The ways in which cities and city life are portrayed in Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’
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The three poems, Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, Blake’s ‘London’ and T. S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ contain many similarities but also many fundamental differences. These differences and similarities cover style, structure and language. In this piece of writing I am going to ‘Compare and Contrast the ways in which cities and city life are portrayed in Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, Blake’s ‘London’ and T. S. Eliot’s ‘Preludes’, by referring closely to the language and style of the poems’.
‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth has a bold start and immediately creates a positive image of London with ‘Earth has nothing to show more fair’. The octet of the sonnet is celebratory whereas the sextet is reflective. The sextet of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ values the city as it mentions that the city is ‘smokeless’, ‘silent’ & ‘so touching’. It is a patriotic piece as it fails to include some of the negative aspects of the city. One such instance is when Wordsworth writes ‘The river glideth’ which makes the river sound majestic, as if it goes where it likes, is on air and beautiful whereas the Thames was actually filthy at the time at which this poem was written (1802-1803). It is a very personal piece as the author is alone.
Blake writes about the river Thames in a different light. He talks about the ‘chartered’ river. The word ‘chartered’ suggests that the river is restricted. He could be referring to the tyrannical authorities, such as the Corporation of the City of London who took over the traditional powers of the Lord mayor to control the Thames. The word chartered also suggests monotony and that the river is planned, limited and lacking freedom, vigour and vitality. ‘Mind forged manacles’ is another form of chartering as it imprisons the process of thought. From this information we can gather that the overall tone of the poem is a negative one.
Blake uses a rhythm of emphatic, slowly measured statements, which simply disables dissent, and is reinforced by particular effects such as the sustained stresses of ‘mind forged manacles’ and the sudden acceleration of the third verse with ‘runs in blood down the palace walls’. ‘London’ was written in 1789 and it presents a vivid and wide-ranging picture of London as it was at the time. Blake writes about ‘marks of weariness, marks of woe’. This could be referring to venereal diseases such as syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted disease which was common at the perios in which this poem was written. To add to the negativity of the poem Blake writes about ‘every Infant’s cry’ and could be talking about the vast amount of child labour, which was commonplace at the time that this poem was written.
The ‘chimney-sweeper’s cry’ reinforces this point. The crying indicates universal suffering as the only sound that can be heard is the sound of crying, which denotes affliction. Everyone is involved with the suffering. Blake uses the word ‘black’ning’ in conjunction with churches which shows how unclean London was when Blake wrote this poem. The ‘black’ning’ suggests that the process is still occurring and the reference to the church could show that the church is still being corrupted and is ignoring the problems of the city. ‘The Hapless Soldier’s cry’ could show that he is appalled at London and at what he sees there. The hapless soldier could mean that just the soldier mentioned id appalled after defending the empire of Britain for many years to come back to al this suffering and he wonders why he fought for his country. It is more likely that all soldiers at that time felt this way and they are therefore unlucky, as they cannot do anything to rectify the problem, hence ‘hapless’.
The strongly worded phrase ‘runs in blood down palace walls’ could mean that the palace has bee, or will be, haunted by the visionary of what they have done, or more precisely what they have failed to do. It states that the blood on the palace walls is due to the sigh of the soldier. This could be because soldiers protect the palace and if they do not know why they do what they do then they will perhaps allow evil to run wild within the walls of the palace and the only sign of this will be on the walls of the castle.
Blake suggests that marriage is doomed from the very beginning, as there is so much suffering and disease, ‘blights with plagues the Marriage hearse’. He suggests that it is more of a funeral than a celebration because of the prostitutes spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Everything about this poem is melancholy, the mood, the tone and the atmosphere. It creates the impression that London contains no happiness, which logic tells us that there must be, even if only within the upper classes. Blake felt that London was a centre of trade and commerce but that there were a number of things wrong with the city. Some of these were child labour such as chimney sweeps and prostitution.
Eliot creates a positive image of Paris in the first few lines with such as ‘smells of steaks in passageways’ creates a homely image of the city. He then goes on to talk about the monotony of city life, as Blake did.
In ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ alliteration and repetition are used to get the point across; ‘every cry of every man’ and Blake also has a striking use of repetition, which is emphasised by the rhythm, iambic tetrameter (eight syllables and four beats). The miserable sound-words ‘cry’ and ‘sigh’ and especially the three ‘marks’ in the first few lines which are similar to nails being hammered into a coffin, further creating a sense of destitution. Eliot uses the phrase; ‘smells of steaks in passageways’ and the sibilance in the phrase creates the sound a cooking steak makes and further adds to the pleasant, cosy image of Paris. Alliteration is used in conjunction with sibilance again when Eliot talks about ‘a lonely cab-horse steams and stamps’. The ‘s’ sound here is probably used to sound like the steam rising off the warm horse in the cold environment. Eliot, unlike Blake or Wordsworth, does not use repetition in a noticeable format. The elision that was used in ‘London’ and ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ tells us that there is some form of rhythm.
While Blake makes very little use of personification both Wordsworth and Eliot use personification to express their feelings about the cities which hey wrote about. Wordsworth talks about the city as if it is human at many points during his sonnet. The fact that the format that he chose was a sonnet could imply personification. This is because a sonnet is usually reserved for the love of a man for a woman and so Wordsworth is expressing his love in a personified format. Wordsworth uses such phrases as ‘This city doth like a garment wear’. Eliot Uses personification many times during what some would say was his greatest poem ever. He says that ‘the winter evening settles down’ and that ‘the morning comes to consciousness’. He then, like Blake, talks about the people of the city, but in more detail than in Blake’s ‘London’.
