Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Earth has not anything to shew more fair

I was going to photograph the view from Westminster Bridge this morning but we've been asked to work from home during the Olympics period, so I took the snaps above with my phone last week.  Two hundred and ten years ago today, Wordsworth admired the city from this same spot, although he dated his famous sonnet September 3rd.  His sister's diary briefly records the moment, a vision of the city seen from the Dover coach, en route to Calais where they would meet Annette Vallon and Wordsworth would see his daughter Caroline for the first time. 'It was a beautiful morning.  The City, St Pauls, with the River & 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 & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of nature's own grand Spectacles.'

Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 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!

Ten years ago, Shakespeare's Globe and The Wordsworth Trust published a commemorative volume, Earth has not any thing to shew more fair, edited by the Trust's director Peter Woolf and the writers Alice and Peter Oswald.  The book contains thirty-seven poems inspired by Wordsworth's, including a couple of re-writes from the point of view of Dorothy.  Most of the poets write about the modern view, which can now be enjoyed from the London Eye (as in Charles Tomlinson's poem) or, from even higher up, in an aeroplane coming in to land (Kona McPhee).  By contrast, 'Composed Underneath Westminster Bridge' (Denise Riley) looks down at the river itself: barges, pigeons and brown particles 'churning through the tide.'  I first read Wordsworth at school in A Choice of Poets and none of us taught from this to compare and contrast Wordsworth's 'sight so touching in its majesty' with Blake's bleak 'London' would be surprised to encounter a poem here like Matthew Caley's 'No Bulwark', which asks us to 'behold the tableau, two crackheads and their spoonlit underchins / 'neath the doubled alcove of a riverbridge.'  Language itself has become degraded in Peter Finch's 'N Wst Brdg', a re-write of Wordsworth's lines as an extended text message. Edwin Morgan looks into the future in 'Sometime upon Westminster Bridge' and sees a swollen Thames, shattered Barrier and the city left to drown.

Westminster Bridge on the cover of A Choice of Poets

In some of the book's other poems, parallels are drawn with different bridges or historical moments on the Thames.  Ciaran Carson makes the link with Monet (who came to England in the autumn of 1870 to escape the Franco-Prussian War), contributing a brief imagistic poem entitled 'Claude Monet, The Thames Below Westminster, 1871', which reproduces in words that famous painting of the Houses of Parliament in the mist. Perhaps unsurprisingly those who work in the Houses of Parliament receive short shrift in this collection: Sean O'Brien imagines the bridge 'speaking truth to power' and Alice Oswald stares at 'the regular waves of apparently motionless motion / under the teetering structures of administration.'  She seems to have little time for the people who work round here... 'the weather trespasses into strip-lit offices / through tiny windows into tiny thoughts'. Peter Oswald is equally bleak, imagining  that 'trickles of thinking mingle with the flow / from pipes of every kind' and seep into the river - 'the squeezed out city's boil of poisons / stirred to one colour by the rush to ocean.'  But it doesn't always feel like this, and those of us who love London, despite everything, will always love Wordsworth's poem for the way it conveys the beauty of certain sunlit mornings, when dull would he be who would pass by such a sight, so touching in its majesty.

Detail of the plaque on Westminster Bridge

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