Proseminar I- British Studies- Romantic Texts and Contexts
Parallel Poetic Perspectives of London During the Industrial Revolution
March 7, 2014
Nowadays millions of tourists visit the city of London every year. It is an attraction for people from all over the world and they picture it as a wonderful city. However, it took some time for it to become as popular as it is today. Already during the 18th century, many poets were inspired by the overall impression of London. Two important poems dealing with the attitude towards the city during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution are William Blake’s “London” and William Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”. On the whole, Blake’s “London” displays a negative picture of London, focusing on the individual inhabitants. As a result, the critic Punter underlines the fact of its rapid expansion and chaotic structure. Wordsworth therefore rather employs an aesthetic approach and positively connotates and personifies the city itself. When comparing and contrasting both poems, similar and differing aspects can be taken into consideration, due to questioning the image of the city of London during the Industrial Revolution. The following provides you with a brief analysis of both poems, but especially goes into depth comparing and contrasting the images of the city of London.
Generally speaking, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” is a typical Italian sonnet which can be divided into two quatrains (octave) and two tercets (sestet). The predominant metre is an iambic pentameter, which stems from the Italian and alludes to normal spoken language. Considering the content, already the title hints at the general topic of the poem. It is set up as an argumentation, with the octave describing London early in the morning and the sestet focusing on the impact on the persona and his surroundings. Sucksmith also points out that “he makes use of the formal division of the sonnet by presenting the experience, in the main, through the octet, largely reserving the sestet to present his meditation on the experience” (114). To conclude, the thematic structure is echoed in the formal structure of the poem.
To go on with, as already mentioned, Burke’s “London” generally deals with the same theme but rather depicts a moral view on the city. The romantic poem is divided into four quatrains, displaying negative visual images of the city in the first stanza, and aural aspects in the second. The final two stanzas convey an overall idea of what the situation during the industrialisation had been like and underline the hardships of city life. The overall neat rhyming structure gives an impression of beating the words into the reader’s mind.
From what we have seen so far, it seems reasonable to deduce what life had been like during the 18th century in London. Punter describes London with a “rapid expansion and its chaotic structure, both architectural and social” (3). This hideous view can surely be mirrored in Blake’s “London”, in which mainly negatively and darkly connotated words such as “blood” or “curse” are employed to describe the city (12, 14). The large capital city expanded uncontrollably, succeeded by a diminishing importance of the old City of London (Punter, 3). In comparison to Wordsworth, Blake does not take the whole society into consideration, but focuses on the individual. He addresses specific suffering inhabitants, such as chimney-sweepers or soldiers (9, 11). Important to analyse are also the “mind-forged manacles”, placed in the centre of the poem (Blake 8). They give an overall negative impression of everyday life in the city and establish the assumption that everybody is trapped and imprisoned in their own city. The “black’ning church” in line 10 therefore hints at the results of the industrialisation. Finally, the last line has to be taken into consideration. Blake mentions a “marriage hearse”, which gives the impression that the inhabitants pace directly from their marriage to the grave (16). This tells us that there is nothing noteworthy of their city life to remember in between. To conclude, the overall chaos during the time emphasises Blake’s negative picture of London and its population. It is generally speaking a “critique of urban life” in London (Punter 9). Human beings are being captivated and corrupted as well as imprisoned by social and political institutions.
In contrast, regarding Wordsworth’s poem, he rather employs positively connotated words, such as “beauty” and “bright” (5, 8), which “all contribute swiftly and economically to Wordsworth’s contemplation of a landscape infused with a serene and sublime beauty” (Sucksmith 113). However, he has a very distant view towards the city, as he depopulates it early in the morning. The persona reacts as if he where an outsider and sees society as a whole. Surprisingly, Wordsworth was a well-known nature poet. His admiration for the city can however on the one hand be explained by the calmness of the morning, and on the other by the city’s relationship to nature. Wicker points out, that Wordsworth “sees the man-made city wearing the beauty of nature” (4). In line 12 of the poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge”, Wordsworth describes that “The river glideth at his own sweet will”. This alludes to the idea that unless all the houses and roads in a city, nature is always apparent and finds its way back to mankind. Sucksmith underlines the fact that “the city is in a contiguous and intimate relationship with the grander natural world that encloses it” (118). To sum up, Wordsworth describes the beauty of the city, which can only exist in a relationship with nature and during tranquility. He is impressed by the calmness of the morning while the “mighty heart is lying still” (14).
On the basis of the analysis so far, it seems fair to suggest that both Blake and Wordsworth did not only have good experiences with the city itself. Blake, for example, lived in London for nearly his entire life, as he “clearly depended on the city for his living, but longed occasionally for a more restful environment for his work” (Punter 8). He regarded “the city as pernicious” and was certainly not happy to live there (Punter 9). Also Wordsworth was not a jubilant citizen of London, due to his “hitherto unpleasant experiences of cities- with what Wordsworth calls the fretful stir” (Wicker 4). In his poem, he directly parallels aspects of the word field “city” (ships, towers) to the word field of “nature” (valley, rock), as he never wants to be in disconnection to nature when being located in the city (Wordsworth 6,10). This fact is underlined by Punter, who points out the “Wordsworthian common assumptions that city life is unnatural, over-stimulatory and dangerous (6). Summing up, both Wordsworth and Blake did not live a fulfilled life in London and rather wanted to escape from it, which can be mirrored in their poetry. However, although the two are very similar to each other, they actually never really knew one another. Blake was “barely known to the writers such as Wordsworth or Coleridge with whom he is now joked in anthologies of English romantic poetry” (Foster 6).
All in all, one can resume that both romantic poems depict an image of the city of London, but from totally different perspectives. In some points they are however similar, but the differing aspects prevail. Wordsworth rejects cities in favour of nature and the countryside, but nevertheless focuses on the positive sides of the city, as the persona is leaving the city at the moment. Blake therefore displays a picture of a trapped and fallen humanity and focuses on revealing the suffering of the inhabitants. He characterises them as bleak and dismal and blames the institutions for the unfavourable situation. These opposing viewpoints let us comprehend the history of London in an easier way. So the next time you visit London and let yourself fall for the beauty of the city, consider this fact: every city has a history, which might not be as beautiful as the impressions nowadays tell us.