Early on the morning of July 31, 1802, while on their way to visit friends in Calais, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy crossed over Westminster Bridge in London on the open top of a coach.
Dorothy wrote in her diary about the “beautiful sight” they encountered 0and later showed what she had written to William, who began to write a sonnet on the theme of being overtaken by sudden beauty.
He completed the poem on September 3rd -215 years ago today- and included the date in the title: Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.
Dorothy had written:
“The City, St Paul’s, with the river and a multitude of little boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own spectacles.”
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!
The actor Tom Hollander read the poem on BBC’s Newsnight program in March of this year in response to the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge.