Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London/Bridgeman Art Library

‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his back garden’; engraving by Max Beerbohm, 1904, showing, clockwise from bottom left, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Theodore Watts-Dunton, George Meredith, Ned Jones (holding flower), Williams Morris, Hall Caine, Holly Hunt, John Ruskin, and what Beerbohm annotated as a ‘Stunner,’ likely Rossetti’s wife and model, Elizabeth Siddal

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 becomes of London?/Undone.”

Although usually London is doing the undoing, rather than being undone, this rhyme turns up repeatedly, a primary trope of the urban sublime, and comes to symbolize many shades of interaction between populi and polis. (Is it demented to suggest that the Norman conquest, and centuries of settlers like the Huguenots, have left a residual mangled sense in this polyglot city of the word “London,” analogized in l’anglais as l’undone?) There is, most famously, the city as corruptive, dehumanizing force; as found in Eliot’s Waste Land:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

In Inferno (a source for Eliot here) the lines read “sì lunga tratta/di gente, ch’io non av’rei creduto/che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta”: I had not thought death had unmade so many. That would never do. The “unmade,” like a bed, can be remade, but “undone” sounds final, fatal. Isaiah 6.5 stands behind it, propping it up: “Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone….” Lady Macbeth understands the word’s auditory weight: “Give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone.”1

Shelley had drawn plainly the infernal comparison a century before Eliot:

Hell is a city much like
A populous and a smoky city;
There are all sorts of
people undone,
And there is little or no
fun done;
Small justice shown,
and still less pity.

(Typical of Shelley’s patchy brilliance to keep that “done” in the fourth line. It’s surely superfluous except he’s straining for another double rhyme on “London”; but even its awkwardness is strangely convincing. It makes the speaker sound so petulant.) And yet this English Hades is also irresistible. Its freedoms and entertainments are alluring, even when morally suspect: Everard Guilpin (1572–?) begs, “Entice me not into the city’s hell,” and John Bancks (1709–1751) puts it neatly: “Gaudy things enough to tempt ye,/Showy outsides, insides empty.”


Representations of city life steadily return to ideas of the synthetic, the manufactured, usually in contrast to the honest, “natural” country life. Swift’s viciously ironic “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” describes Corinna, who, the Dean emphasizes, is a purely urban creation (“for whom no shepherd sighs in vain”). The “pride of Drury Lane” (a center of prostitution and gin palaces), Corinna returns to her fourth-floor “bower,” “takes off her artificial hair,” plucks out “a crystal eye,” pulls off “her eyebrows from a mouse’s hide,” and takes out her teeth and rags that prop “her flabby dugs.”

For some there’s uneasiness about whether city living can purvey authentic poetic content at all. Charles Jenner (1736–1774) complained that he could find no “prospects” to “raise poetic ardour in my mind,” “no verdant glade, no gushing rill” but “burning rows of fetid bricks” and “nauseous dunghills.” Since “dust and noise inspire no thought serene” Jenner’s solution is to stay indoors and “write at home.” For many of the poets here, the solution was to pack up and clear out, or at least write about doing it: there’s a whole raft of valedictory poems.

To live in London is to have a relationship with it, usually of the kind Catullus had with Lesbia; odi et amo, hate and love. Cowper, writing in 1785, thought “this queen of cities…so fair/ May yet be foul,” and though over two hundred years apart both Louis MacNeice’s “Goodbye to London” and Alexander Pope’s “A Farewell to London in the Year 1715” present that same little paradox in their first lines: “Having left the great mean city”; “Dear, damned, distracting town, farewell!”

For Robert Browning’s “Waring” of 1842, the capital forces a fledgling writer to be too much in the world, and he flees. Browning imagines:

How he must have cursed our revel!
Ay, and many other meetings,
Indoor visits, outdoor greetings,
As up and down he paced this London,
With no work done, but great works undone….

The city itself seems to sit heavily on the “works”: the down-done-done-done repetition is thudding, distracting, like someone banging on a party wall. Waring’s personality is two-dimensional, defined, as in a morality play, by his name: he finds the city wearing, and can’t aggregate to masterpieces the “sundry jottings,/Stray-leaves, fragments, blurrs and blottings.” (“Blurrs” here is a typo for blurts.)

John Oldham (1653–1683), in “A Satire in Imitation of the Third of Juvenal,” explains that the city forces artificiality in those who stay there:

I live in London? What should I do there?
I cannot lie nor flatter nor forswear….

