Friday, May 9, 2014

Bridge Songs

by Jean Roberta

Here is my favourite poem about living in the moment, written in the dawn of a day just after the dawn of the nineteenth century:

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

By William Wordsworth

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!

According to the poet, he and his sister Dorothy were in a carriage, leaving London, which then had a population of approximately 200K, which is the current size of the town where I live on the Canadian prairie. Wordsworth took a kind of mental snapshot of what he saw, before the invention of the camera. “Majesty” is the word he chose to describe the sight of such a huge metropolis.

According to some critics, the “sleeping” city seems dead, but this interpretation seems to me to miss the point. “All that mighty heart” is about to kick into life when horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians begin going about their business, and smoke pours into the sky. (None of it will come from locomotives, which are still in the drawing stage.) Maidservants will shout “Gardez l’eau!” before pouring the contents of chamber-pots out of windows. Passers-by will move out of the way and hope nothing splashes onto their hats. City life simply requires a certain tolerance.

Street vendors will begin crying their wares, and the resulting symphony of sound will include (according to another English poet of the time, William Blake) “the harlot’s cry from street to street.”

I’ve always wondered what that “cry” sounded like – “fresh cunt, tuppence for a taste, a shilling a feel?” A modern reader can only imagine.

In any case, no one is crying anything in the moment when Wordsworth is bidding farewell to London. The City seems to be holding its breath.

The fact that the view is described from a bridge is not a coincidence. While on a bridge, you are not on one side or the other – you are literally suspended over a body of water, and it’s like being suspended in time. It’s also not a coincidence that this poem is a sonnet, traditionally a serenade to a loved one. Instead of being addressed to a person, this sonnet is addressed to a city in a moment that will never be repeated.

Living for the moment is an essential element in the philosophy known as Romanticism, which Wordsworth adopted when it was new. Many years later, (1966, to be exact), the American troubadours Simon and Garfunkel honoured another city bridge and the spirit of the Now which was then associated with a generation of Romantics known as hippies.

You can hear and see this serenade to the 59th Street Bridge in New York City on youtube. Unfortunately, I couldn't upload the video here, so here is an image of the bridge itself, built in 1909 to connect Manhattan (an island) to the borough of Queens:

The 59th Street Bridge Song

By Simon and Garfunkel

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.

Ba da, Ba da, Ba da, Ba da...Feelin' Groovy.

Hello lamp-post,
What cha knowin'?
I've come to watch your flowers growin'.
Ain't cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in' doo-doo,
Feelin' groovy.

I've got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I'm dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.

If William and Dorothy Wordsworth had had access to a recording device, who knows what a sweet duet they might have passed down to us? But all artists record the flavour of their lives as best they can at the time.

And we’re free to relive those moments in our own time. That’s the magic of art.


  1. Nice to read some poetry—I so rarely do anymore. May I add to your bridge songs? More recently, there was "Under the Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers:

    Sometimes I feel
    Like I don't have a partner
    Sometimes I feel
    Like my only friend
    Is the city I live in
    The city of angels
    Lonely as I am
    Together we cry

    I drive on her streets
    'Cause she's my companion
    I walk through her hills
    'Cause she knows who I am
    She sees my good deeds
    And she kisses me windy
    I never worry
    Now that is a lie

    I don't ever want to feel
    Like I did that day
    Take me to the place I love
    Take me all the way

    It's hard to believe
    That there's nobody out there
    It's hard to believe
    That I'm all alone
    At least I have her love
    The city she loves me
    Lonely as I am
    Together we cry

    I don't ever want to feel
    Like I did that day
    Take me to the place I love
    Take me all the way

    Under the bridge downtown
    Is where I drew some blood
    Under the bridge downtown
    I could not get enough
    Under the bridge downtown
    Forgot about my love
    Under the bridge downtown
    I gave my life away

    Depressing compared to the ones you cite, but I've always thought there was something beautiful about the way he addresses the city—sort of like the point you make about the sonnet addressing London as a loved one. This song puts me in mind of the sort of terrible day where there's a bitter pleasure in being alone and walking familiar streets. Not Romanticism, I guess, but maybe a different kind of living in the now. There's some sort of sweetness in the moment even when one is hurting terribly.

    1. I've always found that song haunting. Thanks for reminding me.

  2. I tend to think of Wordsworth only in the context of rural settings like the Lake Country, but this sonnet gives a more complex view of him. I may even bestir myself to find out whether this was written before or after his bucolic period. He does refer to "valley, rock, or hill" as being no more beautiful at dawn than the city. his description makes me imagine the scene as it might have been painted by Turner. Lovely choice of a "moment"!

  3. Thanks for the comments, Annabeth and Sacchi. Annabeth, I hadn't thought of "Under the Bridge" as a song about a relationship with a city, but it definitely is. For centuries now, cities have been thought of as sites of individual loneliness and alienation, yet people still flock to them! Wordsworth, however, was on his way out of town when he got the inspiration for his sonnet. He might have longed for valleys, rocks & hills, and not just for the human-made structures that were just as beautiful.

  4. My favorite poem about living in the moment is Sara Teasdale's "Bargain". I first learned it when I was in high school, convulsed with angst, convinced that everything was temporary. It became something of an anthem for me.

    Bargain by Sara Teasdale
    (from memory, with apologies to the poet)

    Life has loveliness to sell
    All beautiful and splendid things
    Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
    Climbing fire that sways and sings
    And children's faces looking up,
    Holding wonder like a cup.

    Life has loveliness to sell:
    Music like a curve of gold,
    Scent of pine trees in the rain,
    Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
    And for your spirit's still delight
    Holy thoughts that star the night.

    Spend all you have for loveliness.
    Buy it and never count the cost.
    For one white singing hour of peace
    Count many a year of strife well lost,
    And for breath of ecstasy
    Give all you have been, or could be.

    Seems to fit the theme....!

  5. All that from memory! That is impressive, Lisabet.

  6. "Spend all you have for loveliness." That's awesome.

    I was just having a conversation with someone yesterday about the lost art of memorizing poems. I had a few memorized for a while but they seem to have faded, and I'm always so moved by people who can carry some poems with them. It also makes me think of Fahrenheit 451 and the way people in the end share the things that moved them in an oral tradition because the books have gone away.

  7. When I see the naiveté of sixties songs, I realize what a wonderful time it was to be growing up. Look at what modern kids have to look forward to. Sorry to be a downer, but I'm feeling nostalgic these days.

  8. Annabeth, students in public school used to be taught to memorize soliloquies from Shakespeare plays, among other things. I read somewhere that Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard (written/published in the 1740s, I think) was the most-memorized poem of the 1800s. (It inspired the famous comment by General James Wolfe that he would rather have written that poem than to conquer Quebec for Great Britain, which he did in 1759.) I was taught to memorize the 44 counties of the state of Idaho in alphabetical order in Grade 5. (Such useful knowledge.) I suspect that exercising the memory is like exercising a muscle that gets stronger with use. Daddy X, songs of the sixties didn`t tell the whole truth. You should know. :)

    1. I had a college professor who wanted to revive those old ways and would give extra credit for people who recited poems in class. I thought that was cool. I also have a book called A Poem A Day which is an attempt to encourage poetry memorization.

      I think smart phones and the like have reduced memorization. On the other hand, I am still memorizing things. I have an enormous repertoire of memorized song lyrics, for example.

      That's a great story about General Wolfe.


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