Owen Sheers - 4 May 2009
Tonight's opening film of 'A Poet's Guide to Britain' is about Wordsworth's eulogy to London, 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge. I think when you see the film you'll understand why we chose this poem to open the series. Wordsworth is a familiar name, the poem is already well known and, perhaps, most importantly for TV, there's a good story behind the writing of the poem - Wordsworth's trip to France to visit his ex, Annette Vallon. But for me this was also a great poem to begin the series because I think the story of its writing touches upon some fascinating questions of influence; by another poet, by Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, and of course by London itself. It's a story that opens a door onto how poems so often come about; through a rare intersection and interleaving of circumstance, reading, experience, conversation and physical surroundings.
As Simon Armitage said when I interviewed him for this film, the relationship between William and Dorothy Wordsworth was perhaps one of the most important literary relationships in history. Brother and sister lived together, walked together, talked together and sometimes, it seems, thought together. It's clear, I think, from looking at Dorothy's journals that many of William's poems, ideas and philosophies were developed through conversations with his sister. Just read Dorothy's description of a certain bunch of daffodils to see what I mean. They shared experiences and in sharing spoke about them, thereby making those experiences live beyond the moment and so already beginning the excavation of them that would lead to poetry. I'm certain this is what happened when they crossed Westminster Bridge that morning. Dorothy's journal (written long after they returned to Grasmere) is full of similar lines and descriptions as Wordsworth's poem. She may, of course, have already been referencing her brother's poem, most likely composed, if not actually written, in his mind on the coach to France. But I think it's more likely that Dorothy and William spoke about the view they'd seen, about its details, and about what it meant to them both as they journeyed on out of London down to Dover. In speaking about it, the experience became shared, remembered and 'out there', available for manipulation and crafting into a poem.
The kind of poem that the experience would become was also influenced by Dorothy, and by another poet. Earlier in 1802 Dorothy gave William some of Milton's sonnets to read. Wordsworth was powerfully struck by what Milton achieved in such a compact form as the sonnet. As he said, 'in his hand the thing became a trumpet; whence he blew soul-animating strains'. Before Milton the sonnet form had primarily been used for subjects of love and religion. Milton, however, took the sonnet out of the bedroom and the church and turned it upon broader, often political subjects, while also using it to write more personal, philosophical poems too. This, I think, was crucial for the forming of 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge'. Milton's sonnets showed Wordsworth what could be done with the form, they broadened his horizons and he leapt at the opportunity to colonize the new land exposed to him. Over the next month or so Wordsworth wrote almost exclusively sonnets.
I talk in the programme about how I think this use of the sonnet makes 'Composed Upon Westminster Bridge' the great poem it is. The compression of the 14 lines draws forth the best from Wordsworth such as his gift for the living, striking image and his ability to flex a poem's metre and rhythm to the shape of his argument. It is in its brevity that the poem finds its penetration. There is no room for Wordsworth to expand, idea upon idea, line upon line, as he does in his longer work. The vision and the idea must be simultaneously evoked, caught and considered. All of which makes for a wonderfully immediate, personal and yet also rhetorical, lapidary piece of poetry. Would his description of London at dawn be as well known and as well read if it had appeared as part of a longer work? I doubt it.
I'd be interested to know if you feel the poems you write come about in a similar way, through a web of tiny influences, of impulses and ideas that remain unconnected until the poem comes into being? Are you even aware of the influences that feed into a poem? I'd be inclined to think it's best not to be, but we're not always so lucky and sometimes half the struggle is in carving the poem away from what is 'known' or actually 'happened'. I'd also like to know if you have any favourite poems about London or other cities. One of mine, and a vivid counterpoint to Wordsworth's silent city at dawn, is W.S. Graham's equally silent, but perhaps more sinister London of 'Night City' where Graham finds himself, recently arrived from the North sitting alone among the capital's buildings, 'like a flea crouched in the stopped works of a watch'.