London: A History in Verse
edited by Mark Ford
Harvard University Press, 745 pp., $35.00
Most of the world’s population lives in cities, and yet in English poetry the pastoral is still somehow the authentic lyric mode. A cloud or a beach or an apple—rarely an Apple Mac. There are good reasons for this. Being “versed in country things,” as Frost puts it, makes an abundance of deeply felt images available to poetry: processes of seasonal change, the lives of animals and plants, death, birth, renewal.
Perhaps this is why the lyric, which relies so much on metaphor’s compression, gravitates toward the natural. We expect a poem to take us outside ourselves, to offer some relocation in the sense of things, and the pastoral explicitly dramatizes this encounter with something beyond our ken—in poems like Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” or “The Thought Fox” by Ted Hughes—offering ways into transcendence. (I’m using the term “pastoral” loosely, in line with Dr. Johnson’s definition as a poem where “any action or passion is represented by its effects on a country life.”) Beginning with Theocritus in the third century BC, a pastoral lineage runs through Sidney, Jonson, Marvell, Wordsworth, and John Clare, to living writers who partially subscribe to or subvert the pastoral: Louise Glück, Seamus Heaney, Alice Oswald, or Mary Oliver.
It’s harder to trace the movements of pastoral’s city-slicker cousin, the urban sublime, though Mark Ford’s superb anthology, London: A History in Verse, is a good place to start. Most of these poems (at least until the twentieth century) lean away from the lyric toward satire or (mock) epic or epistle, forms that allow room for narrative (and the appearance of all aspects of the city, its elegance and sleaziness). Ford’s collection shows the development of particular city-sensibilities: the hedonistic, jaded, nostalgic, urbane. Oppositions are played out as much between the classic dichotomies of country and town as by London’s own inbuilt contradictions (wealth and poverty, pleasure and pain, fear and wonder). The urban is employed both to dramatize political and cultural climates and to externalize inner conflicts. All of which is to say that many poets have lived in London and written about it. (I’m one of them and have a poem in here.)
It’s tempting to see the entire history of London verse epitomized by a single word. We first encounter it here in “London Sad London: An Echo,” written anonymously during the 1640s (though only published after the restoration in 1660). A royalist states he’d give anything for the king to come back, but “if he comes not what …