London: A History in Verse
Mark Ford (ed.)
Harvard University/Belknap Press, $35 (cloth)

That the Circle Line lies at the center of London’s underground is a clue to London’s inherent circularity. Regent’s Park is twice girdled by roads, the Inner Circle and the Outer Circle. When, in Henry V, Shakespeare’s Prologue tells his audience at the Globe (that “wooden O”) they are “within the girdle of these walls,” he is gesturing beyond the theatre, to the historical City of London. The old city’s ruined walls are themselves now ringed by 21st-century Greater London, itself delineated by the M25 motorway, also called the London Orbital. And, in the 1940s, city planner Patrick Abercrombie suggested that London become a “circular inland city”; his designs reflected the character of London as it was, not just as it could be.

This circularity is not just geographic: it conditions London life. For Virginia Woolf traffic was “one sound, steel blue, circular.” Peter Ackroyd’s acclaimed history of London offered a case study in unexpected continuity, in how “we seem to have come full circle”: the Oasis Sports Centre on Endell Street, London’s central outdoor swimming pool, sits on the ancient site of a spring-sourced bath believed to have healing powers.

It is fitting, then, that Mark Ford’s momentous anthology London: A History in Verse, which comprises 364 poems and excerpts in 750-odd chronological pages, cycles us through repetitions in time and place. William Wordsworth’s “Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” may be the most famous poem inspired by the bridge, but it is not the first: Elizabeth Tollet wrote “On the Prospect from Westminster Bridge, March 1750” shortly after Charles Labelye’s structure was completed. Further on in London, John Agard imagines the distant camaraderie of two revolutionaries, Toussaint L’Ouverture writing to Wordsworth, “I have never walked on Westminster Bridge.” Again we find ourselves at the site when Michael Donaghy wonders how “unaided eyes could possibly connect / thirty years across Westminster bridge.” And, in Alice Oswald’s “Another Westminster Bridge,” we “stare / at water which is already elsewhere,” already, like us, moving on again, “away over the stone wing-bone of the city.” A wheeling book of aspirations and frustrations, London offers us a literary treasury: a record of the city, a roll of its events. 

One of the recurring stories this history of London circles back to is that of migration. Grace Nichols’s poem “Island Man” listens to the “dull North Circular roar // muffling muffling.” The poem focuses on a Londoner with “the sound of blue surf / in his head,” his migration repeating each time he “heaves himself // Another London day.” That experience in turn echoes earlier migrations from Britain’s rural environs, such as those recorded in William Langland’s medieval poem The Vision of Piers Plowman: “Persons and parisshe preestes pleyned hem to the bisshop… to have a licence and leve at London to dwelle.”

London developed by chance more than design. Its poets, though, have often been one step ahead of its governors. 

It is testament to Ford’s editorial range that both Nichols’s and Langland’s poems are included here. In what other anthology would imagist Richard Aldington and satirist John Betjeman both comment on “electric” London? To read such poets together is to hear how differently London is spoken—and how shared London experiences can be. The anonymous author of the 14th-century lyric “London Lickpenny,” a visitor tripped up by the city’s trickery, resurfaces in Simon Armitage’s “KX”:

Northerner, this is your stop. This longhouse
of echoing echoes and sooted glass,
this goth pigeon hangar, this diesel roost
is the end of the line. Brace and be brisk,
commoner, carry your heart like an egg
on a spoon

In casting London as a place of risk, of hostility, Armitage might almost be translating “London Lickpenny,” whose speaker is forced to “thrast thrugheout the thronge.” London does not roll out the red carpet for everyone.

While poets such as Robert Herrick trumpet cosmopolitan London“O Place! O People! Manners! framed to please / All nations, customs, kindreds, languages”others included here are more aware of London’s exclusions. Connie Bensley sees the first dashes of graffiti alongside racist sloganeering: “I smile out at the grimy wall / (Wogs sod off—Arsenal are shit).” Derek Walcott’s Omeros is excerpted, a stinging critique of London’s objectifying, imperial past, which remains visible when Fred D’Aguiar suffers “the usual inquisition” at the hands of Heathrow’s customs agents:

my passport photo’s too open-faced,
haircut wrong (an afro) for the decade;
the stamp, British Citizen not bold enough
for my liking and too much for theirs.

