London in Poetry and Prose

London in Poetry and Prose

by Neil Pittaway

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This anthology is a celebration of the city of London: ‘Noisy, stimulating, deadening, filthy, mysterious, tolerant, racist, crime-ridden, saint-haunted, ancient, up-to-the-minute, oppressive, liberating, crowded, lonely, addictive, and green-and-gardened, London is a microcosm of the World.’ These words, from Anna Adams’ Foreword, give a


This anthology is a celebration of the city of London: ‘Noisy, stimulating, deadening, filthy, mysterious, tolerant, racist, crime-ridden, saint-haunted, ancient, up-to-the-minute, oppressive, liberating, crowded, lonely, addictive, and green-and-gardened, London is a microcosm of the World.’ These words, from Anna Adams’ Foreword, give a taste of the breadth of subject-matter and tone to be enjoyed in this magnificent illustrated anthology. Writing from the Middle Ages to the present is divided into themes including ‘The Weather in the Streets’, ‘The Poor and the Rich’, ‘The Countryman in Town’, ‘The Recent Wars’ and – unavoidably – ‘London Transport’.

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Enitharmon Press
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London in Poetry and Prose

By Anna Adams

Enitharmon Press

Copyright © 2002 Anna Adams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-900564-03-8



I behold London, a Human awful wonder of God.

William Blake, Jerusalem


    Rise Up, Thou Monstrous Ant-hill on the Plain

    Rise up, thou monstrous ant-hill on the plain
    Of a too busy world! Before me flow,
    Thou endless stream of men and moving things!
    Thy every-day appearance, as it strikes –
    With wonder heightened, or sublimed by awe –
    On strangers, of all ages; the quick dance
    Of colours, lights, and forms; the deafening din;
    The comers and the goers face to face,
    Face after face; the string of dazzling wares,
    Shop after shop, with symbols, blazoned names,
    And all the tradesman's honours overhead:
    Here, fronts of houses, like a title-page
    With letters huge inscribed from top to toe;
    Stationed above the door, like guardian saints,
    There, allegoric shapes, female or male,
    Or physiognomies of real men,
    Land-warriors, kings, or admirals of the sea,
    Boyle, Shakespeare, Newton, or the attractive
    Of some quack-doctor, famous in his day.

    Meanwhile the roar continues, till at length,
    Escaped as from an enemy, we turn
    Abruptly into some sequestered nook,
    Still as a sheltered place when winds blow loud!
    At leisure, thence, through tracts of thin resort,
    And sights and sounds that come at intervals,
    We take our way. A raree-show is here,
    With children gathered round; another street
    Presents a company of dancing dogs,
    Or dromedary, with an antic pair
    Of monkeys on his back; a minstrel band
    Of Savoyards; or, single and alone,
    An English ballad-singer. Private courts,
    Gloomy as coffins, and unsightly lanes
    Thrilled by some female vendor's scream, belike
    The very shrillest of all London cries,
    May then entangle our impatient steps;
    Conducted through those labyrinths, unawares,
    To privileged regions and inviolate,
    Where from their airy lodges studious lawyers
    Look out on waters, walks, and gardens green.



It is fearful! It is mad!

It is fearful! It is mad! I am quite giddy and confused. London is the grandest and most complicated monster on the face of the earth. How can I compress into one letter what I have experienced in the last three days! I hardly remember the chief events, and yet I dare not keep a diary, for then I should have to see less of life, and that I do not wish. On the contrary, I wish to take everything that offers itself. Things toss and whirl about me as if I were in a vortex, and I am whirled along with them. Not in the last six months in Berlin have I seen so many contrasts and such variety as in these three days. Just turn to the right from my lodging, walk down Regent Street and see the wide, bright thoroughfare with its arcades (alas! it is again enveloped in a thick fog today) and the shops with signs as big as a man, and the stage-coaches piled up with people, and a row of vehicles left behind by the pedestrians because in one place the smart carriages have crowded the way! See how a horse rears before a house because his rider has acquaintances there, and how men are used for carrying advertisements on which the graceful achievements of accomplished cats are promised, and the beggars, and the negroes, and those fat John Bulls with their slender, beautiful daughters hanging on their arms. Ah, those daughters! However, do not be alarmed, there is no danger in that quarter, neither in Hyde Park, so rich in ladies, where I drove about yesterday in a fashionable manner with Mme. Moscheles, nor at the concerts, nor at the Opera, (for I have already been to all those places); only at the corners and crossings is there any danger, and there I sometimes say softly to myself, in a well-known voice: 'Take care lest you get run over'. Such confusion, such a whirl! But I will become historical, and quietly relate my doings, else you will learn nothing about me.

* * *

Could you but see the highly respectable, fog-enveloped street and hear the deplorable voice with which a beggar down there pours forth his ditty (he will soon be drowned out by the street-vendors) and could you suspect that from here to the City is a three-quarters -of-an-hour drive, and that along the whole way, at every cross street of which one catches a glimpse, the uproar is the same, if not far greater, and that one has then traversed only about a quarter of residential London, then you might understand how it is that I am half distracted. But I must be historical!


    from Jerusalem

    Hampstead, Highgate, Finchley, Hendon, Muswell
      hill rage loud
    Before Bromion's iron Tongs & glowing Poker
      reddening fierce;
    Hertfordshire glows with fierce Vegetation; in the
    The Oak frowns terrible, the Beech & Ash & Elm
    Among the Spiritual fires; loud the Corn-fields
      thunder along,
    The Soldier's fife, the Harlot's shriek, the Virgin's
      dismal groan,
    The Parent's fear, the Brother's jealousy, the
      Sister's curse,
    Beneath the Storms of Theotormon, & the
      thund'ring Bellows
    Heaves in the hand of Palamabron, who in
      London's darkness
    Before the Anvil watches the bellowing flames:
    The Hammer loud rages in Rintrah's strong grasp,
      swinging loud
    Round from heaven to earth, down falling with
      heavy blow
    Dead on the Anvil, where the red hot wedge
      groans in pain.
    He quenches it in the black trough of his Forge:
      London's River
    Feeds the dread Forge, trembling & shuddering
      along the Valleys.


