|April 03, 2017
In the immediate aftermath of the recent killings in London, a poem by William Wordsworth was rapidly and widely circulated on online media. The sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” depicts the quiet beauty of the city in the early hours of the morning:
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!
Of course, this not the first time that the public has sought solace in poetry in the face of butchery. In the last year or two, the excellent work of Warsan Shire (“What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”) and Maggie Smith (“Good Bones”) has been passed around in response to terrorist attacks, humanitarian crises and political upheaval. In the case of the London incident, the shared geographical location of both poem and attack make Wordsworth’s lines an obvious choice for those who turn to poetry in times of distress. The glittering and smokeless skyline bring a supernatural sense of calmness to the speaker of the poem. In this context, the message is clear, the splendour of the city will not be forcibly reduced by those who choose to murder citizens as they go about their daily business—the poem represents a powerful mixture of hope and defiance. Londoners will not be afraid.
However, hope and defiance are not the only responses to senseless violence. For example, upon hearing of what had happened in the English capital, the words that leapt into my mind were not Wordsworth’s, but those of another William. I did not feel hope, but despair and William Blake’s ‘London’ bullied its way into my consciousness:
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
The blackened walls of the church, the blood on the palace wall, the sighs of soldiers and the tears of infants—Blake’s words resonated. I felt deflated, his words consolidated my mood. These poems by Wordsworth and Blake highlight what poetry can do. We can ask it to reinforce what we know and feel or to provide alternative perspectives. Weddings, funerals, presidential inaugurations (unless it’s Trump’s)—poetry takes centre stage when the time comes to celebrate, commiserate, consolidate and commemorate. It’s still fulfilling this role quite admirably.
Once the most widely enjoyed art form, poetry has slipped into the distance since the middle of the twentieth century and it’s true that the age of the poetry giants sometimes seems to have passed. For example, it’s been many years since Pablo Neruda spoke to packed stadium full of listeners. But it hasn’t gone away completely, no, it’s still there, waiting, in the background, ready for when we need it.