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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.

As I write this, the torchbearer for the 2012 Olympics has just descended from helicopter to the Tower of London, marking a symbolic presence and official commencement to the upcoming four weeks of competition. The torch's journey began on May 17 in a ceremony in Athens' Panathenaic Stadium, when it was lit and given to an English delegation including Princess Anne, mercurial London mayor Boris Johnson, David Beckham, and Lord Sebastian Coe, former Olympian and current chairman of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games. The torch arrived the next day in the UK, at Cornwall, and since then has been making its way to London. Now it's there.

The much more globally noticed commencement, the Opening Ceremony, is still a few days away, and rumors about its production offer cinephiles and the literary-minded among us reasons to tune in. Director Danny Boyle is overseeing the three-hour show, and apparently it will have a Shakespearean theme, with a special focus on The Tempest. (Lord Coe's first name was inspired by a character in the play—a rather nasty one, curiously.) Sports Illustrated recently reported that Boyle is incorporating a cricket team, ten ducks, twelve horses, seventy sheep, a parade of nurses, an underworld [!], synthetic clouds, and two mosh pits. It sounds like a wild mix—Cool Britannia meets All Things Bright and Beautiful. "London Live" events in Trafalgar Square, Victoria Park, and Hyde Park will broadcast the ceremony on giant screens, and feature free entertainment as well. Let's hope that the Hyde Park performers, including Snow Patrol and Duran Duran, have a better go of it there than did Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney two weeks ago. McCartney joined Springsteen and his band for two encores, "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist and Shout," but the musicians had ignored a 10:30 performance curfew, and so their microphones were abruptly turned off. It'll be interesting to see how residents of the exclusive neighborhoods adjoining Hyde Park react to the middle-aged members of Duran Duran singing that '80s hit, "Girls on Film."

The Olympics is only the latest Big Event in what is turning out to be a veritable Summer of London. It began with local-team Chelsea's first European Cup crown, clinched when Didier Drogba sent an overtime penalty kick inside the left post. In a magical tournament run, the club defeated heavily favored Barcelona, and then beat the German Bayern team in their home stadium. (Chelsea also had four starters suspended, but no matter.) Fast on the heels of this triumph came the Queen's sixty-year Jubilee, culminating in four days of celebration that included a royal flotilla on the Thames and a carriage procession through the city—and, of course, the obligatory concert featuring sirs Paul McCartney and Elton John. I was in London a few days before the Jubilee, and it was lovely to see the city defying the current era of austerity and decking itself out, with Union Jack banners guiding the high-end shopping crowds high above and all along Regent Street. (Using the "A-word" reminds me that the last Olympic summer games in London, in 1948, became known as the Austerity Games because of the scarcities and piles of rubble athletes encountered in the postwar city.) And then, shortly after the Jubilee, there was the thrilling men's finals tennis match at Wimbledon, between Roger Federer and native son Andy Murray (with Federer eventually winning his seventh title).

London has also been daily in the news for unwelcomed reasons, as its premier financial institutions have become increasingly entangled in the sort of scandals, jaw-dropping in scale, that have jolted Wall Street. Barclays' rigging of the Libor, or London interbank offered rate, has left London banking élites wringing their hands. This summer's fiscal misbehaviors have seemed ungentlemanly and, worst of all, indiscreet, all of which is to say, too American, while here in the States, perhaps there is some cold comfort in realizing that English banks are as unscrupulous and felonious as our own. The related economic downturn has likewise led to shudders of social support and cohesion in London, shocking a citizenry far less accustomed to politicians declaring that "government is the problem." Several British authors, including the novelist and essayist Zadie Smith, have objected in print and on foot to the closing of borough libraries and bookshops on subsidized Council properties. The Willesden Green Library is set to be razed, along with the adjoining Willesden Bookshop, where Smith didn't know she should read the books of David Mitchell until the proprietor there told her so. (Luxury flats will replace these local hangouts.) The Kilburn Bookshop has already closed, and on one May morning in Kensal Rise, authorities arrived in council trucks, entered its neighborhood library, and carried away the books. Philip Pullman and Alan Bennett have also protested the closing of this library, which Mark Twain (yes, that one!) opened in 1900.

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."

Modern poets, so keen to avail themselves of ironizing allusion, frequently resort to this technique. T. S. Eliot turns Edmund Spenser's melodious refrain, "Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song," to different effect in The Waste Land. But this reconfiguration of urban connotations can work both ways, as when Oscar Wilde in an impressionist lyric implies a beauty in "yellow fog," an aspect of London more typically negative in Eliot's poem or in Bleak House before it. (Or in the recently published accounts of Dickens' insomniac strolls through London, Night Walks.) Sometimes mere context can deepen or refresh past readings. Wordsworth's well-known glimpse of London from Westminster Bridge suddenly sounds different when set beside a similar poem by Elizabeth Tollet, written fifty years before Wordsworth's, or next to a consciously belated version by contemporary poet Alice Oswald. Taken together, these poetic conversations or debates about London life, its essence and its value, represent one of the primary goals of Ford's compilation—to show how common themes and images link different London poets from different eras.

In a different relationship to past writing, earlier poets such as Ben Jonson and Jonathan Swift overturned conventions of epic poetry and urban panegyric, imagining a "famous voyage" on an excremental London river, or a morning shower that creates only (in Ford's concise description) a "feculent stream" flowing through the city. (It's worth comparing Swift's caustic vision with Mary Robinson's "London's Summer Morning.") A visionary poet such as William Blake envisions both urban realities, whereby London is an English Jerusalem in one passage, a place of modern bondage in another. The city in his "London" has not only chartered streets but a "chartered Thames," too, in which the metaphor's straining signifies a fierce social protest. As Ford describes it, readers will find throughout this volume "the squalid and sublime jostling each other for elbowroom, as they do in the experience of any city-dweller."

