During the Olympic Games, the London Guardian published “Translating the British, 2012,” by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, which will doubtless be included in any revision of Mark Ford’s generously proportioned anthology. “We speak Shakespeare here,” Ms. Duffy proclaimed, “a hundred tongues, one-voiced.” Few of us think of Shakespeare in that way, and the variety of styles and tones in London: A History in Verse suggests polyphony rather than plainsong. Alas, it is a long time since anyone could say of the city that “Earth hath not anything to show more fair.” The depredations of the Great Fire, the Blitz, and the architectural vandalism of the late twentieth century have reduced much of the center to ugly incoherence, and the long-term social and economic benefits of the Games constructions, if any, remain to be seen. Where Wordsworth could marvel at the prospect of “Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” lying “open unto the fields, and to the sky,” Alice Oswald’s “Another Westminster Bridge” offers only a view of “strip-lit offices” seen through “tiny windows,” “the teetering structures of administration.”
As Peter Ackroyd reminds us at the start of his magisterial London: The Biography, to which this anthology forms an ideal companion piece, the site of London has been inhabited by human beings for half a million years. Kipling is being no more than accurate when he makes the River Thames say “I remember the bat-winged lizard-birds,/ The Age of Ice and the mammoth herds,” for in 1690 the bones of a mammoth were indeed uncovered at King’s Cross. (It had probably been waiting for a train.) London was already a commercial center under the Romans, a bulwark against the Vikings in King Alfred’s reign, and aggressively asserted its civic rights in the face of attempted monarchical control in medieval times. Chaucer’s London was a metropolis, at once the location of Court, Parliament, and the mercantile world; by the time Shakespeare was born, London’s total population is estimated to have been around 100,000. With all this came the problems of crime, disease, overcrowding, and inordinate expense. “For lack of money I might not speed” is the refrain of the fifteenth-century poem “London Lickpenny”; Everard Guilpin’s Skialethia (1598), with its charge that the city is “the map of vanities,/ The mart of fools, the magazine of gulls,” is only one of many satirical critiques of the 1590s; John Donne, adapting Juvenal, complains of its endless procession of hangers-on and exhibitionists, as Pope was to do a century and a half later. High spirits and keen social observation are much in evidence in these writers, but more somber voices also make themselves heard—that of Chidiock Tichborne, for instance, writing from the Tower on the eve of his execution for treason in 1586, when he was in his late twenties:
My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green;
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The fall of Charles I had profound effects upon the character of London, and it is good to see an extract, albeit brief, from Cowley’s The Civil War, a pre-Miltonic epic poem in heroic couplets, which was not published in full until 1973. The Great Fire in 1666—only one of many, as Ackroyd notes, that have periodically ravaged the city—destroyed much of medieval London, including its greatest building, St. Paul’s Cathedral. As Dryden wrote, in Annus Mirabilis:
The daring flames peeped in and saw from far
The awful beauties of the sacred choir;
But, since it was profaned by civil war,
Heaven thought it fit to have it purged by fire.
The poems on London by Swift, Gay (“Trivia: Or, the Art of Walking the Streets in London”), Pope, and Johnson (whose “London” laments the curse of poverty with personal depth of feeling) belong to the pre-Romantic age. By the time we reach Cowper, with his line “God made the country, and man made the town” (The Task), and Blake’s protests, in “London,” “The Chimney Sweep,” and elsewhere, against the corruption of the city and its institutions, changes in sensibility are stirring. “To one that has been long in city pent,” wrote Keats, “’Tis very sweet to look into the fair/ And open face of heaven”; to Shelley, London’s darkness, smoke, and sinfulness brought it close to Hell; and to Clough it was more like “a huge Bazaar.” Yet, as this last comparison suggests, the sheer scale and variety of London continued to dazzle. Wordsworth’s evocation, in Book VII of The Prelude (amply excerpted here), of its multicultural population, architectural splendor, and unique range of diversions, remains vivid and exciting, even if he does feel obliged to censure its “blank confusion.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Mark Ford’s book is its selection of London poems by Hardy, of which, as he says, there are a “surprising number.” In “The Coronation,” the monarchs buried in Westminster Abbey comment on the scaffolding being erected for the coronation of George V in 1911. Each gives a personal slant to the noise they hear; Mary Stuart believes a scaffold is being put up, while Henry VIII naturally suggests a wedding: “Ha-ha! I never would bow down to Rimmon,/ But I had a rare time with those six women!” “In the British Museum,” the scene of more than one poem, focuses on a working-class man who muses on the fact that a stone from the Areopagus which he is viewing might once have echoed to the voice of St. Paul. “In St. Paul’s a While Ago” goes further, imagining Paul himself preaching in the building, and being spurned by passers-by as “An epilept enthusiast.” Characteristically, London for Hardy becomes a vast museum itself, a perpetual historical echo-chamber. Different sounds reverberate to different poets; for W. E. Henley, the cries of street hawkers; for Arthur Symons, the entertainments of the music-hall; for D. H. Lawrence, the importunings of the homeless on the Embankment; for T. S. Eliot, the snatches of Cockney conversation in pubs—which I mention in order to express astonishment that Mark Ford does not include those lines in his extracts from The Waste Land.
Once we enter the twentieth century, the diversity is bewildering. But, to gain anchorage, consider two poems entitled “Parliament Hill Fields,” one by John Betjeman, the other by Sylvia Plath. For Betjeman, the spot (so called because of its use as a Roundhead rallying-point in the Civil War) evokes a precise topography of named shops and churches, and ends with sympathy for “children carrying down/ Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of Kentish Town.” For Plath, wandering neurotically, a “crocodile of small girls . . . Opens to swallow me,” and “over Kentish Town, an ashen smudge/ Swaddles roof and tree.” London loses its old identity without quite taking on a new one. The last fifty pages or so of the anthology make depressing reading, as the city becomes the excuse for the preening of various poetical egos, with the occasional desperate attempt at a political poem, such as David Kennedy’s “The Bombs, July 2005.” Finally we come to Ahren Warner’s “Δι?νυσος” with its remark that the loutish boyfriend of some girl on a bus
is obviously a knob
but a happy one and that it seems to me
is the important though not localisable thing.
Yes indeed, one may be a happy knob anywhere these days; but with that cheerless reflection, the specific importance of London to poetry has evaporated.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 7, on page 71
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