Form and Meaning of Wordsworth’s "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Linguistic Features
2.1 The Vocabulary
2.1.1 The Use of Negatives
2.1.2 Lexical Fields
2.2 The Discourse Sequence
2.3 Cultural Reference

3. The Role of The Reader and Their Expectations
3.1 The Knowledge of London
3.2 The Knowledge of The Author and The Literary Genre

4. Conclusion

5. References

6. Appendix
1) Wordsworth: “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”
2) Wordsworth: “The World Is Too Much With Us”
3) Wordsworth: “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”

1. Introduction

“Earth has not anything to show more fair” (Appendix 1, line 1). This line is the first of William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”. As a romantic poet, Wordsworth usually praises nature and its beauty but this sonnet differs from his other poems. In this text, Wordsworth expresses strong feelings and emotions towards London in the 19th century. He describes London in the morning and surprisingly he is amazed by the beauty of the city itself. How far in detail this poem contrasts with other pieces by Wordsworth will be clarified in the main part.

In order to understand the poem and its meaning, it is helpful to take a closer look at different levels of description. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to provide an analysis of the main linguistic features such as the vocabulary used by Wordsworth and also the discourse structure. Additionally, it is important to consider the significance of the context, the role of the reader as well as their expectations.

2. Linguistic Features

Before looking at specific linguistic features in the sonnet, it is necessary to give a proper definition of stylistics and also an overview of the most important linguistic features. Peter Barry defines it as the following: “Stylistics is a critical approach which uses the methods and findings of the science of linguistics in the analysis of literary texts. (…) and its aim is to show how the technical linguistic features of a literary work, such as the grammatical structure of its sentences, contribute to its overall meanings and effects” (2009:196). So, stylistics basically means analyzing different levels of grammar in text with the purpose of giving “textual evidence for a particular interpretation” (Verdonk 2002:31)

But what are linguistic features? The “systematic ways of describing language use [are]: phonology, lexis, syntax, discourse sequence, [and] semantic organization” (Stubbs 2012). However, this paper focuses on the vocabulary used in the sonnet, the discourse sequence and the cultural reference.

2.1 The Vocabulary

2.1.1 The Use of Negatives

By analyzing the specific language used in the sonnet we can observe that Wordsworth made use of numerous negatives. Here, not only explicitly expressed negatives such as “not anything”, in line 1, or “never”, in line 9 and twice in line 11, are taken into account, also words that express the absence of something. To make this less abstract, the following examples are selected from Wordsworth sonnet. The first example is in line 8: “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air”. In this instance, the absence of smoke is mentioned. But besides the explicit expression of the absence of something, we also find implicit expression. In line 5, the beauty of the morning is described as “silent” and “bare”. Wordsworth portrays the morning as not covered (with dirt, fog?) and without the presence of noise. This also applies for the example in line 11: “Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!” The city does not move, it is quiet and perhaps even peaceful. In line 13 when Wordsworth writes that “[…] the very houses seem asleep” the state of sleeping is mentioned. Or what is more decisive: the city is not (yet) awake. This pattern is then finally concluded in the last line when Wordsworth states that “all that mighty heart is lying still”.

All of the examples pointed out refer to negatives or the absence of something. Moreover, a particular way of presenting London is expressed: London in the morning, described by Wordsworth, is quiet, uncovered and peaceful.

Furthermore, it is possible that the illustrated examples are perceived negative because they are in contrast to what we, as the reader, expect London to be. The capital of the United Kingdom has been a global city where the presence of noise and movements everywhere should not be unexpected. Nevertheless, Wordsworth refers to London as “silent”, “calm” and “still”. However, the aspect of expectations will be further discussed in 3.

2.1.2 Lexical Fields

Another way of looking at the vocabulary is to categorize words into lexical fields. In Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”, many different categories are to be found. The first category nature can already be found in the first line of the sonnet. More precisely, the first word of the sonnet is “earth”. The next word is in line 7 when Wordsworth talks about “the field” and “the sky”. Continuing with the next 3 lines, the words “air”, “sun”, “valley”, “rock” and “hill” can be found. Consequently, nature has certain significance in the sonnet.

In correspondence to most of the words representing nature there is another lexical field that describes the beauty of nature. For example, “all bright and glittering” (l.8) refers to the field and the sky. Similarly, in line 10 “valley, rock, or hill” is described as “in his first splendour”.

The next lexical field was already touched upon in 2.1.1. Here, the lexical field represents silence. Words such as “silent” (l.5), “calm” (l.11), “asleep” (l.13) and last but not least “still” (l.14) are used to describe the morning in London.

The last lexical field I would like to focus on is city. That means every word that represents London, the city and the buildings. The first instance occurs in the title of the sonnet. “Composed upon Westminster Bridge (…)” refers to one of London’s places of interest, the Westminster Bridge. In line 4, Wordsworth explicitly mentions the city that wears the beauty of the morning (cf. l.4&5). In the development of the sonnet, further vocabulary is used to refer to the city itself. Line 6 almost completely names parts of the city such as ships, towers, domes or theaters. And the final mention is made in the 13th line where Wordsworth describes “the very houses [to] seem asleep”.

Even though there are more lexical fields represented in the sonnet, I only focused on the previous ones. All of them considered, we can say that nature, the positive description of parts of it, and the city itself are the main topic of the sonnet. The nature is described as beautiful whereas the city is calm.

In the following paragraph, I will try to discuss if or if not nature and the city stand in contrast to each other by looking closer at the discourse sequence.


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Form and Meaning of Wordsworth’s "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"
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form, meaning, wordsworth’s, composed, westminster, bridge, september
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Sabrina Travis (Author), 2012, Form and Meaning of Wordsworth’s "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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