Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist. The flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying. A blackbird on a budding sycamore.
To speak of poetry depicting Britain is often to speak of the green and pleasant parts of the land. The urban is often cast as dark Satanic mills and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells ,whilst the rural places are celebrated—a host of scenic views, of golden daffodils.
But there’s inspiration and beauty to be found in the more civic depictions, those poems which can make us envisage cities in new light and even uncover the histories of a place.
William Wordsworth was atop a coach at 6am one summer morning when he wrote (and later mis-dated) Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802;
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
Can you imagine London so silent? Can you imagine the view from Westminster Bridge without the imposing modern buildings, without even the Houses of Parliament? It’s a poem from another world, a window into a city almost disappeared.
A View of Westminster Bridge and the Abbey from the South Side, William Anderson, 1818. Image: public domain.
Darker in its subject, though equally vivid in its imagery, is D.H. Lawrence’s 1916 two-part poem Embankment at Night, before the War. The uncomfortable juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, and the bleak circumstance of the poor as they huddle just beyond the golden lustre of Theatreland’s bright lights, is one that requires, sadly, less imagination today than a silent city.
There’s charity, though, in William Bowle’s 1876 poem, Greenwich Hospital;
Come to these peaceful seats, and think no more
Of cold, of midnight watchings, or the roar
Of Ocean tossing on his restless bed!
Come to these peaceful seats, ye who have bled
For honour, who have traversed the great flood,
Or on the battle’s front with stern eye stood,
When rolled its thunder, and the billows red
Oft closed, with sudden flashings, o’er the dead.
O, heavy are the sorrows that beset
Old age! and hard it is,—hard to forget
The sunshine of our youth, our manhood’s pride!
But here, O aged men! ye may abide
Secure, and see the last light on the wave
Of Time, which wafts you silent to your grave;
Like the calm evening ray, that smiles serene
Upon the tranquil Thames, and cheers the sinking scene.
Greenwich Hospital is today the University of Greenwich, its colonnades lined with students, rather than the retired sailors who received hospitality there for over 150 years. To think of such impressive buildings being built expressly for such a purpose is inspirational, even without the poem.
The Colonnade of Queen Mary's House, Greenwich, James Holland, 1833. Image: public domain.
Although many locales have changed over the years, it’s not always immediately obvious from the poem featuring them; we need to do our homework to understand them fully.
You might think of Vauxhall Bridge, or Vauxhall train station, as you read To A Lady Seen For A Few Moments At Vauxhall (1818) by John Keats – but the place it refers to is Vauxhall Gardens. Now a small park, it was then an extravagant pleasure garden that drew enormous crowds throughout its 200-year existence. Perhaps Keats saw the lady on a tree-lined promenade, perhaps at a raucous dance, perhaps whilst watching tightrope walkers; we can’t know the details, but it made such an impression that he was still writing about her four years later.
Vauxhall Gardens, showing the Grand Walk at the Entrance of the Garden and the Orchestra with the Music Playing, John S. Muller, after 1751. Image: public domain.
Poetic Places – a free app, made in collaboration between the British Library and TIME/IMAGE – aims to highlight these stories and moments and bring them out into today’s world. By notifying users when they physically stumble upon a place depicted in a poem, and by bringing together verse and visual art, the creators hope to give a renewed sense of place, to bring literature into everyday life in unexpected moments, to inspire new art.
The app in action. Image: Poetic Places.
These evocative urban poems explore the diversity, history, and complicated beauty of a city. The words take on new life and peculiar substance in the places we know, settling in our minds like memories of dreams.
Cities still inspire, and poets will continue to tell stories of the places and the people that make them in ways that no-one else can.