Daljit Nagra’s “Yobbos!” juxtaposes Victorian Pears’ soap advertisements—“lightening THE WHITE MAN’s burden”—with contemporary racism. Accosted by “some scruffy looking git” and labelled a “Paki shit,” Nagra’s reading of Paul Muldoon’s “sharp lemon-skinned / Collected Poems” earns him dubious protection, renders him “more British” than the “impossibly untranslatable” Irish.

By telling London’s history, including its history of conflicts, through poems, Ford suggests that poetry has shaped the city no less than politics, architecture, music, or commerce. We too rarely read poetry as history, even though we know Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales offers a glimpse of Southwark’s past and that John Keats was both a Romantic poet and a Cockney lad who wrote “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” (a location that, in one of this book’s pleasing circularities, returns in several poems). London: A History in Verse makes good upon its subtitle by showing us how poets who passed through London imagined it into being, at times conjuring up a future truer than they meant. Ben Jonson, writing in the late 1500s, satirically has a character propose, “We will survey the suburbs,” a task John Fuller is driven to in the 20th century (“Middlesex is mostly roundabouts”). Richard Aldington’s jolt as “the electric car jerks” recalls what W.F. Hudson elsewhere describes as “the muffled thunders of the Underground” but could also name the battery-powered automobiles idly charging in London’s Maida Vale today.

Such accidental prophesies remind us that London developed by chance more than design. Its poets, though, have often been one step ahead of its governors. In the 17th-century “London’s Resurrection,” Simon Ford writes of “a London under ground,” presenting London as a city of multiple layers, a city that, cormorant-like, constantly incorporates more and more into its nest. U.A. Fanthorpe (too little known outside the United Kingdom) discovers this same London centuries later, sensing how “At our feet they lie low, / The little fervent underground / Rivers of London.” Beneath Fleet Street, where for decades newspaper print rushed a current of words into London and out to the world, runs a silent river that surfaces only for those who know of its presence. In Isaac Rosenberg’s “Fleet Street,” it bubbles beneath his words: “my soul doth with the current float.” London’s history renders the fancy literal: “A shadow leaves such trace.” Too often read only as a war poet, Rosenberg emerges here as an urban poet, a writer about town.

There’s another, less often told, London that Ford uncovers here. Violence steeps the city.

But this anthology is not a simple paean to London. A line from Shelley reverses a familiar trope: “Hell is a city much like London—.”Anne Askew, the first female voice we hear, speaks from prison, while the master metaphysician John Donne turns social commentator to recount a paradox in which “pleasure’s dearth our city doth possess / Our theatres are filled with emptiness.” Beneath the “great tawny weltering fog” seen by Elizabeth Barrett Browning lies a muffled flow of dismay and despair. London: A History in Verse is attuned to this minor key, and when John Keats’s most famous “Ode” appears, it is not his words we read but Anne Ridler’s matter-of-fact take on them: “Keats fancied that the nightingale was happy / Because it sang.” John Ashbery similarly punctures any remaining London bombast:

The Tower of London

isn’t really a tower. It’s a square
building with towers at each
of the four corners.

In Ashbery’s hands, London gets jovially skewered.

