Are these the best hymns to urban life? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
There are countless classic poems about the countryside, but what great poems have been written about the city and urban life? We’ve tried to include a range of cities here, so although there are three on London and two on New York, there’s also one on Paris, one about Oxford, one on Birmingham, a Glasgow poem, and one that sums up a whole host of (UK) towns and cities.
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.
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.
Alexander Smith, ‘Glasgow’.
City! I am true son of thine;
Ne’er dwelt I where great mornings shine
Around the bleating pens;
Ne’er by the rivulets I strayed,
And ne’er upon my childhood weighed
The silence of the glens.
Instead of shores where ocean beats
I hear the ebb and flow of streets …
Smith (1829-67), a member of the ‘Spasmodic School’ of poetry, spent his life in the city – a fact he mentions in this poem. The poets have sung of cottages and the countryside, Smith tells us, but he wants to sing of something different: ‘I know the tragic hearts of towns.’ Smith doesn’t shy away from the ‘gloom’ and ‘dread’ of the Scottish city, but nevertheless recognises the reality of the modern city as a fit subject for poetry.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Duns Scotus’s Oxford’.
Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped & poisèd powers …
In this poem by one of Victorian literature’s greatest and most idiosyncratic poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrates a different city from London: Oxford, ‘Towery city and branchy between towers’, looking back to the early days of the city’s university when the theologian Duns Scotus lived and studied there.
Sara Teasdale, ‘The Lights of New York’.
The lightning spun your garment for the night
Of silver filaments with fire shot thru,
A broidery of lamps that lit for you
The steadfast splendour of enduring light.
The moon drifts dimly in the heaven’s height,
Watching with wonder how the earth she knew
That lay so long wrapped deep in dark and dew,
Should wear upon her breast a star so white …
This poem is an example of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, and was one of four New York sonnets Teasdale (1884-1933) wrote in the summer of 1911. They all reflect Teasdale’s love of the city; we think ‘The Lights of New York’ is the finest of the four.
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.
Hope Mirrlees, Paris: A Poem. This extraordinary avant-garde poem was written in 1919 during the Paris Peace Conference and a labour strike, and published by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press a year later. It’s a remarkable poem, anticipating Eliot’s The Waste Land in its mixture of high culture (classical and literary allusion) with snatches of everyday conversation, and its typographical innovation is almost a first in English verse. Mirrlees’ hymn to the city of Paris remained out of print for much of the twentieth century, but is now available again in her Collected Poems or via a link on the Hope Mirrlees website.
Langston Hughes, ‘Second Generation: New York’. Probably the best-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1901-67) knew New York like few other poets at the time and wrote several classic poems about it. ‘Second Generation: New York’ is spoken by an invented New Yorker whose mother was Irish and father Polish, although Hughes – who was African-American – may have been drawing on his own complex heritage.
Louis MacNeice, ‘Birmingham’. MacNeice (1907-63), who is strongly associated with the ‘Poets of the Thirties’ who also included W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, lived in this industrial northern city in the 1930s and wrote this impressionistic poem about its sights and sounds. MacNeice captures the minute details of the heaving city: its train smoke, shop-girls, and traffic lights – whose green and red colours have never been described so vividly before!
Simon Armitage, ‘A Vision’. Not a poem about any city in particular, but rather a satire on the contrast between our idealistic hopes for the future and the somewhat less perfect reality, which often falls short of our expectations: ‘Cities like dreams’. Specifically, Simon Armitage uses the example of town planning and the ways in which the reality of the town, once built, failed to live up to the perfection embodied by the miniature model of the new town.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
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.