This poem is all about nature and man-made structures complimenting each others beauty. The busiest city in Wordsworth’s world, London, sleeps and wears the beauty of the morning.
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!
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Wordsworth was born with a very apt name and is one of the most famous poets in English history. He lived most of his life in one of the most picturesque natural landscapes in England (Cumbria), but wrote this poem about London in the early morning in 1802 when he was off to visit his daughter.
Nature and the urban world. However, in this poem the poet is not recognising beauty in one or the other, he is talking about how the magnitude and grandeur of the city compliments the mornings beauty… or the other way round.
The opening line of the poem immediately tells us what the poet wants to say. This image he is confronted with (London sleeping) is the most beautiful he can recall and he challenges us not to appreciate it by saying only those without a soul could fail to be touched.
He highlights how the resting buildings and industry of the city work in unison and seem to run into the sky and fields that represent nature. The city is personified to seem like a person sleeping and Wordsworth seems to enjoy the contrast with how London would usually appear – ‘smokeless air’ – and how it appears in morning, which is stunningly calming almost as a result of the unexpectedness (you can’t imagine that it is actually the calmest image he’s ever come across, even at this early time in the morning).
The final lines make it clear how all the people and industry in London are asleep and the ideas of a sleeping giant is solidified by the final phrase about the ‘mighty heart’ being ‘still’, which also leaves suggestions about what will happen when it wakes.
Language and techniques
First you need to recognise that this image is treated as a superlative as there is nothing ‘more fair’ or more beautiful than this calm, sleeping London. Wordsworth also connect us with the idea of the brilliance of this image by talking about the ‘beauty’ of the ‘garment’ of the morning that London is wearing. Thus he creates an image of a beautiful woman made more beautiful by the perfect dress or outfit.
He builds up first the images of the city with ‘Ships, towers, domes’, but then immediately with the natural images of the ‘field’ and ‘the sky’. Both are clearly equally deserving of our praise as the buildings are described as ‘bright and glittering’, almost like jewellery, but are allowed to do this only because of the ‘smokeless air’ and the fact everything is ‘silent, bare’. Nature and the man made city are working in harmony to create this perfection. ‘Smokeless air’ also gives a clear hint at the normal state of the city, which at this time would still have been full of industry and factories and the pollution and smog they create.
With this combined image of nature and the city he communicates his appreciation, but we are also challenged to agree with him as he as he claims ‘Dull would he be of soul’ which suggests that anyone on the other side doesn’t have a soul or one without much worth.
I’d also comment on the hyperbolic comment about the sun never having been anywhere more beautiful ‘in his first splendour, valley, rock or hill’ which is suggesting that even the purely natural world that existed at man’s birth doesn’t compare to this combination of architectural beauty blending with the morning’s grace.
Also we have sensory description giving us the impression that not only is this a serene image, but also the mood and atmosphere is described as ‘a calm so deep’ suggesting the dormant city projects its contentedness to those viewing it. This impression is added to by the personification of the river that ‘glideth at his own sweet will’ that implies the river is calm and flowing gently, but also that there is no one and nothing to disturb its peaceful flow, contributing to the relaxation in this image.
Finally we have the suggestion that the houses and thus the life of the city seem to be asleep, making me think that this huge great city of the world which is always alive and noisy with the lives of some 2 million (at the time, around 6 million now I believe) people seems vacant and at complete peace. The significance of this is not lost on Wordsworth who claims the ‘mighty hearty is lying still’, personifying England with London (the centre of the world’s largest empire) as its heart, always pumping and moving to keep the world moving. The peace is intensified by the contrast to the normal state of the city, which would be filled with factory smog, the grinding of industry, the blaring of traffic and the activity of its inhabitants, is now at one with nature and resting contentedly alongside it.
What to say?
I think it is interesting to dwell on the idea of this being a sonnet. Sonnets are traditionally associated with love, but this is in appreciation of an image. The use of this form again intensifies Wordsworth’s emotions towards it and presents it as something truly grand that we should all have deep affection towards.
I’d also comment on the punctuation in this one. Exclamation marks are used at three points in the poem and each time express the poet’s surprise and his breath being taken away by the image in front of him: ‘Dear God!’ is probably the best example of this state of wonder. Also you could talk about the slow pace as he lists the different elements, both natural and man-made, that contribute to the image showing his appreciation for them and desire to take it all in and remember the perfect harmony of the picture.
This poem is read with a sense of wonder. Wordsworth is awestruck by the image confronting him almost because it is so unexpected in the heart of the world’s busiest city and can’t hide his passion for what he sees.