LONDON AND THE ROMANTIC POETRY OF BLAKE AND WORDSWORTH
Sophia Celina Diesel
Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC – RS)
Summary: The present essay compares and contrasts the treatment of the city of London in two classic poems of the English literature – London, by William Blake, and Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1803, by William Wordsworth. Rather than focusing solely on the writers’ attitudes towards the city, I concentrate on the formal end technical elements of their approaches and on the relationship between the experience of the city and the modes and styles of authorial engagement with it.
Key words: William Blake, William Wordsworth, London, English Literature
Sophia Celina Diesel has a degree in English, Portuguese and respective literatures at PUC-RS, completed in 2010, Specialization in Brazilian Literature, also at PUC-RS, completed in 2012 and a Master’s degree in English Literature – Victorian pathway – at Loughborough University, UK, completed in 2013. At present she is taking a Master’s degree at PUC-RS in Literary Theory, supervised by Professor Dr Pedro Theobald, to be finished in 2016. Her research project focus on English Literature in the Victorian period, with emphasis on the works by Charles Dickens, George Gissing, the Bronte sisters, and George Elliot, among others.
LONDON AND THE ROMANTIC POETRY
OF BLAKE AND WORDSWORTH
Sophia Celina Diesel
Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC) – RS
London is a place that can be seen from many different perspectives. It is impossible to define it as one kind of city; there are so many representations of it that we end up with an uncountable number of ‘Londons’ that coexist or antagonise each other. London is that kind of place everybody knows, even if they have never been there in their whole lives. It happens because the representations of the city reach so far and such a number of people that its corners are explored from every place in the world. In modern terms, we have TV, movies, literature and many other kinds of media with their eyes in the city. But if we go back in time, more precisely to the Romantic period I intend to discuss in this essay, around the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth-century, we can see that literature played an extremely important role in creating these many different images of the city that was the first metropolis in its proportions.
There was anything like London before. Growing in an amazing speed, by the fourteenth century it was the triple size of Bristol, the second largest city in England, in 1520 London was ten times as large as Norwich and by 1600 London’s population surpassed that its ten rival combined together. Ten per cent of the population of England and Wales lived in London around 1750 and from then on numbers continued to increase impressively (MANLEY, 2011, p. 6).
The fascination towards the city that seemed to grow almost as a living organism inspired artists throughout the centuries. And in their attempts to understand it and convey to their public the image they had of London, writers brought many versions of the city to life, which remain in the imaginary of the entire world. The most illustrious writers who had London as their subject, like William Blake, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde and George Gissing among others, wrote a city that was always in movement, ‘a city in the act of becoming’, ‘always in the process of self-transformation’ that, as we know, became the economic and cultural centre of the world in the nineteenth century (WOLFREYS, 1998, p. 7).
In this essay I intend to explore a little of two of the most famous poems that possess the characteristic of depicting the city through the eyes and feelings of their authors. London by William Blake and Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1803 by William Wordsworth are two important bricks in the construction of the imagery of London; image which was not simply of a large metropolis, but also of a place where Romantic principals were challenged. The natural world was contrasted with a totally man-made place. It is the way Blake and Wordsworth deal with this ‘unnatural’ world that is my main focus here. I want to think of how they were able to make of London, the city of stone and multitude, a subject of their Romantic literature.
William Blake was born in London in 1757. He lived with his family in a house on Broad Street from where he had a god view of the sun rising above the dome of St Paul’s and declining westwards into Kensington Gardens (ACKROYD, 1999, p. 5-6). Since his childhood he was found of solitary walks and made of the institutions near his house – the overcrowded parish workhouse, a school of industry for indigent children and an infirmary – recurring subjects in his poetry. He had a very strong sense of place and his whole life was strongly connected with the city. His urban sensibility sets him, beside Dickens and Turner, as one of the great artists of London (ACKROYD, p. 18-9). He knew the streets and he saw the living conditions of its people.