It’s no coincidence that the worlds of the stage and the court belong to the city. Both exist as concentrated versions of the falsities and temptations of urban life. Goldsmith in “Retaliation” (oddly not included here) nimbly arraigns the Shakespearean actor and Grub Street favorite David Garrick:

On the stage he was natural, simple, affecting;
’Twas only that when he was off, he was acting….

Those near the seat of power also have to follow the prevailing political and religious winds. Oldham again, writing in the wake of the restoration:

…nor can I steer,
And tack about my conscience, whensoe’er
To a new point I see religion veer.

Living en masse demanded that a man have a private and a public face. A century earlier Thomas Wyatt had learned how the courtly life meant one must “tack about.” Imprisoned in the Tower of London by Henry VIII, he watched “out of a grate” as various lords accused of treason, and perhaps even Ann Boleyn, his alleged ex-lover, were beheaded. (John Ashbery, in one of the funnier pieces here, “The Tower of London,” rightly explains that it “isn’t really a tower. It’s a square/building with towers at each/of the four corners. In the thirties/they made a movie of it starring Boris Karloff/as Mord the executioner, who dabbled in torture.”)

Even if Wyatt learned not “to plead or prate,” a city runs on gossip; and the coffeehouses that sprang up in the eighteenth century were the places to hear it. (John Donne, in a tidy couplet from “Satire 4,” writes: “Who wastes in meat, in clothes, in horse, he notes;/Who loves whores, who boys, and who goats.”) Thomas Jordan (1612?–1685) writes, again using that national rhyme:

There’s nothing done in all the world,
From monarch to the mouse,
But every day or night ’tis hurled
Into the Coffee-house…
They know who shall in times to come
Be either made or undone;
From great St. Peter’s Street in Rome
To Turnbull Street in London.

Turnbull (or Turnmill) Street was another “whore-mongering” center: “Turnbull Street flea” and “Turnbull Street bee” meant, respectively, crab-louse and syphilitic prostitute. (In Henry IV, Part 2, Falstaff, that exemplary Londoner, baits Justice Shallow, who “hath done nothing but prate” of “feats he hath done about Turnbull Street; and every third word a lie.”) Alongside Eliot’s and Shelley’s dehumanizing London, and Browning’s sense of the city as an enemy of promise, are ideas of the place as pimp, as corruptor of sexual morals. In this sense, being undone finds its apogee in the work of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester (1647–1680). Wilmot is a kind of poetic wizard of filth:


When your lewd cunt came spewing home,
Drenched with the seed of half the town,
My dram of sperm was supped up after
For the digestive surfeit-water.

He writes of a prostitute also called Corinna, from the country, “who had run/Through all the several ways of being undone.” In “A Ramble in St. James’s Park” Wilmot, prefiguring Thom Gunn’s descriptions of Hampstead Heath, declares he still takes “care to see/Drunkness relieved by lechery” and “Went out into St James’s Park/To cool my head, and fire my heart.” The night city here is a pre-lapsarian or pre-Christian space, where sexual mores are suspended, upended. The thing undone is clothing, and the sexual realm is democratic:

Unto this all-sin-sheltering grove
Whores of the bulk and the alcove,
Great ladies, chamber-maids, and drudges,
The rag-picker and heiress trudges;
Car-men, divines, great lords, and tailors,
’Prentices, pimps, poets, and jailers,
Footmen, fine fops, do here arrive,
And here promiscuously they swive.

For Gunn, London is absolving, letting him forgive himself for what he’d judged to be sins. He “started to heap up pardons/even in anticipation,” and on the heath where he “had played hide and seek/with neighbour children,” he now

played as an adult
with troops of men whose rounds intersected
at the Orgy Tree….

Less carnal than these urban spaces were “pleasure gardens” where, for centuries in spring and summer, thousands of evening visitors strolled, dined, and watched fireworks. As a boy, Wordsworth heard rumors of the two most famous gardens, “Vauxhall and Ranelagh,” and their “green groves and wilderness of lamps.” Austin Dobson (1840–1921) suggests that they were sites where order was undermined, where reversal was possible:

Here Betty may flaunt in her mistress’s sack!
Here Trip wear his master’s brocade on his back!
Here a hussy may ride, and a rogue take the wall;—

Sing Tantarara,—Vauxhall! Vauxhall!

