London he depicts. As I said before William Wordsworth came from the Lake District, and therefore is visiting London. He does not have a general view of London, as he doesn’t live there, he only has the view of a spectator high above Westminster Bridge. This is shown by the title, but also by the word “Sight” which is repeated throughout the poem, this shows that Wordsworth has only the sight of London to describe.
Thirdly the mood and the atmosphere created by structure, language, pitch and imagery. Both Poems use their structure to emphasise the words in them. William Blake’s ‘London’ is written in four, four line stanzas. Each line of each verse has the same number of syllables; this creates a regimented, almost mechanical effect. It uses alternate line rhyming to make the poem sound regular. This system also accentuates the last word of each line. Each verse of the Blake poem attacks a different aspect of London. It is clear that Blake found London a very corrupt place.
Whereas in contrast Wordsworth’s poem is written in the form of an Italian sonnet the octave of which describes the man made elements of the city, the last sextet refers to natural beauty. Wordsworth uses the sonnet to explore his feelings about the city, and the new experience for him that is London. This poem also uses alternate line rhyming to create the effect of order and silence, and to accentuates Wordsworth’s feeling that London is only asleep. In the Blake, the structure helps the immense criticism of London reach a critical climax, as the most critical verse is the last one, in which Blake describes the marriage hearse, and the newborn infants as being contaminated with the “harlot’s curse” which can be suggested to be sexually transmitted disease. In the Wordsworth, the structure helps to transmit an image of beauty and perfection, reflected in it’s perfect rhyming sonnet pattern.
Both poets use different symbolism to convey their ideas to the reader. Wordsworth shows his feelings for London in a figurative way. He personifies the sun, river and the city. He allows them to perform human functions such as wearing clothes. He continues this simile giving the river ‘a will’, something which is unique to people. He says ‘”The City now doth like a garment wear the beauty of the morning” this gives the impression that the city is alive, not just an inanimate collection of buildings. I interpret this personification to mean that the city takes the beauty of the morning to disguise it dirtiness and ugliness of the day.
He also indirectly compares the chimney sweeps with the church: “How the chimney-sweeper’s cry, Every black’ning church appals”. Here it is not clear whether he is using the term “black’ning” for the chimney sweeps or the church. I believe this to be a direct attack on the church for being harsh and cold to the people. Blake describes tactile, “Near where the chartered Thames does flow”, audio, “In every voice, in every ban, the min- forged manacles I hear”, and visual images, ” And mark in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe.” In Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Wordsworth expresses the beauty he witnesses by using visual, audio, and tactile images.
The poem is laden with visual images as the poet observing a picture of the city from Westminster Bridge: ” Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty”. The audio and tactile images are few, but still help to evoke the tranquillity that the city radiates. As Wordsworth is describing London in the very early hours he is witnessing a city at rest, almost asleep, so the audio images describe the silence: ” the beauty of the morning; silent”. The tactile images “Ne’er felt I, a calm so deep!” are the feelings that the bizarre silences of a normally bustling noisy city give off.
William Blake’s poem conveys his feelings in a more abstract style; he uses the people and buildings of London to represent the institutions, which they are associated with. He uses the image of a church to criticise religious establishments and a palace to signify the state, and authorities that control it. He gives the image of the soldier’s sigh running in blood down palace walls. Here he is attacking the monarchy and government for condemning young men to death by sending them off to fight in foreign wars.
The picture of London we see in Wordsworth’s poem is an exaggerated tribute to the beauty of London. It uses grandiose imagery and praises both nature and man’s achievements. In contrast to this the Blake poem uses hyperbole to criticize London and the sadness and malice of the people who live there. Blake’s London is brutally painted is a gloomy, filthy, disease ridden and destitute place unlike the Wordsworth poem it leaves you in no doubt as to the authors feelings on the subject. In Blake’s poem, all the colours are dark, sombre, dirty and grey. He uses words like ” chimney- sweeps, and black’ning” to depict the sinister gloom of London. However in Wordsworth’s poem all the colours are clear, radiant, and filled with light, as he depicts the first shinning bright hours of the morning. He uses language like “bright and glittering, smokeless air, sun and splendour” to emphasise the beaming glow of the city in the morning.
The sound in both poems is very different, and this is why they emit very dissimilar moods. In Blake’s poem, there are cries, miserable screams and horrific curses: ” In every cry of every man, in every infant’s cry of fear… The mind- forged manacles I hear.” In this verse Blake tells us that he can hear all the horror and terror of the people, even to the extent of hearing the fears inside their entrapped and mangled minds. Blake hears curses of the youthful harlots, and the sighs of the hapless soldier. These are the sounds of the gruesome London he describes, they give out almost in a muffled tone, thy are the echoes of the grey mischievous streets. The effect of an echo is made by the repetition of words like “In every cry… In every infant’s … In every voice…”
The sound in “Composed upon Westminster bridge” is scarce, and nearly non- existent, there are only the soft soothing noises of nature: ” the river glideth at it’s own sweet will”, we can imagine the soft calming lullaby of the river’s peaceful flow. As this poem describes London at rest, asleep, at peace of its usual noise and bustle: “silent, bare, a calm so deep, the very houses seem asleep”. Lines such as: “And all the mighty heart is lying still” translate the poet’s feelings that any second London will shake of it’s calm and silent sleeping cloak, and return to it’s raucous self.
In the last verse of the Blake poem there is a theme of sexually transmitted disease. This is most apparent in the last verse. It describes the ‘youthful harlots curse’ blasting the newborn infant. This is showing that the disease affects everyone because of the promiscuity of the people in the society. The last line uses the image of a marriage hearse being blighted by sexually transmitted disease: “blights with plagues the Marriage hearse”. Marriage is supposed to be a joyful occasion though here it is shown to be an institution that carries people to their deathbeds.
The Wordsworth poem is slightly less melodramatic in its outlook as it merely describes London’s beauty at one moment in the morning. It has nothing in it that could be interpreted as relating to London’s people or what the future holds for them. It only describes the precise moment of beauty he sees from Westminster bridge, there are however signs that this peace will not last, and that movement and noise will soon erupt as the city wakes up, the exquisiteness of London will have disappeared.
The Wordsworth poem is made more charged in the penultimate line where he says ‘Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;’ He is so overwhelmed by the tranquillity of London that he feels the need to invoke gods name. In contrast nowhere in the Blake poem does he use direct speech to heighten any of the emotions, as his intense criticism and negative thoughts, give of very strong emotions in any case.
Both these poems, in my opinion, share feelings of concern and apprehension for London. The Blake poem keeps its criticism more clear-cut ad direct. I believe that the point of the Wordsworth poem may be to leave it up to the reader to decide whether the poem is sarcastic or not, and it can be misleading in this way.