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Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
September 3, 1802
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 (England, 1770-1850)
This is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, but in some ways, it’s a pretty surprising theme for a Romantic poet. The Romantic movement in English poetry, of which Wordsworth is of course one of the most significant figures, is characterized by its appreciation of the natural world. The sonnet we read last week is a good example of that – walking by the sea in the evening, Wordsworth is overwhelmed with the beauty of it all—it is a religious experience, a glimpse of God. For the Romantics, nature has that power.
If the beauty of the natural world is a pathway to God, what happens in the city? For the Romantics and their successors, the city is often suspect. As Wordsworth’s friend and fellow Romantic Coleridge lamented, “I was reared / In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.” For the Romantics, to be deprived of nature is to be deprived of a way of connecting to God—because nature is seen as God’s very language.
That’s why this poem is surprising. “Earth has not anything to show more fair,” the poem begins. “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty.” But this poem is not about a mountain or a river or an ocean view. It’s a poem about the city of London!  Standing on Westminster Bridge in the morning, the poet is stunned by the beauty of the scene, “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples.”
It’s not just the skyline that the poet finds so beautiful, though he certainly glimpses beauty there. Rather, what Wordsworth notices is the interplay between the natural world and the city. London is wearing “the beauty of the morning” “like a garment.” From his vantage point, he can see the great buildings and institutions in relationship with the world, “open unto the fields, and to the sky.” The morning sun shines on the city, and Wordsworth writes, “Never did sun more beautifully steep / In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill.” That’s quite a statement for a Romantic, isn’t it! There is as much beauty here as when the sun rises on a natural landscape, and the sense of calm is just as profound. And this experience, like the experience of beauty in the natural world, has a religious dimension. “Dear God,” the poet exclaims, “the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
The poet is awake to the beauty of the city. But there’s a certain tension in this poem at the same time. The poet sees the city in the early morning, in a rare moment of stillness and silence. There are no chimneys belching smoke, which is why everything appears all “bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” There are no people about—they are all asleep, and the “mighty heart” of the city is, for the moment, still. In this poem, the poet of nature embraces the city—but not quite. This is the city, but its beating heart– commerce, the arts, worship, all the activity of the people who inhabit it—is “lying still.” When the city wakes up, when things start moving, we get the sense that its beauty might be harder to see.
Much of the Bible is centered on a city: Jerusalem dominates both the Old and New Testaments. In the Scriptures, Jerusalem is a microcosm of the world: we glimpse its cruelty and violence, its corruption and lack of faith, its indifference to human need. But Jerusalem is also God’s city, a vision and promise of the world as it should be: the place where God lives in the midst of his people. In the Book of Revelation, “the new Jerusalem,” the holy city (21:3), is the destiny of humankind.
Does it surprise you that heaven is described as a city? In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis writes, “it is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city. We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares…. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice” (71).
May we look at our cities with the “contemplative gaze” Pope Francis writes about, and become more aware of God, who is already dwelling in the midst of the people who live in them.



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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