As an adult Wordsworth’s experience of the city was as a “quick dance/ Of colours, lights, and forms,” a “Babel din,” an “endless stream of men, and moving things.” The variety of the city engenders “one feeling…which belonged/To this great city by exclusive right”:

How often in the overflowing streets
Have I gone forwards with the crowd, and said
Unto myself “The face of everyone
That passes by me is a mystery!”

Though Blake (1757–1827) would “mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe,” Wordsworth’s experience of the city borders on an existential alienation, confirming the absolute unknowability of other people. To be among so many strangers means that

all the ballast of familiar life—
The present and the past, hope, fear, all stays,
All laws, of acting, thinking, speaking man—
ent from me, neither knowing me, nor known.

This is a particular way of being undone: the self comes face to face with the self, and discovers an absence. For Wordsworth, London is destabilizing, undermining and rearranging categories, bringing shocks of variety and novelty. Symbolic of the entire city is St. Bartholomew’s Fair, epitomizing its “anarchy and din” but also its transgression, its subversion: here are

albinos, painted Indians, dwarfs,
The horse of knowledge and the learned pig,
The stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, ventriloquists, the invisible girl,
The bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes…
All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things….

A great charm of Ford’s anthology is the contemporaneous accounts of historical events. When the Thames froze for eight weeks in the Little Ice Age of 1683, the river hosted bull baiting, nine-pin, football, Dutchmen doing tricks “in nimble cutting skates,” and finally, “in six hours, this great and rary show/Of booths and pastimes all away did go.” Abraham Holland writes a “Description of the late great memorable and prodigious Plague, 1625” (likening the “breach[ed]” body to the city, reversing the usual analogy of London as some vast corpus).

There’s an amusing account of the Great Exhibition of 1851; Geoffrey Hill on “Churchill’s Funeral”; Roy Fuller on “Battersea: After Dunkirk, June 3, 1940” and “London Air-Raid 1940.” However, the decision to arrange the contents according to the authors’ birthdates rather than publication or composition sometimes makes for a jumpy chronology. “Christmas in the Elgin Room” by Thomas Hardy, published after The Waste Land, comes seventy pages before. It can also throw up weird historical shadows. Mimi Khalvati’s fine poem about watching an Asian man on the Tube takes on new meanings after the bombings of July 7, 2005, but we don’t know if the poem knows this. Was it written before or after? The ordering makes it harder to see any call and response, or the fine details of where poetry meets history.

When young, MacNeice experienced London “in my nostrils” as “horsepiss and petrol,” nicely catching that historical moment when horsepower had not yet become solely metaphoric, and his adult identification with the city saw him return from teaching in America in 1941 to suffer through the Blitz. During those months “the people were fewer/But closer,” clinging to the idea that “the phoenix would rise.” Afterward was anticlimactic, “nobody rose, only some meaningless/Buildings and the people once more were strangers….” That distance between inhabitants is another eternal facet of London life: as a boy, Wordsworth was baffled by the idea that men could live as “next-door neighbours (as we say) yet still/Strangers, and knowing not each other’s names.”

It wasn’t just the Luftwaffe that brought Londoners closer. Dryden vivifies the Great Fire of London of 1666, from incipience (“in some close-pent room it crept along,/And, smouldering as it went, in silence fed”) to aftermath, when the homeless revisited the sites of their houses, “haunting the yet warm ashes.” (The poet laureate then claims, “no thought can ease them but their sovereign’s care”: Charles II is apparently so upset he “outweeps a hermit, and outprays a saint.”)

The lack of a shared life in London (partly caused by its size, partly by its rampant inequality) means Londoners are only brought together by the rare event—a blitz, a great fire. Although Wordsworth detected deep alienation in the city, from others and from himself, in Book 8 of The Prelude (not extracted here) he noted

that among the multitudes
Of that great City, oftentimes was seen
Affectingly set forth, more than elsewhere
Is possible, the unity of man,
One spirit over ignorance and vice
Predominant, in good and evil hearts
One sense for moral judgements, as one eye
For the sun’s light. When strongly breath’d upon
By this sensation, whenceso’er it comes,
Of union or communion doth the soul
Rejoice as in her highest joy….

