The (Nearly) Perfect Gift

London: A History in VerseVenice may be the most romantic city in the world; Paris the most beautiful; New York the most everything else. But, for this lover of Shakespeare’s language, London is the city with the most to offer.

Where else can you hear the Queen’s English–spoken by the Queen herself–echoing back from across the river with a resoundingly defiant, “Oi!”? I wonder, in the unlikely event Elizabeth II were in conversation with Keith Richards, whether or not an interpreter might be required. Such is the pageant of present day London, where “once below a time,” (Dylan Thomas) the language of Horace and Ovid was spoken on the newly forged streets of Empire, on the north bank of the Thames. All this long before the British Empire.

From those times of Londinium to these of the Millenium Bridge, there spans an epic worthy of Virgil. And while many an author has attempted such an august tome–Peter Ackroyd comes to mind–few, if any, poets have taken on such a daunting–one might say, Virgilian–task.

Just think, “London: A History in Verse.” Wouldn’t that be grand? Well, yes, it would be. In fact it is. For, such a book now exists. And, just in time for the holidays. But don’t go thinking of stuffing some unraveling stocking with it. I mean it weighs a fair amount. After all, it is an account of a two thousand year-old city. So if, like me, you, or someone you know, is a poetry-loving anglophile, this is the perfect gift–better than the keys to a new Land Rover.

At over seven hundred pages (roughly the equivalent of Crime and Punishment, and a lot more fun), “London: A History in Verse,” is an anthology of poems written, not by one august writer, but, rather, by seemingly as many varied voices throughout history as the city itself has produced.

Culling from the enormous volume of poetry written about the great city, Mark Ford edits the collection, which, as the title suggests, serves as a kind of history, much the same way Ackroyd’s “London,” is “a Biography.”

The book begins with an excerpt of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, wherein the poet writes “for King Richardes sake…” And ends with the musings of some twenty-something “shouting/ it’s a London thing. He is obviously a knob…”

From Gower to “knob,” this book covers it all. Well, most of it. There is at least one glaring omission. But, first, I’m reminded of one of my own poems from yesteryear. “From old to new/ we had a ball./ From Tower to Tube/ they had it all.”

As for that omission, nay, slight… How can one cover the history of London in verse without including something–anything–by Dylan Thomas? Why, his bloody name is etched in Westminster Abbey (in the very corner to which this blog owes its name–albeit sans apostrophe).

So rather than leaving you with a quote from the otherwise worthy volume in question, I will, instead, offer a–the–poem I feel ought to have more than merely made the cut, but, shamefully, didn’t.

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

Dylan Thomas



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