There’s another, less often told, London that Ford uncovers here. Violence steeps the city. When Sylvia Plath describes how “On this bald hill the new year hones its edge,” her image is one of whetstones as much as arid nature. Stephen Spender’s lines on The Blitz—“pavements were blown up, exposing wires, / And the gas mains burned blue and gold”—could all too easily describe the events hesitatingly and fittingly written about by David Kennedy in “The Bombs, July 2005.” Iain Sinclair experiences one of London’s many riots as “a mob of rumours from s. of the river / challenging the teak and shattering glass.” His lines, personifying rumors to manifest their effects on the well-to-do North (a London tradition dating back at least as far as the Peasant Revolt, which Chaucer depicts), indicate that London violence is not easily attributable, though we try—often unfairly—to assign blame. At times, it is the rumors themselves that do the most damage. Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)” speaks out against an institutionalised racism that relies on rumor and fancy.

. . .

Whether we want it or not, we find all life in London, and all one needs to know of living in London is in these pages, as we hear “the plashy / Colorature of many languages” (Carol Rumens), see how “London was still a kaleidoscope / Of names and places any jolt could scramble” (Ted Hughes), and walk with Thom Gunn “between the pastel boutiques / of Notting Hill and the less defined /windier reaches of the Harrow Road.” London may be one of those rarest anthologies: a gathering of poetry that outlives its contemporary moment, that is of interest not only for what it tells us about London now, or poetry now, but because it tells a live story.

Not only “a history in verse” but also a history of verse, London presents a marvelous sampling of eight centuries of writing in English, accompanied by a masterful introduction that is itself a significant contribution to understanding London—noting how the city’s history has shaped its verse even as that verse anticipates and guides London’s future.

Ford’s assembly of poems includes a high percentage of the major influences on British poetry over the past centuries (John Milton is here, Alexander Pope, Wilfred Owen, Stevie Smith, Philip Larkin, too), but it also introduces us to poets such as Amy Levy and A. S. J. Tessimond (a writer of post-Symbolist, Dali-esque images such as, “The fountain of the escalator / curls at the crest, / breaks and scatters”) who will be new to many. The latest London commentators include Tom Chivers, who renders the city in fragments, “High noon expectancy. / Tower Hill / Limehouse / Toytown Poplar,” and Heather Phillipson, who would “rather lap the tarmac escarpment of Archway Roundabout / wearing only a rucksack” than read more German phenomenology. Their takes on city space suggest there’s plenty to get excited about in contemporary verse.

Of course, histories, like anthologies, practice omission. There are, even in these many pages, those whose absence we might regret: what of Frances Presley’s brilliant “Underwriters,” an excerpt from Sean Borodale’s singular Notes for an Atlas, something from Simon Smith’s London Bridge or by Londoners such as Dorothea Smartt and Bernadine Evaristo? That the list of contemporary poets who are absent from this anthology could itself fill paragraphs is one comment on the proliferation—and variety—of poetry in the United Kingdom. Yet the point at which we recognize that other voices have sounded London’s song is the point at which we remember American poet Charles Olson’s insistence that history, understood via its original Greek historin, involves finding out for oneself. We are the lucky recipients of Ford’s compelling history, his mining of Anglophone poetry. If there is more to say, other London stories to tell, they are ours to find and take up.

And that is where London ceases to be a circular experience, becomes more like a spiral or a gyre. Eventually, its circularity eludes us: to travel the Circle Line one still has to change at Edgware, breaking the line. In the final words of this compendium, Ahren Warner’s, we are reminded that London is always a double spiral of the personal and the communal: “the London thing,” Warner concludes, “is the important           though not localisable           thing.” London’s been here before, but we’re new to it.

Case in point: in Sarah Maguire’s majestic “Almost the Equinox,” we encounter two (temporary) Londoners at St. Paul’s Cathedral, its circular dome a metaphor for London’s own circularity. Yet as the “huge nave / reminds you of the Great Mosque in Kabul—” it also reminds you that, in London, you are always close to being somewhere else. “Next convergence, nothing will be left of us / leaning on this bridge of wires and tempered steel”: gone full circle, we’re back to the bridge, but we’ll soon be gone again (“away over the stone wing-bone,” perhaps). To enter London through its poems and histories is to gamble connection and risk departure. Would-be Londoner: this is your stop.


Photograph: Martino’s doodles/flickr