London Calling

London: A History in Verse edited by Mark Ford. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 784 pages. $35.
The cover of London: A History in Verse

For Virginia Woolf, the sounds of the streets of London formed a language of their own: “I stop in London sometimes, and hear feet shuffling. That’s the language, I think, that’s the phrase I should like to catch,” she wrote in an early draft of The Waves. Many poets who have written of London share this opinion, and a new anthology—London in Verse, edited by Mark Ford—reflects six-hundred years of the rich and heady language that they have chosen to describe their city: its rhythm, its pace, its stench; its people, their stench.

Lusty and hearty or mannered and refined, the language summoned to describe London is as diverse as the city itself. In his introduction, Ford refers to that “London thing” that makes the city what it is: ineffable, always changing, “assuming new forms for each new generation of Londoners.” As the tools available to the poet change from William Langland’s medieval Piers Plowman to Carol Ann Duffy’s “Woman Seated in the Underground, 1941,” poems become less occasion-oriented (no longer about, say, the impressive pomp of a coronation) and more expressionist ("I feel a certain way in London I don’t feel anywhere else"). But even if the poetry here employs a great range of styles and subjects, it is united by its powerful and evolving muse: London.

Plague, trade, fornication, prostitutes, love and garbage: these are some of the London poets’ favorite themes. Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in “Aurora Leigh,” “You city poets see such things / Not despicable.” Ben Johnson’s mock-epic On the Famous Voyage, in this vein, is a sludging black pudding of a poem, featuring the most scatological description of the subterranean River Fleet you’re ever likely to read, and surprising conjugations of the verb “to shit.” Several poets note the impressive sound of the city: Joanna Baillie, approaching London, hears “the roar of many wheels,” while Percy Shelley calls London “that great sea whose ebb and flow at once is deaf and loud.” Giving voice to the city that William Blake called a “human awful wonder of God,” poets nimbly speak as Cleopatra’s needle (Tennyson) or the River Thames (Kipling); or pen poems addressed to the Thames, such as one that declares London the sole beneficiary of a last will and testament (Isabella Whitney). An anonymous poet of the 1640s finds the echo of words within words to make a political statement: “What didst thou do when the King left Parliament? / Lament […] But if he comes not what becomes of London? / Undone.”

London in Verse also sheds light on changes in poetic form and tone over the years. Some of the writers use sallying heroic couplets to praise London (“Hail, London! Justly queen of cities crowned / For freedom, wealth, extent, and arts renowned,” Anon., 1739). Others are psychogeographers avant la lettre, like Michael Drayton’s “topographical poem,” "Poly-Olbion" (1612), in which the windows of London “seem to mock the star-bespeckled sighs.” Charlotte Mew’s wonderful proto-modernist “In Nunhead Cemetery” (1916) is a meditation on place, loss, and insanity. John Davidson’s “Thirty Bob A Week” is a late-Victorian monologue in the voice of a clerk in his own patois that attempts to convey a slice of lower middle-class life.

The anthology is organized by the author’s birthdates, in order, Ford writes, to allow for “a sense of the successive waves of the city’s history, as the eras leach into each other, marked, now and again by some singular crisis or decisive event.” But the curious reader is stymied by such cast-iron structure, and longs for alternate tables of contents, such as by geographic location or theme. Some propositions for the second edition: Poems involving the Hawking of Wares; Poems in the heroic register; Poems on how unpleasant London smells; Poems composed in or near or on Westminster; Poems about the Underground; etc.

Also missing is any kind of contextual material. Ford explains that he wanted to show “the way poetry refracts the political and cultural history of the city in a given period, and how particular historical events and social shifts are figured in the work of individual poets.” But unfortunately, the poems cannot perform all of this work on their own; they are badly in need of at least publication dates, if not mini-headings for each poet, as you find in the Norton Anthologies. Reading a twentieth-century war poem and trying to figure out which war it’s about is a bit like someone telling you to meet them on Oxford Street. Where, exactly? What number? Which cafe? This is to say nothing of the more obscure references in Spenser, Milton, Donne—references that in a collection of their work would be footnoted. London in Verse is a monumental work, but it feels unfinished.

And yet a collection that ranges from Chaucer to Dr Johnson, from to classic nursery rhymes to Lavinia Greenlaw cannot, finally, be more than nit-picked at. Eliot’s “unreal city” is transposed into over seven-hundred pages of joyous, raving, mannered, worried, passionate language, “the squalid and the sublime jostling each other for elbow room.” What could be more concrete than the city made word?

Lauren Elkin is the co-author (with Scott Esposito) of The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement, forthcoming in January 2013 from Zer0 Books. She lives in Paris and London.