This year Londoners are being “strongly breathed upon” by the “union or communion” of the Olympics and the Jubilee, and—embodying the “one spirit over ignorance and vice/Predominant”—the Leveson Inquiry. When I was in London in July every available surface was covered with Union Jacks, from the sides of buses to people’s faces. As the author of “London Sad London” pointed out four centuries back, the monarchy is London. An outsider like Robert Lowell, in “Living in London,” might write, “I learn to live without ice and like the Queen,” but of course while many Londoners admire the Queen, many others don’t, or indeed dislike her. She’s just here, like rain or Tube strikes.

In the afterglow of the Jubilee and the Olympics, it is worth recalling that she is also seen as exemplifying another aspect of London: class privilege and rampant inequality. In small towns or the countryside the smaller salary spread and the limited consumer options mean that, generally, inequality is both much less extreme and much less easily demonstrated. Someone’s dad might have a BMW, but almost everyone goes to the same school, the same supermarket, the same leisure center, the same doctor, the same hotel occasionally for Sunday lunch.

London’s not like that. The spread is large, and getting larger. While the poorest half possess “less than 5 per cent of financial or property wealth…the richest 10 per cent have 40 per cent of income wealth, 45 per cent of property wealth and 65 per cent of financial wealth.” Inequality extends to life expectancy, and babies born in, say, Southwark are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as those born in, say, Richmond. “Adults in Hackney are twice as likely to die before the age of sixty-five as those in Kensington & Chelsea. Life expectancy falls by one year for each stop that is travelled east from Westminster on the Jubilee line.”2

Experiences of London have always depended on your connections and your wallet. An anonymous fifteenth-century poem here, “London Lickpenny,” describes the failures of a Kent farmer to get redress for some unspecified legal problem. He discovers again and again, from the Chauncerie to Byllingesgate, that “for lacke of money I myght not spede.” Oldham also saw the two-tier system: when a poor man’s house burns down, no one will supply him with lodging or a “crust of bread,”

but if the fire burn down some great man’s house,
All straight are interested in the loss:
The court is straight in mourning sure enough…
Out comes a brief immediately, with speed
To gather charity as far as Tweed.

It is hard not to think of the 1992 fire at the Queen’s castle in Windsor: the cost of restoration reached £36.5 million and of that only £2 million came from the Queen. (Her personal fortune was estimated by Forbes in 2010 at $450 million: the holdings of the British Crown estate exceed £7 billion.) The remaining restoration costs were funded by charging the nation access fees to buildings supposedly already owned by them.

Back in the eighteenth century Cowper thought the justice system rigged. Though “rigid” in punishing “petty robbers,” the city “indulges life/And liberty, and oft-times honour too,/To peculators of the public gold.” (We might contrast the draconian reaction to last year’s London riots—one man who’d stolen bottles of water worth £3.50 was jailed for six months—with the blanket immunity afforded the architects of the 2008 financial crisis or the recently revealed manipulators of the interest rate called LIBOR.) Cowper also knew that “thieves at home must hang, but he that puts/Into his overgorged and bloated purse/The wealth of Indian provinces, escapes.”

The Empire’s shadow falls on many of the pieces here. Tennyson uses Cleopatra’s Needle, the obelisk that stands by the Thames, as a memento mori, like Ozymandias’s trunkless legs:

I have seen the four great empires disappear.
I was when London was not. I am here.

The Empire also writes back, as it were, with many of the postcolonial poets finding original, historically revealing imagery for London. Some of it is necessarily accusative: London, as important to the slave trade as Bristol or Liverpool, is described in Derek Walcott’s “Omeros” as a city where “the tinkling Thames drags by in its ankle-irons.” Some is hopeful: James Berry (1924–), a Jamaican immigrant, “pushed by history” finds himself “in the centre of Empire,” where his wonder recalls Wordsworth’s: “I walked fantastic stone streets in a dream.” He finds a room and the Labour Exchange: the poem concludes, “So, I had begun—begun in London.” With that repetition, Berry undoes the “undone” narrative, giving us the ever-renewed optimism that also underlies all cities, engines of enterprise and opportunity.

In “The Whitsun Weddings” (not included here) Larkin sits on a train bound for the capital and thinks of “London spread out in the sun,/Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat.” By so assiduously unpacking the metropolis, Ford’s anthology also stumps for poetry itself: as it leaps from historical events to the private dramas playing out in postal districts all over the “great mean city,” the art asserts its primacy as a portal to the full range of the human.