April 5, 2017

Wordsworth’s “Westminster Bridge” and the Presence and Passion of His Sister

Wordsworth & his exquisite sister are with me …. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, July 1797

Besides inspiring and uniting Londoners and Londoners-in-spirit the world over, the terrorist atrocity on Westminster Bridge two weeks ago generated numerous online shares of William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.” Lines like “A sight so touching in its majesty” and “Earth has not anything to show more fair” were everywhere. One blogger declared “We must never stop seeing this through Wordsworth’s eyes,” and someone posted a clip of actor Ian McKellan reading the poem. 

Born almost 250 years ago this Friday, Wordsworth was 32 at the time, and the poem, he said in later years, was “composed on the roof of a coach on my way to France.” According to his biographer Juliet Barker, “Wordsworth was not a poet who composed in solitude, or on paper,” his preferred method of composition being “to walk and talk,” so he may well have been reciting a first draft as the coach crossed the bridge. The person actually putting together the pieces of the moment, at half past 5 or 6, the 31st of July, 1802, however, was his “exquisite sister” Dorothy, writing in her journal: “It was a beautiful morning. The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and 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, and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a fierce light, that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand spectacles.”

His Sister’s Spirit

By the time Wordsworth completed the poem a little over a month later, on September 3, 1802, the date noted in the title, he had consulted his sister’s journal, discussed the moment with her, and invested the sonnet with her spirit, as he does more explicitly in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” There she’s intimately present in the form of “nature and the language of the sense/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” She’s also the embodiment of the youth he was five years earlier in the same spot, his “dear, dear Friend,” in whose voice he catches “The language of my former heart,” and reads “My former pleasures in the shooting lights/Of thy wild eyes.” Here again Dorothy and nature intermingle, as he beholds in her “what I was once …. Knowing that Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her; ‘tis her privilege,/Through all the years of this our life, to lead/From joy to joy,” to “so inform/The mind that is within us, so impress/With quietness and beauty,” and “lofty thoughts” against “the dreary intercourse of daily life.”

Wordsworth makes the union with his sister all the more emphatic in Book XI of his autobiographical masterpiece The Prelude, where it’s she who “in the midst of all, preserved me still/A Poet, made me seek beneath that name,/And that alone, my office upon earth,” she who led him to “those sweet counsels between head and heart” which “Hath still upheld me and upholds me now.”

Dorothy’s presence and passion can be felt all through “Westminster Bridge,” where only someone “Dull … of soul” (an echo of “the dreary intercourse of daily life”) could pass by “A sight so touching in its majesty.” She’s there in “the beauty” of her journal’s morning, the sense of the city “Open unto the fields, and to the sky;/All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” She’s in the sun’s “first splendor, valley, rock, or hill,” sharing the “calm so deep,” the “sweet will” of the river, and you can sense the spontaneity of her nature in the open emotion of the last lines, “Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;/And all that mighty heart is lying still!”


In letters describing his first impression of Wordsworth’s “exquisite sister,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of her manners “simple, ardent, impressive,” her eye “watchful in minutest observation of nature; and her taste, a perfect electrometer. It bends, protrudes, and draws in, at subtlest beauties, and most recondite faults.”

Viewed by Thomas DeQuincey, Dorothy’s face had some “Egyptian brown” in it: “rarely in a woman of English birth, had I seen a more determinate gipsy tan”’; her eyes were “wild and startling, and hurried in their motion” as if “some subtle fire of impassioned intellect burned within her.” Compare that to the Opium Eater’s first meeting with Wordsworth, whose poetry he revered: “never before or since” had he “trembled at the approaching presence of any creature that is born of woman.” But at that “moment of intense expectation,” “eyes fascinated,” he sees “Upon the whole, not a well-made man … pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs,” not that there was an “absolute deformity about them.” The “worst part of Wordsworth’s person,” however, “was a narrowness and droop about the shoulders which became striking, and had an effect of meaness.”

