Sept. 3, 1802
Earth has not any thing to shew more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in it’s 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 splendor, 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;
William Wordsworth composed this Petrarchan sonnet on the “roof of a coach, on [his] way to France.” He was anxious about his reunion with and final departure from his mistress Annette Vallon and daughter Caroline. This sonnet is fourteen lines; written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter means there are five feet; each foot has an unstressed, stressed syllable. The first eight lines is the octave, and the next six lines is the sestet. The octave has a rhyming scheme of ABCAABBA, and represents one complete sentence. There is a slight variation from the typical rhyming scheme of ABBAABBA. The poet does this to bring the readers attention to line three, which rhymes with nothing, “A sight so touching in it’s majesty:” That is the subject of the poem. If a person passes by without noticing the majesty of the sight, they have a “dull” soul.
The poem takes place in the “Beauty of the morning,” which lies like a blanket over the silent city. In line six, the poet varies the metrical meter of iambic to spondee, iamb, trochee, iamb, iamb. The poet does this to seize the attention of the reader regarding this list of things; “Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie.” Line seven starts with a trochee to startle the reader into understanding that all those things are “Open upon the fields, and to the sky.”
Line eight, “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air” is the volta or turn in the sonnet indicating the poet’s intention of painting a picture of brightness and things a glitter. As well, that line has a metrical variation of iamb, iamb, iamb, anapest, and iamb. The anapest is used in this case to prolong and emphasize the “smokeless air.”
In lines nine through fourteen, the poet describes the sun as never shining more beautifully in its splendor upon “valley, rock, or hill.” How does this make the poet feel? The poet “never felt, a calm so deep.” How deep is the calm? The calm is like “the river glideth at his own sweet will.” What is the response of the poet? “Dear God!” The poet uses a metaphor of a “mighty heart” being likened to the sight he beholds. The reader may imagine the heart beating rapidly during the day, but for now that “mighty heart is lying still.”
“The Longman Anthology of British Literature, Fourth Edition,” Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, General Editors, Volume 2A, “The Romantics and their Contemporaries,” Wolfson, Susan and Peter Manning, Long Man, New York, New York, 2010.