Wordsworth & Eternity at St. Paul’s

I’m stunned every time I read this: one of Wordsworth’s best short poems (& that’s saying something), & perhaps one of the great poems period:

St. Paul’s

Pressed with conflicting thoughts of love and fear
I parted from thee, Friend! and took my way
Through the great City, pacing with an eye
Downcast, ear sleeping, and feet masterless
That were sufficient guide unto themselves,
And step by step went pensively. Now, mark!
Not how my trouble was entirely hushed,
(That might not be) but how, by sudden gift,
Gift of Imagination’s holy power,
My Soul in her uneasiness received
An anchor of stability. It chanced
That while I thus was pacing I raised up
My heavy eyes and instantly beheld,
Saw at a glance in that familiar spot
A visionary scene – a length of street
Laid open in its morning quietness,
Deep, hollow, unobstructed, vacant, smooth,
And white with winter’s purest white, as fair,
As fresh and spotless as he ever sheds
On field or mountain. Moving Form was none
Save here and there a shadowy Passenger
Slow, shadowy, silent, dusky, and beyond
And high above this winding length of street,
This noiseless and unpeopled avenue,
Pure, silent, solemn, beautiful, was seen
The huge majestic Temple of St Paul
In awful sequestration, through a veil,
Through its own sacred veil of falling snow.


3 replies »

  1. I have long regarded St Paul’s as a great poem and one of Wordsworth’s finest. Most analysts cite the geometry, cityscape, blank verse, stream of thought and connections with his other ‘London’ poems as familiar tropes and anchors for the reputation of the work. I am more drawn to its strange weaving of architectural permanence and fleeting elegiac undertones that create a tension between shadowy “inhabitants” and an enduring (city). A geometry with a decidedly dark cast (shadows, silence, duskiness). What a brilliant closing line it was to cover the ‘anchor of stability’ and ‘huge majesty’ in a blanket of snow, as if to subdue all that grand display of power and endurance.

    I find in St. Paul’s parallels that make it completely fresh and at home in the context of our modern cities, the tension between imposing stature and a place “laid open in its morning quietness”, an unpeopled vulnerability (to which we can now add “Wakanda”, which is certainly an apparition extracted from “imagination’s holy power”). Where else but in our modern cities do the shadowed people have downcast eyes, masterless feet, and go about on pensive steps? A haunting, elegiac tone that regards the vulnerability of what otherwise might be taken for an unassailable edifice. The snowfall, it appears, covers all.

    There is a strange connection of this poem to a very modern city and a very recent event that got covered, not in snow, but in dust and ash. Still, it was a blanket just as white and obscuring as any made of snow, where

    “Moving Form was none
    Save here and there a shadowy Passenger
    Slow, shadowy, silent, dusky, and beyond
    And high above this winding length of street,
    This noiseless and unpeopled avenue”

    This universality and timelessness of Wordsworth’s poem can be easily be seen if one puts it in the context of that modern event, The 9/11 destruction of Twin Towers, There is another St. Paul’s, St. Paul’s Chapel in NY, that is so coincidentally and accurately inhabited by those lines of Wordsworth that one feels as if the one were a haunting the other. Standing directly across the street from where the Twin Towers fell, the Chapel should have been destroyed or at least suffered major damage in the calamity. However not a stone was moved, not a window broken. And so it remained, an edifice “in awuful sequestration.”

    People in NY refer to St Paul’s as “the little chapel that stood”, then serving as place of refuge and respite for the 1st responders who worked round the clock to save lives and, thereafter, to memorialize the people who perished on a “noiseless and unpeopled avenue”. Certainly Wordsworth’s “St. Paul’s” could be said to reside there as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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