Wordsworth’s French Lover

DeQuincey’s caricature aside, it was Wordsworth’s conquest of a “female connoisseur” named Annette Vallon that had inspired his journey to France in the summer of 1802. And it was Dorothy who urged him to undertake this mission to see his nine-year-old illegitimate daughter Caroline for the first time and to admit to Annette “face to face” his plan to take a wife in England that October.

Whenever I’m tempted to think unkind thoughts about Wordsworth, I go back to “Intimations Of Immortality” and “Tintern Abbey,” and passages like the one speaking of “a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused,/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:/A motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought/And rolls through all things.”

“Sympathy With the Invisible”

I spent a paranormal hour in Dove Cottage during a camping trip in the Lake Country around 40 years ago. Cheapskate that I am, I almost gave up going in rather than pay 80p. It was a sunny day, and I’d walked there from Ambleside, past the Mediterreanan mirage of Rydal Water. If you want to have a nice normal unhaunted everyday experience at Dove Cottage, don’t read Thomas DeQuincey’s opium rhapsodies the night before. He lived there for two decades after the Wordsworths moved out in 1808 and, as I discovered, he’s still very much a presence there.

As soon as I entered the place, the bright day disappeared, and I was feeling what the Opium Eater defined as “a sympathy with the invisible” in his attempt to deconstruct superstition. Instead of rooms crowded with jostling, chattering tourists, I seemed to have the whole phantasmal dwelling to myself. The other human forms moving in and out of the rooms might have been living in another dimension. Although what was going on could have been shaped by my memory of certain visionary crescendos in DeQuincey’s Confessions, it was more as if I were in possession of something akin to Dorothy’s “perfect electrometer,” drawing in the “subtlest beauties” of distant voices, including William’s and Dorothy’s, talking through the night in dark-paneled rooms. While these things were happening I was sitting in the corner of a window-seat with my back against the dark paneling, my hands in touch with various surfaces and objects. It wasn’t like feeling so much as being felt, so sensitive was I to the speaking, creaking, breathing illusion of the life that filled those rooms 150 years before.

Wordsworth’s Portmanteau

Coming back to the real moment, aware of hazy forms and voices beginning to break through the murmuring hush that surrounded me, I blinked my eyes and saw a pretty woman with reddish-gold hair smiling at me as if she had some notion of what I’d been experiencing. Beside me on the window seat was a solid leather object. At first I thought it might belong to a tourist, a piece of luggage. Not so. According to a curator’s posted note, it was “Wordsworth’s portmanteau.” I’d been sitting there, elbow to elbow, as it were, with an object the poet had presumably taken with him on those journeys, perhaps including the one that gave us “Upon Westminster Bridge.” In my left hand was a small scrap of leather, smooth and strange to the touch. I put it in the pocket of my jacket. Maybe this explains the woman’s conspiratorial smile — she’d caught me in the act, pocketing a Wordsworthian relic, as the poet himself admits doing in the “Residence in France” chapter of The Prelude when he gathers up a stone from “the dust of the Bastille” and pockets “the relic, in the guise of an enthuasiast.”

When I walked out the back door of the cottage into the Wordsworths’ hilly garden, there the woman was again, smiling at me, waiting for me, in the bower at the top. How romantic. We were in a bower. But she seemed nervous now, confused, shyly stammering something about “what h-h-happened back there.” Her manner was infectious. I shyly stammered some banal remark, and that was the end of it. It was a moment out of the great Ode, “Fallings from us, vanishings;/Blank misgivings of a creature/Moving about in worlds not realised” before which “our mortal nature/Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised.” That night I read deeper into DeQuincey’s description of Wordsworth’s sister, how her manner, though “warm and ardent,” was subject to “an air of embarrassment, and even of self-conflict” that caused her “to stammer.”

A few weeks later, the customs inspector at Heathrow asked me to open the decorative snuff box I’d found in a Durham antique store. “What’s that?” he asked, mildly suspicious of the dark scrap of leather inside. I didn’t hesitate. “It’s a piece of Wordsworth’s portmanteau,” I said. He waved me on through without hesitating, as if all he’d seen was just another tourist’s keepsake, as if everyone were leaving England with a little piece of Wordsworth.