Anthology Review: London – A History in Verse
edited by Mark Ford
Harvard Belknap, 2012
All eyes turn to London these moltenly hot summer weeks as the city hosts the 2012 Olympics (for the first time in the living memory of most viewers) and honed young athletes from all over the world converge to hump like bunnies in the Olympic Village, occasionally stopping to shave a fifteenth of a millisecond off the record for Australian crabbing. The gala opening festivities were orchestrated by a Boyle, called to order by a Bard, serenaded by a Beatle, lampooned by a Bean, and ushered in by a Bond. Even Queen Elizabeth II, after sixty years on the throne, continued her recent better-late-than-never experiments in being publicly affable.
The Games themselves have increasingly become very costly monuments to irrelevance – for every inspirational story among the contestants, there are fifty Michael Phelps-style brutally self-absorbed brainless show-horses fist-pumpingly screaming about their picosecond victories before lapsing into surly autograph-refusals until they’re next called from their stalls. The news coverage is abysmal, the games themselves have always been untelegenic, and only a fool would be certain that the most outstanding performers aren’t doped to their gills.
But in modern times, that part of the spectacle has always been a bit irrelevant; the Games aren’t celebrations of athletic prowess anymore (if they ever were) – they’re travel brochures for their host countries. The locust-horde of newscasters who gather for these things have to talk about something, and they’ve had liberal encouragement to make that something the charms and invitations of the host city itself (hence the hilarity of the commentary that came out of Beijing in 2008). The London games cost upwards of 30 million pounds, and the London psychological investment was even greater (witness the furious backlash when idiot US presidential candidate Mitt Romney flew to London and disparaged the whole thing), and the great majority of viewers who happen to miss that winning archery shot can still feast their eyes on the city, the recently-renamed Big Ben, the Thames, and all.
Thus the timing couldn’t be better for Mark Ford’s lavish and intensely enjoyable production from the Belknap Press of Harvard University, London: A History in Verse (and it’s just faintly possible that those clever little raccoons at Belknap might have consulted a calendar when mulling when to release the book). Ford has searched the highways and back-alleys of the poetry world and brought together an anthology so great in scope and inviting in scale that it thunderously surpasses anything similar ever attempted. With a comprehensive Introduction by Ford and an extremely evocative design by Dean Bornstein, this is a volume to keep, to savor, and to re-savor.
In that comprehensive Introduction, Ford rightly reminds us that “To live in a city is to live with change” – but also continuity, so most of the stately old things that come first to your mind when you think “London poem” are here (Ford, blessings upon him, is not subversive) – we have Wyatt’s “Tagus, farewell” and Spenser’s “Prothalamion” and John Donne’s fourth Satire (“There is something inherently metropolitan in the poetry of Donne,” Ford tells us, and at that moment we know we can trust him completely). There are choice bits from Dryden, who in Annus Mirabilis refers to London as “empress of the northern clime,” and there’s Jonathan Swifts “A Description of a City Shower.” There’s pertinent Pope, an excerpt from Johnson, Blake’s chimney sweeper, some bits of Wordsworth, and almost the whole elbowing crowd of Romantics, including Keats as his most whimsical:
Souls of Poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
But there are items perhaps less well-known to the semi-mythical Common Reader, like Thomas Hardy’s funny The Coronation, in which he imagines all the dead and sleeping kings and queens of England having their Westminster rest disturbed the loudly banging preparations for Queen Victoria’s coronation. Queen Elizabeth declares that if she could go upstairs and take charge, she’d sort things out – only to have the typically sanguine Charles II remind her that’s impossible:
“If I were up there where the parsons sit,
In one of my gold robes, I’d see to it!”
“But you are not,” Charles chuckled. “You are here,
And never will know the sun again, my dear!”
Readers will expect Kipling, and Kipling fans will expect his sour mood when contemplating the debased filth of the capital in Partibus:
The sky, a greasy soup-tureen,
Shuts down atop my brow.
Yes, I have sighed for London Town
And I have got it now:
And half of it is fog and filth,
And half is fog and row.
But less familiar will be Kipling’s contemporary Amy Levy, whose London Poets hauntingly captures one of the intrusive feelings associated with living in any vast and very old metropolis – the silent, pressing weight of all those thousands of city-dwellers who’ve been there before you:
They trod the streets and squares where I now tread,
With weary hearts, a little while ago;
When, thin and grey, the melancholy snow
Clung to the leafless branches overhead;
Or when the smoke-veiled sky grew stormy-red
In autumn; with a re-arisen woe
Wrestled, what time the passionate spring winds blow;
And paced scorched stones in summer; – they are dead.
The sorrow of their souls to them did seem
As real as mine to me, as permanent.
Today, it is the shadow of a dream,
The half-forgotten breath of breezes spent.
So shall another soothe his woe supreme –
“No more he comes, who this way came and went.”
Ford refreshingly extends the reach of his book all the way up to the present, featuring, for example, the likes of Ahren Warner, who was born in 1986 and whose poem concludes the anthology. Its possibly the victim of a last-minute slip-up at the printers – the lines feature odd spacings between the words, nonsensical but, fortunately, easily correctable, and the poem itself is a loose-limbed and very good quick glimpse of the city’s teeming life:
Girl with ridiculous earrings why do you bother
to slap the boy we all assume it’s your boyfriend
and is lolling over that bus seat shouting
it’s a London thing. He is obviously a knob
but a happy one and that it seems to me
is the important though not unlocalisable thing
And Ford, himself a poet of some renown, has had the saving insight to break the ranks of renown in search of material for his book. He’s right to point out how many of the greatest English poets – Sidney, Marlowe, Herbert, Gray, Coleridge, Auden – never wrote an acceptable poem about London. Rather than fudge the matter or interpolate some unwilling verse into his ranks, Ford instead enlists the poetasters to make up the weight, and even better: he’s not afraid of bringing in a sub-poetaster hack or two, if they wrote something with a twinkle in its eye and a few coins in its purse. Thus, almost accidentally, we find ourselves briefly in the company of that obscure and merry hack John Bancks, who lived and drank and poxed in the first half of the 18th Century and did very little of any merit to equal his use of the last word in the opening stanza of his A Description of London:
Houses, churches, mixed together,
Streets unpleasant in all weather;
Prisons, palaces contiguous
Gates, a bridge, the Thames irriguous.
And it’s to Bancks we give the final word, the perfect refrain for the wary love London has inspired for two thousand years:
Many a beau without a shilling,
Many a widow not unwilling;
Many a bargain, if you strike it:
This is London! How d’ye like it?