On This Day
1802 – William Wordsworth composes the sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”.
“Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” is a Petrarchan sonnet by William Wordsworth describing London and the River Thames, viewed from Westminster Bridge in the early morning. It was first published in the collection Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807.
“ […] we left London on Saturday morning at 1⁄2 past 5 or 6, the 31st July (I have forgot which) we mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St pauls, with the River & 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 & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature’s own grand Spectacles ”
— Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journal, 31 July 1802,
The sonnet was originally dated 1803, but this was corrected in later editions and the date of composition given precisely as 31 July 1802, when Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were travelling to Calais to visit Annette Vallon and his daughter Caroline by Annette, prior to his forthcoming marriage to Mary Hutchinson.
The sonnet has always been popular, escaping the generally excoriating reviews from critics such as Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review when Poems in Two Volumes was first published. The reason undoubtedly lies in its great simplicity and beauty of language, turning on Dorothy’s observation that this man-made spectacle is nevertheless one to be compared to nature’s grandest natural spectacles. Cleanth Brooks analysed the sonnet in these terms in The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry.
Stephen Gill remarks that at the end of his life Wordsworth, engaged in editing his works, contemplated a revision even of “so perfect a poem” as this sonnet in response to an objection from a lady that London could not both be “bare” and “clothed” (an example of the use of paradox in literature).
That the sonnet so closely follows Dorothy’s journal entry comes as no surprise because Dorothy wrote her Grasmere Journal to “give Wm pleasure by it” and it was freely available to Wordsworth, who said of Dorothy that “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears” in his poem “The Sparrow’s Nest”.
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 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;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
William Wordsworth: Poems, in Two Volumes: Sonnet 14
Born On This Day
1803 – Prudence Crandall, American educator (d. 1890)
Prudence Crandall (September 3, 1803 – January 28, 1890) was an American schoolteacher and activist who pushed for women’s suffrage and the rights of African Americans in the United States. Originally from Rhode Island, Crandall was raised as a Quaker in Canterbury, Connecticut, and she became known for establishing an academy for the education of African-American girls and women.
In 1831, Crandall opened a private school for young white girls. However, when she admitted Sarah Harris, a 20-year-old African-American female student in 1832, she had what is considered to be the first integrated classroom in the United States. Parents of the white children began to withdraw them. Rather than ask the African-American student to leave, she decided that if white girls could not attend with the blacks, she would educate blacks. She was arrested and spent a night in jail. Soon the violence of the townspeople forced her to close the school and leave. The Connecticut legislature, with pressure from Mark Twain, a resident of Hartford, passed a resolution honoring Crandall and providing her with a pension. Twain offered to buy her former Canterbury home for her retirement, but she declined. She died a few years later, in 1890.
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