At its simplest, Romanticism is a celebration of intense emotion and nature and a rejection of civilized and rational things. It embraced individualism and freedom. Gothic Romanticism embraced the same things Romanticism embraced, but with a darker twist. The Romantic authors wrote a variety of things including poetry, plays, short stories, and novels. However, poetry was perhaps the most popular literary form for Romanticism. One of the foremost authors of Romanticism was William Wordsworth, and he wrote mostly poetry. His poem “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” contains and demonstrates many elements and values of Romanticism.
The first three lines of the poem establish that the narrator has chanced upon a beautiful and poignant site. He then states that anybody who could ignore such a sight clearly has problems. Wordsworth writes: “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.” The narrator seems to criticize people who can ignore or “pass by” such a sight – their souls must be “dull.” They seem to lack the ability to appreciate the mystical and intense experience offered by the sight. Failing to be moved emotionally by the experience would be considered a failing by a Romantic.
What is the sight that the narrator sees? He sees the beauty of the morning embracing the city. He writes, “This City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning, silent, bare.” The beauty of the city resides in the garment it is wearing, made of the morning – not in anything about the city itself. The garment of morning makes the city beautiful. This reveals Romanticism’s preference for natural things over civilized things. A city, to a Romantic, would be an unnatural thing, and therefore inferior to the grandeur and beauty of nature. Morning being natural/nature, the narrator of the poem clearly prefers it to the city, and only finds the city beautiful because of the morning.
The author mentions more civilized, manufactured things in the next line: “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky.” Like the city with its garment of morning, these man-made structures – ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples – are not as beautiful without the benefits of nature applied to them. They are, so early in the morning, “silent, bare.” Without the usual hustle and bustle of people and industry, these structures seem connected to the fields and the sky, in their silence and bareness. They seem to flow into the natural landscape and to assume the beautiful qualities associated with those natural environments. This – like so much so far in the poem – reflects the Romantic’s preference for the natural war and its superior sense of beauty over unnatural, manufactured things.
The next three lines celebrate the sun and the fact that industry does not appear to be taking place while the narrator is watching. The lines state “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. / Never did sun more beautifully steep / In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill.” The narrator thinks the sun has never been more beautiful; it is “all bright” and because the factories and chimneys haven’t started their smoking, the air is smokeless, giving the narrator a clearer and unimpeded view of the sun and its progress into the sky. The narrator celebrates the natural beauty of both the sun and of the environment which the sun may bless with his splendor; the valleys, rocks, and hills are “blessed” by the beauty of the sun. All is blessed by the lack of industry smoke. These lines reveal the Romantic’s rejection of unnatural things (like factories) and how they undermine a person’s experience of the natural world. These lines also reveal the Romantic’s preference for all things natural; they also seem to hint at the fact that they are as beautiful as they have always been, even from the early days of creation.
All of these sights, thoughts, and emotions come together to inspire and affect the narrator. The narrator states “Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!” The combined beauty of the morning and the absence of industry seem to have moved the narrator to a deep calm, one which he has never felt before, suggesting that the beauty of the moment is, indeed, very great. This line reveals the importance of nature to the Romantic and the Romantic’s celebration of nature. It also reveals how the Romantics valued intense emotion. The narrator has never felt “a calm so deep,” expressing an intense feeling of calm. This spontaneous and intense feeling reveals one of the most important aspects of Romanticism, intense emotion. The author is not shy about revealing how he feels in the poem; the Romantics would never be shy about such a thing. They value not only the intense emotion itself but also its expression, so the poem’s inclusion of such an expression reflects that Romantic value.
Another aspect of nature comes on the scene in the next line: “The river glideth at his own sweet will.” This watery aspect of nature flows at its “own sweet will.” In other words, the river does what a river does, as nature has ordained. The narrator sees this as something positive, describing it as the river’s “own sweet will.” The river answers to no one and nothing; it does as it pleases. It does what it is supposed to do. In this the narrator seems to see freedom and individualism, two very important aspects of Romanticism. The narrator also seems a little jealous or wistful at the river’s ability to go where it pleases, as it pleases, and not have to answer to anybody or anything. Of course, the river also represents nature, and the narrator clearly sees it in a positive light, again reflecting on the Romantic’s preference for nature.
The last lines of the poem are very interesting. The poet writes, “Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!” The narrator observes that the houses seem to be asleep, like the people, and the “mighty heart” of the city (maybe industry, maybe people) seems not to beat. Though it is difficult to determine exactly how the narrator feels about this, it seems to suggest that the beauty of this moment is only possible because the people and the industry of the city aren’t going and going, obscuring the beauty of the moment. This seems to suggest that mankind and industry get in the way of the natural beauty of things. This also seems juxtaposed to the fact that river doesn’t sleep, that in nature, though things do sleep, nature never really goes to sleep, between day time and night time creatures, as well as things like rivers and hills that don’t really sleep or take time off. Nature is always going, always beautiful, thriving, and therefore superior to the city.
Though this poem could be misread as a celebration of the beauty of the city, a close reading reveals that the city (and by extension, civilized things) get in the way of nature, where true beauty lies. The author is moved by seeing how nature can enhance the city, how beautiful nature is. This emotional observation is a characteristic of Romanticism, as is the narrator’s celebration of nature. This poem is a pretty good example of Romanticism and Romantic values. It is easy to see why Wordsworth is considered such a big name in Romanticism. It’s interesting that the title refers to a manmade structure, but it’s clear that narrator prefers nature and emotion.