If this continuity interests Ford in the cases above, he is also determined to show how poems refract the particularities of city life, of certain landmarks, of historical events, of social shifts. This focus will be of special interest to lovers of London and its history. We find here, then, Thomas Wyatt referring obliquely to Ann Boleyn's execution at the Tower of London, or subtle Andrew Marvell contemplating the beheading of King Charles I at Whitehall. Some poems commemorate simpler events, such as the freezing over of the Thames in the winter of 1683-84, while others confront horrors more symptomatic of our own age—predominantly the terrorist bombings of 7/7, which David Kennedy commemorates, or struggles to commemorate, in one of the last poems here. Monuments made more monumental by lyrical attention include Cleopatra's Needle (drawing out a giddy sense of history in Tennyson) as well as sites no longer standing, as in the anonymous "Have You Seen the Crystal Palace?" or Siegfried Sassoon on Devonshire House. Here, poetry does a preserving work for those no longer visitable urban attractions. Boroughs beyond the tourist paths and traps appear here as well, including vivid descriptions by Maura Dooley and Ben Borek of rough-and-tumble South London. East London (where the editor resides, in the borough of Hackney, and where so much Olympic activity will be taking place), and Docklands, the emergent commercial hub downriver, also appear.

Satisfyingly, to read this anthology is to arrive at certain conclusions, although they won't necessarily be commonly held. I appreciated to a higher degree how Wordsworth's description of his London memories in Prelude provided a template for so much of the urban travel writing that has followed, even down to this day. And certain poets assume a glossier identity as truly London poets—ones whom the city inspired and whose inspiration led to unique creative investitures on London's behalf. This group includes Robert Herrick, Thomas Hardy (whose London poems are surprisingly numerous, and generously represented here), John Betjeman, Louis MacNeice, and Michael Donaghy. Betjeman's child-like glee at having time to explore the city illustrates this sentiment:

Great was my joy with London at my feet,
All London mine, five shillings in my hand,
And not expected back till after tea!

Betjeman captures well the sense of freedom and empowerment that city can give its inhabitants, but he was also sensitive to London's deep class divisions: "In Westminster Abbey" implicity rejects its speaker's snobbish piety. A few less-known poets flash their city-dweller's awareness and sensory alertness with striking images: A. S. J. Tessimond sees a flower in a Tube escalator that, at its top, "blossoms its load" and "breaks and scatters / A winnow of men, / a sickle of dark spray," while Mervyn Peake figures a red double-decker bus, or rather its entire route, as a blood "vessel weaving through grey flesh."

All anthologists have at least one occupational hazard: they must endure the slings and arrows of readers' peculiar preferences, their shoulda's and coulda's. Second-guessing is inevitable, and some of my guesses involve the tenuous connection to London in Keats' "To one who has been long in city pent," the exclusion of Milton's "L'Allegro" and at least a sampling from Eliot's "Preludes," and the present but underrepresented MacNeice, who captured London's urban energy in the middle decades of the 20th century. And as readers have likely inferred already, this is a very "English Lit" line-up of poets. Only a handful of American poets are included here, among them Robert Lowell ("I learn to live without ice and like the Queen") and John Ashbery. For a more international grouping, readers may wish to consult as well Lisa Russ Spaar's All That Mighty Heart: London Poems.

But this ample and handsomely produced book won't leave any readers feeling cheated. Ford takes care to reflect a contemporary London that is a global city and a postcolonial capital as well. Instead of a monotone "London English," different demotic voices reflect today's cosmopolis. Mick Imlah's "Cockney" shouldn't be overlooked, but the newer patois of James Berry, Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Agard, and Fred d'Aguiar better echo London's international melting pot, which the arrival of Olympic athletes from all nations will merely replicate. Agard's address to Wordsworth, in the voice of Toussaint L'Ouverture, becomes a moving acknowledgment of the old literary culture by the new ("So, thanks brother, for your sonnet's tribute"), while his speaker in "Chilling Out Beside the Thames" invigorates old monuments and heroes: "Check if dem Trafalgar pigeon still salute / old one-eyed one-armed Lord Horatio." These poets and their speakers, with their less traditional backgrounds and less privileged experiences in London, naturally give a voice to the neglected and exploited, but Ford's anthology also offers some precursors to this contemporary social concern, as in Matthew Arnold's "West London," Thomas Hardy's "Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening," or Blake's faces that bear "Marks of weakness, marks of woe." There are also plenty of poems suggesting that such social consciousness is rarely the urban dweller's initial response, a fact captured dryly by Muriel Spark: "The shoes, the hair—I do not think / She has anything in the bank."

Finally, I would also commend to readers recently rediscovered early-modern women writers such as Isabella Whitney (her last will and testament to London and its denizens is both witty and poignant), and young Irish poet Nick Laird's "The Tip." In one of the most charming city poems you'll ever read, Laird captures those wild feelings of sophistication and grandiosity that we all experience when we first step foot in a London, Paris, or New York, or when we move there and give our daily lives to such cities. Laird reflects on the thrill of simply being able to hail a cab in Oxford Circus:

You note how you adopt
the superhero's posture
and slow the vehicle up
as if your hand shot forth
an electro-subatomic ray
and it drew the taxi in,
stopped the nuclear bomb
and saved the heroine

In relaying that single moment of being pleased with one's "city self," Laird captures well the special enchantments of navigating, as if effortlessly, a great metropolis.

Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. The Garbage Eater, his first collection of poems, was published last year by Northwestern University Press. A new collection, Fall Run Road, recently won Finishing Line Press's chapbook competition, and is forthcoming.

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