The poem London follows this attitude. Blake’s description of the city cannot be detached from the people who lived there. Social injustice and other urban problems were a reality and shaped its context. London was composed between 1789 and 1793 and although it seems an accessible poem requires a careful approach in order not to fall for a literal reading, which according to E. P. Thompson, is a mistake because it ‘does not fit the poem’s meaning’ (THOMPSON, 1993, p. 181). I will mention more of Thompson’s criticism during the analysis.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
(BLAKE, 1970, p. 150)
In the first stanza a simple walk through the streets of London the narrator encounters charter’d streets and a charter’d Thames. The repetition is a strong characteristic of the whole poem as it emphasizes the tone of indignation towards the way the people of London have been suffering the consequences of the current economic model. The word charter’d, refers to a clear definition of the spaces in London, as each part of it seems to be owned by someone. Even the river, which more than anything else is a natural and should not belong to anybody, is limited and confined by its definition (MANKOWITZ, 1979, p. 132). According to Simon Korner, the word chater’d is loaded with a critical sense, repeated to sharpen the ironic point to suggest the oppressive nature of early capitalism. Differently from the politically empty dirty used in the original version, Korner affirms that this meaning would have been easily understood by Blake’s contemporary readers. The following repetition of the word mark, highlights how ‘Londoners are branded with visible signs of sickness and misery’. It also brings the narrator closer to these people with the introduction of I (KORNER, 2013).
The marks of despair are emphatically spread through every soul and every action in the city culminating in the mind-forg’d manacles the narrator hears in the second stanza. Such a strong image not only reinforces the idea of suffering, but also suggests that the charter’d quality is also due to a certain psychological predisposition. To illustrate the ‘interdependent misery’ of Londoners, Wolf Mankowitz points to the fourth and last stanza where the curses and diseases inherited from generation to generation through prostitution enters the ‘respectful’ family’s home carried by unfaithful husbands (MANKOWITZ, p. 132).
Back to the third stanza, we have the emblematic figures of the chimney-sweepers and the hapless soldiers, related consecutively to the church and the palace walls. According to Korner, these relations are more complex than they seem in a first look. The well-knows boy sweeps were controversial figures in the streets of London. They were in the lowest kind of child exploitation and often turned to crime and begging. The Church here does not work as an institution that saves these children, but also exploits them. The criminal sweeps end up being a more a menace to the Church than the Church to the sweeps. The soldiers who should be strong and brave are hapless and sigh. The reference to blood down palace walls probably refers to protests involving the suffering of these soldiers who lived in terrible physical and psychological conditions (KORNER, 2013).
The last stanza, as mentioned before, culminates in how all the suffering of Londoners is connected through corrupt institutions that not always are a pure act of the government, but involve people’s corrupted behavior in the city. The Harlots present their babies with diseases that plague even the bosom of the middle class and upper class in a vicious circle. The strong image of the marriage hearse provokes a consideration on how marriage and family are undermined by London life.
William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in the English Lake District in 1770 (GILL, 2003, p. x). He is one of the most important writers in terms of mapping London through his writing and contributing in the search for the city’s identity. The question of identity in London was always a matter of great concern among writers of the city. Julian Wolfreys mentions a certain phobia London generates in some writers due to its ‘constant mutability, states of upheaval and change’. This insecurity, manifested by Wordsworth himself in Book VII of The Prelude: ‘Residence in London’, is caused by the loss of control over identity that happens when imagining the city (WOLFREYS, 95-100). In Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802, Wordsworth imagination and anxiety are exercised in a way that would never come to him again. The poem conveys a serene London, apparently asleep, quiet and still.
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802
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!
(WORDSWORTH, 1995, p. 320)
Although perfectly aware of London as a metropolitan heart, through which the life of the land circulates, he describes the city as if it were in some sort of suspended animation. This stillness may lead to a parallel to the poet’s frequent connection between extreme quiet and death in his poetry (ALEXANDER, 1987, p. 121). The appreciation of the calmness in the metropolis may also remind us of the poet’s profound Romantic soul that sees nature and the natural world as a true symbol of perfection. The city could only be seen in a positive angle by Wordsworth when he is able to make this link to what he truly treasures.
