The greatest London poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poetry is perhaps more readily associated with the natural world and the countryside than the world of smog and streets, shops and tower blocks, that we call the city. But throughout the history of English literature, famous poets have been drawn to the city of London as a subject for poetry – and so below we have chosen ten of the best poems about London, from the Middle Ages to the modern age. What do you think are the finest London poems?
1. Oliver Tearle, ‘London is the Capital of Great Britain’.
For now, from wall to wall you take your steps:
a case of no belongings, stashed under the bed
and ready to begin the whole rabid
rat race at a hat’s drop, when the music stops …
Before we go back through the centuries, here is a contemporary poem about the rental property situation in London and how it’s so difficult for many people – particularly younger people at the bottom of the property ladder – to buy their own place. They get caught up in the endless cycle of renting, not knowing when they will have to move out and find somewhere else.
The well-known phrase ‘rat race’ is suggested by the poem’s title, which is meant to be a renter’s justification for living in such an expensive city: hence the play on ‘capital’ in the title of the poem.
2. William Dunbar, ‘To the City of London’.
London, thou art of townes A per se.
Soveraign of cities, seemliest in sight,
Of high renoun, riches and royaltie;
Of lordis, barons, and many a goodly knyght;
Of most delectable lusty ladies bright;
Of famous prelatis, in habitis clericall;
Of merchauntis full of substaunce and of myght:
London, thou art the flour of Cities all …
‘Soveraign of cities, semeliest in sight’: so the Scottish poet William Dunbar (c. 1460-c. 1530) addresses London in this poem in praise of the capital. Nearly 500 years before Prince Charles disparagingly referred to the extension to the National Gallery as a ‘monstrous carbuncle’, Dunbar was favourably describing the whole city as a ‘myghty carbuncle’, a rare gem.
3. Anonymous, ‘The Cries of London’.
The author of this seventeenth-century poem about the shouts and cries that could be heard in London streets (especially at one of the city’s markets) has been lost in the mists of time. But really, the poem belongs to the people of London, whose voices can be hard in its lines: ‘Here’s fine rosemary, sage and thyme. / Come buy my ground ivy.’ As the poet declares: ‘Let none despise the merry, merry cries / Of famous London-town!’
4. Samuel Johnson, ‘London’.
Though grief and fondness in my breast rebel,
When injur’d Thales bids the town farewell,
Yet still my calmer thoughts his choice commend,
I praise the hermit, but regret the friend,
Who now resolves, from vice and London far,
To breathe in distant fields a purer air …
Johnson (1709-84), best-remembered for his monumental Dictionary of the English Language (1755), once said, ‘When a man is tired of London, he’s tired of life.’
No sooner had the young Johnson arrived in London from the provinces, intent on making his name as a writer, than he set about penning London (1738), this long poem in praise of the city, ‘this grand imperial town’. Johnson deliberately misspelled the name of the publisher of the poem so that readers would think it was a pirated copy. The ruse worked: the poem sold well and attracted the praise of no less a figure than Alexander Pope.
5. William Blake, ‘London’.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe …
A powerful indictment of the corruption of London – from prostitution to the exploitation of young boys put to work as chimney-sweeps – Blake’s ‘London’ is hardly a celebration of the capital, but its evocation of the ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe’ found in every Londoner’s face makes this one of the most famous of London poems.
6. William Wordsworth, ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’.
This sonnet, written in 1802, praises the beauty of London in the early morning light, as the poet stands on Westminster Bridge admiring the surrounding buildings. London, even by the early nineteenth century, was a world of industrialisation, smog (that is, smoky fog, created by industrial activity), as well as the centre of government and empire, two things that came under heavy scrutiny by the early Romantic poets. Yet the London of early morning is serene and still, and it is this quiet scene that Wordsworth praises here.
7. Amy Levy, ‘A London Plane-Tree’.
Among her branches, in and out,
The city breezes play;
The dun fog wraps her round about;
Above, the smoke curls grey.
Others the country take for choice,
And hold the town in scorn;
But she has listened to the voice
On city breezes borne …
Linda Hunt Beckman said of Amy Levy (1861-89) that she ‘was one of the poets who pioneered symbolist methods in England, and she seems to have turned to symbolism’s poetics with increasing frequency toward the end of her life’. She committed suicide, aged just 27, having suffered from depression throughout her life; Oscar Wilde was among those who eulogised her in print following her death.
A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse, published posthumously in 1889, shows how Levy took her inspiration from late Victorian London, using symbolist techniques she had learnt from French writers. ‘A London Plane-Tree’ harbours a double meaning: both the tree known as a London plane and such a tree found in the city of London.
8. Louise Imogen Guiney, ‘The Lights of London’.
Her booths begin to flare; and gases bright
Prick door and window; all her streets obscure
Sparkle and swarm with nothing true nor sure,
Full as a marsh of mist and winking light;
Heaven thickens over, Heaven that cannot cure
Her tear by day, her fevered smile by night …
Guiney was born in Boston to an Irish-Catholic father who was a general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Her Catholic faith informs much of her poetry.
This sonnet, which appeared in Guiney’s 1898 volume England and Yesterday, evokes London as night comes on, and was written around 20 years before the modernist T. S. Eliot began to write about similar scenes. ‘Her booths begin to flare; and gases bright / Prick door and window’ is a particularly acute observation.
9. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
One of the most famous poetic evocations of London in the twentieth century is found in Eliot’s long modernist masterpiece, The Waste Land, published in 1922. Whether it’s his depiction of the litter-strewn Thames, the crowds of morning commuters flowing over London Bridge, or the sounds and sights of the city’s churches, The Waste Land captures the essence (or essences) of modern London in some very memorable phrases.
10. Louis MacNeice, ‘London Rain’.
This masterly MacNeice poem, written against the backdrop of impending war, might be considered WWII’s response to Edward Thomas’s ‘Rain’, written during the First World War. Like Thomas, MacNeice uses the rain pouring down outside as a springboard for meditations about life, death, war, and the numinous and religious.
Continue your poetry odyssey with these great city poems, these classic drinking poems, these great poems about the moon, and this pick of the best poems about the English landscape. Or remain in London with these classic literary facts about the city. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Sketch of London Bridge made in 1616 by Claes Van Visscher, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): London Skyline Panorama from New Zealand High Commission by Christine Matthews via geograph.co.uk.