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London: A History in Verse
London: A History in Verse

Belknap Press, 2012
784 pp., $35.00

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Brett Foster


All Eyes on London

The city in its many guises.

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How about something cheerier? Alongside the Olympic Games, a cultural Olympiad has been showcasing London as a world-class arts destination. Memorable events have included the "Globe to Globe" run, from April to June, of 37 Shakespeare plays—in 37 different languages—at The Globe Theatre, and, this summer at the Tate Modern, the exhibition "Eduard Munch: The Modern Eye." At the British Library, there is the visitor-friendly "Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands," featuring manuscripts on display by Charles Dickens (general visitor reaction: okay), John Lennon (all right!) and J. K. Rowling (!!!)

In a move that suggests, for the steadfast British Library, the earth-shaking proportions of these Olympic games, the library has announced that it will open thirty minutes later than usual due to expected delays on public transportation. Just when I began to worry that there was nothing in London that wouldn't bow to the Olympics this summer, I was pleased to notice a library announcement of a different tenor: the BL will restrict wi-fi access to websites streaming Olympic events so that online research in the reading rooms "remains viable" for visitors. Now that's more like it, BL.

All of this represents a lot of build-up, obviously, and publishers have noticed. Here I would like to treat at length one superb book dedicated to Londons both past and present. (A couple of other titles are especially worthy of your notice as well, and so we'll see if I can introduce those to you, too, before the Olympics are over.)

London: A History in Verse, edited by Mark Ford, a professor at University College London, will engage not only poetry lovers but anyone interested in a nearly seven-century poetic record of how London's citizens and visitors have interpretively framed this city. The two most common views inhabit opposite poles of reaction, and represent extremes of satisfaction and disenchantment. There are lyrical visions of urban utopia (or "Pryncesse of townes, of pleasure, and of joy," as an anonymous panegyric from 1500 puts it), or, more modestly, a deep sense of familiarity and connection despite the sprawling, sometimes hostile city surrounding an author. (A lovely section from Yeats' "Vacilliation" exemplifies this feeling, with its lit-up joy that shines upon the mundane contentment of an older man at a table in a shop.) On the other hand, one frequently finds here satirical poems, which mock the very pretensions and delusions found in the former sort of poem. Other more earnestly negative poems express criticisms of London's civil failings and the brutalities sometimes faced there.

Ford says he began his collection with medieval London for two reasons: because the language, Middle English, becomes more recognizable and because, by then, London was already England's undisputed capital. Selections from Chaucer reflect both moods described above. The excerpt from "The Cook's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales vividly displays London at its rancid best or worst, with Perkeyn the Revelour taking up with a woman who "swyved for hir sustenance," that is, a prostitute. Yet the spirit of transaction can also be inspiring and propelling rather than degrading. "London's greatness," writes Ford, "has always been powered by energies of trade and consumption." Here we find Chaucer's pilgrims assembled in Harry Bailey's tavern in Southwark, just south of the river Thames. This proprietor, or "Host," it is worth remembering, suggests a contest of tale-telling on the way to Canterbury, with the winner receiving a meal at the other pilgrims' expense when they return to the Tabard Inn. "A fairer burgeys [burgher] was ther noon in Chepe," Chaucer says of the Host, and this reference to Cheapside, the very heart of London's commercial activity, establishes the man as a true citizen-purveyor. His contest gives rise to the many entertaining voices, immemorially colloquial, in Chaucer's grand work, though we never forget that he is also shrewdly plying his trade by working the pilgrims, congenially if ruthlessly massaging their purses.

Chaucer's fellow medieval authors divide nearly evenly in their treatments of London: John Gower and John Lydgate laud "new Troy," praising the well-governed city as a way of flattering their sovereigns, while William Langland evokes the hucksters and hawkers—"Hote pies, hote" cries the "knaves" of cooks—and the anonymous author of "London Lickpenny" grumps that no Londoner is helpful without financial incentive. These latter examples begin a long line of contributions to a "counter-mythology of London" that ignores the inspirations of civic rhetoric. At times this mode of poem actively confounds or upends the metaphors, themes, and topoi that are the common vehicles for praise. For example, the Earl of Rochester's obscene "Ramble in St. James Park," where strollers will find "Drunkenness relieved by lechery," becomes even more transgressive in light of Edmund Waller's earlier royalist work, "On St. James Park, As Lately Improved by His Majesty."

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