Wordsworth does not talk of the inhabitants of the dwelling for many reasons. Firstly his poem was written at a time of the day when very few people were around. We know this through his use of the phrase; ‘the very houses seem asleep’. As his poem took the format of a sonnet Wordsworth was limited to what he could include in his fourteen lines of intensified thoughts. Blake refers to no particular collection of people and so the faces are anonymous, but often uses the people of the city collectively. The ‘marks of weariness, marks of woe’ in Blake’s ‘London’ suggests the monotony of daily life and that people are jaded with the monotony. Blake refers to no particular collection of people and so the faces are anonymous. He does imply people but he does not name them. ‘Woe’ implies very deep sadness and that the person’s feeling can’t be justified in words. Wordsworth also has this problem that no words will do and so he uses the words ‘Dear God’.
The marks could also be the expressions on people’s faces showing their inner most feelings. This side of the city bears a great deal of resemblance to Eliot’s ‘Preludes’, which is set in Paris. Eliot talks about the monotony of life when he says ‘with all its muddy feet that press to early coffee-stands’. This points to people drinking beer at night and then going to the coffee stands in the morning in a bid to cure their hangovers. Even the businessmen of Paris seem to have predictable lives, ‘assured of certain certainties’. This phrase is more likely to refer to the fact that the men know that they will have dinner when they arrive home and so is not monotonous but they are able to predict all their luxuries. Eliot talks about the night being ’empty’ and all that is left are the leftovers of the day.
He tells us this with such phrases as ‘the burnt out ends of smoky days’ and ‘newspapers from vacant lots’. When Eliot says ‘the grimy scraps’ he, again, is referring to the leftovers or the remains of the day. This same image is used when talking about the ‘lonely cab-horse’ as it has done its’ duty during the day and is no longer needed at night. In the second paragraph he talks about the leftovers of the nigh when he says ‘faint stale smells of beer’ and ‘sawdust trampled streets’. Drinking beer in the sawdust-floored pubs was a predominately night activity and so the reader gains the impression that Paris is full of ‘leftovers’ of the period of time that has passed. Eliot thinks more about people in this poem than either Blake or Wordsworth. He talks about the ‘masquerades’ that surrounds the city and then goes on to explain what people are like in reality. Eliot talks about the ‘dingy shades’ in ‘a thousand furnished rooms’, which is what the people of the city are really like.
Eliot’s poem spans a greater period of time than either Blake or Wordsworth and so is able to cover the many different sides of the city. Blake does not specify or even imply a time of day or year until he talks about the ‘midnight streets’. Wordsworth focuses solely on the materialistic side of London. He states that only a person lacking in life force/spirit could pass by such a beautiful sight and that buildings can touch your soul and can inspire emotion. He talks about the fields outside London, ‘open unto fields, ‘glittering’ which suggests beauty and value. Wordsworth is so overcome that no mortal words strong enough to describe his feelings of the city so he uses ‘Dear God!’. The only time in the poem that Wordsworth does mention a non-materialistic value of the city is when he talks about the tranquillity and mentions the ‘mighty heart is lying still’. This could be commerce which was, and still is, the heart of the city. ‘Ships & towers’ also points to trade and commerce.
The poem ‘Preludes’ also covers the other side of the city, the commercial side which Wordsworth only just touched upon. Eliot talks about a businessman who has a large ego, as we are shown with the phrase ‘his soul stretched tight across the sky’. The tightness of his ego could be that it has been made to go further than it actually should and therefore is fragile and likely to break at the slightest problem. Eliot mentions that they go home at ‘four and five and six o’clock’ and so life is predictable. The final two line of the fourth paragraph suggests that the businessmen are corrupt, ‘blackened’ and so the process of corrupting has been completed, and that they are prepared to be corrupt in order to become more successful at work. The businessman, a banker or suchlike, is corrupted in a different way to the ‘soiled’ harlot, as he does not know that he is corrupted. The businessman also has some luxuries such as the newspaper and a pipe.
Both of the poems that deal with the somewhat negative side of cities mention prostitutes, despite the difference in time between the two poems (‘London’ in 1798 and ‘Preludes’ in 1917) and distance (‘London’ was set in London whereas ‘Preludes’ was set in Paris’). The prostitutes represent the seeded and sordid side of the city and represent corruption. Eliot talks at great length of the prostitute and how her soul is made up of thousands of ‘sordid’ images. Eliot talks about the prostitute curling up into a ball in defence, ‘clasped the yellow soles of feet’, perhaps from the images that she has seen. The image of her ‘soiled hands’ also points to corruption.
The phrase ‘you had such a vision of the street’ suggests that she sees the street in a different way to other people, as she knows the evil that lies there. This is another form of masquerades. The curls in her hair, ‘you curled the papers from your hair’, suggests innocence as children often have curls in their hair. Blake uses the prostitute as a symbol of the corruption that has gripped London. He tells us this with his use of the words ‘but most thro’ midnight streets I hear…the youthful Harlot’s curse’. Midnight is the first point in the poem that Blake has mentioned a time and this suggests that he wants to emphasise the evil and corruption of London by using midnight when all is dark and a prostitute who is a symbol of corruption as she corrupts herself. He makes the reader more sickened by mentioning that the Harlot is young and so would have had a life in front of her had corruption not taken hold.
As Eliot’s poem is a great deal longer than either Wordsworth’s or Blake’s in the penultimate paragraph of ‘Preludes’ Eliot is able to give a personal opinion of the city of Paris and says that the city has a gentle thing, which has infinite suffering thrust upon it. This description could be likened to Mother Earth who gives, yet does not receive, and so will suffer infinitely for the damage that humans have caused her.