Surprisingly the poem starts with a rather polemic verse in which the beauty of London can not only be compared to natural beauty, but surpass it. The city is appreciated from Westminster Bridge in a fair morning when the silence fits it like a garment. In the second verse Wordsworth lists what is in his sight. Being on Westminster Bridge, his vision was privileged because he had a wide view of many of the main buildings, but on the other hand he was very far from the majority of them, so the building’s tops were what best distinguished each one. Apart from the ships that were spread along the Thames, all the towers, domes, theatres, and temples end up in the sky and in the smokeless air. Due to this smokeless air, only possible while the city sleeps, the sun comes wonderfully in the third verse bringing images of nature, but still all the splendor and calm is superior in the city. The personification of London takes place in moments like when its garments are mentioned and in the fact that it seems to be asleep. To Carl Woodring, the spontaneous expletive Dear God! secures a deeper analogy with nature because it sounds like as a prayer. (WOODRING, 1965, p. 166-7) The river here glideth at his own will before the houses and the mighty heart awake. The stillness of the city is actually the stillness of the people. When the inhabitants of London are awake the city is spoiled and even the river loses his free will (charter’d Thames?). Interestingly the presence of same hands that made all that beauty superior to any other are responsible for transforming it each day into an ugly and noisy place. Perhaps Wordsworth was not interested enough in people to go to them (as Blake does in his poem) and see that the true city is made by its people. The sight of an empty or asleep London does not seem to match to what the city really is. The poet humanizes it and makes it feels like a living organism, but at the same time this organism would never ‘live’ without its inhabitants.
Comparing both poems we notice the difference in terms of optimism towards the City. In his London, Blake does not like what he sees because he does not limit himself to what his eyes catch. He wanders in the physical streets, but he sees beyond them. Blake feels the suffering of the people who surround him. He knows they are tied up in a kind of living that leaves few possibilities of improvement and of having a good life. The population lives at the mercy of early capitalism, which exploits the poor and marginalizes them. Wordsworth never gets as close as that in his Composed Upon Westminster Bridge. The distance he is from the city he is describing prevents the viewer to see the reality of the streets. Even the lack on motion he notices is not necessarily true. Since he cannot really see whether most of the streets are empty or not, he may be simply think they are empty while workers and other people who are up early already circulate. His distance from the crowd prevents him of thinking of them and idealization is much stronger.
The idea of the observant poet narrating what he sees from an apparent detached point of view is a typical figure of the Eighteenth century. Blake actually starts his poem in a similar way, although he eventually gets very much involved as it develops. Through the modifications he made, for instance the one I already mentioned of substituting dirty for charter’d implies that he got more politically involved with the passage of the time. For Wordsworth, the detachment is kept until the end and we do not seem to feel the same passion. J. H. Alexander calls our attention to what kind of poet Wordsworth was: ‘Much of Wordsworth’s poetry seeks repose, an extreme quietness, which approaches a timeless nirvana, and which may strike some readers as sepulchral’ (ALEXANDER, p. 4). However, he argues that in some of the poet’s best works energy and repose coexist and are experienced simultaneously rather than successively. The energy found in Wordsworth’s poem is different from Blake’s in terms of where it is concentrated. He focuses on the architecture and the amazing group of man-made beauty and sees it as something that could have a life of its own.
There is another poem by William Wordsworth that is considered a counterpart to William Blake’s London, written a decade later, as a passage in Book VII of The Prelude lost:
Amid the moving pageant, ’twas my chance
Abruptly to be smitten with the view
Of a blind beggar, who, with upright face,
Stood propped against a wall, upon his chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
The story of the man, and who he was.
My mind did at this spectacle turn round
As with the might of waters, and it seemed
To me that in this label was a type
Or emblem of the utmost that we know
Both of ourselves and of the universe,
And on the shape of this unmoving man,
His fix’d face and sightless eyes, I looked,
As if admonished from another world.
(WORDSWORTH, 1995, p. 815)
Now here we have a very similar reaction in relation to the horrors of seeing things from a closer point of view. The blind beggar is like the harlot in Blake. He is the symbol of a social reality sent from heaven as a warning. “Stopped in his tracks by a visual short-circuit, the poet is ‘admonished from another world’ for his inability to read past his own blindness, into the lives of others and into the story of the beggar” (SHARPE, 2011, p. 124). In the end both poets are not contrary to one another.
London and Composed Upon Westminster Bridge show different perspectives of the city, but not necessarily opposite ones. Although Wordsworth’s city seems much calmer and inviting, people will eventually wake up in the morning, crowd the streets like they always do and break all the magic he describes. Blake is there in the middle of this crowd and points the shameful marks of misery he sees with a more critical and sharp language. Both poets contributed to the many layers created during the centuries that produced the London ‘everyone’ knows and visits even without being there personally. Their words do not define the city, which no one could ever do, but are part of it, like the very buildings, streets and the river.
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WORDSWORTH, William. Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802. In: The Collected Poems of William Wordsworth. London: Wordsworth editions, 1995. p. 320.
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