    London Inside and Outside

    Looked back on happily, the ivy-hung,
    back-wall-embowered garden of our
    pied-à-terre and domicile in Chelsea
    seems oddly like some dream of living
    halfway down the well that sheltered
    Charles Dodgson's Elsie, Lacie
    and Tillie – with those geraniums
    in urns, that lily-of-the-valley
    bed not quite in bloom, those churring
    ringdoves, those thrushes murderously
    foraging for earthworms: an exterior
    so self-contained, a view so inward
    that though at night we'd note
    faint window-glimmerings eclipsed by ivy,
    we seemed to have no neighbors either
    to spy on or be spied on by.

    Those strolls at dusk, the sidewalks
    puddled underfoot, the streetlamps
    an aloof processional (a footfall
    once or twice, then silence)
    at the hour not of the pulling down
    of shades but rather of the drawing
    in of curtains on their rods, with
    an occasional small, to-be-savored
    lapse – the glimpse in solitude
    of the young woman meditatively
    taking off her coat: or of
    the table laid, the TV
    in the dining room tuned to the news,
    a South-Sea-bubble porthole open
    on the mysteries of domicile,
    of anchorage, of inside-outside!

    The night we took the Underground
    to Covent Garden, we found the foyer
    at the opera a roofed-in waterfall
    of crystal, the staircase we sat on
    at the interval to eat our ices
    carpet-luscious (even to the shod
    sole) as a bed of crimson mosses,
    the rose-red lampshades erotic
    as hothouse hibiscus. Floated
    overhead, a firmament of gilt
    and turquoise; as that goes dim,
    beneath the royal monogram the bell jar
    of illusion lifts, and yet again
    we're inside-outside: Norina's
    rooftop vista (the duenna
    furiously knitting) of a hot-bright
    Bay of Naples. In the obscurity
    of our neck-craning balcony, we
    snuggled undetected. Outside there waited
    a shivering, rain-speckled exodus among
    dark gardens of the inevitable
    umbrellas going up.

    (b. 1934)


    Scarcely two hours back in the country
    and I'm shopping in East Finchley High Road
    in a cotton skirt, a cardigan, jandals –
    or flipflops as people call them here,
    where February's winter. Aren't I cold?
    The neighbours in their overcoats are
    at my smiles and not at my bare toes:
    they know me here.
      I hardly know myself,
    yet. It takes me until Monday evening,
    walking from the office after dark
    to Westminster Bridge. It's cold, it's foggy,
    the traffic's as abominable as ever,
    and there across the Thames is County Hall,
    that uninspired stone body, floodlit.
    It makes me laugh. In fact, it makes me



      The fields from Islington to Marybone,
    To Primrose Hill and Saint John's Wood,
      Were builded over with pillars of gold;
    And there Jerusalem's pillars stood.

        William Blake, Jerusalem

    T. S. ELIOT

The Burial of the Dead

      Unreal City,
    Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
    A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
    I had not thought death had undone so many.
    Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
    And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
    Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
    To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
    With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
    There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying:
    'You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
    'That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
    'Has it begun to sprout! Will it bloom this year?
    'Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
    'Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
    'Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
    'You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon

        from The Waste Land


    from Jerusalem

    I behold London; a Human awful wonder of God!
    He says: 'Return, Albion, return! I give myself for
    My Streets are my Ideas of Imagination.
    Awake, Albion, awake! and let us awake up
    My Houses are Thoughts; my Inhabitants
    The children of my thoughts, walking within my
    Shut from my nervous form which sleeps upon the
      verge of Beulah
    In dreams of darkness, while my vegetating blood
      in veiny pipes,
    Rolls dreadful thro' the Furnaces of Los, and the
      Mills of Satan.
    For Albion's sake and for Jerusalem thy Emanation
    I give myself, and these my brethren give
      themselves for Albion.'

    So spoke London, immortal Guardian! I heard in
      Lambeth's shades:
    In Felpham I heard and saw the Vision of Albion:
    I write in South Molton Street, what I both see
      and hear
    In regions of Humanity, in London's opening

    * * *

    There is a Grain of Sand in Lambeth that Satan
      cannot find,
    Nor can his Watch Fiends find it: 'tis translucent &
      has many Angles:
    But he who finds it will find Oothoon's palace; for
    Opening into Beulah, every angle is a lovely
    But should the Watch Fiends find it, they would
      call it Sin
    And lay its Heavens & their inhabitants in blood of

    * * *

    'Highgate's heights & Hampstead's, to Poplar,
      Hackney & Bow,
    'To Islington & Paddington & the Brook of Albion's
    'We builded Jerusalem as a City & a Temple; from
    'We began our Foundations, lovely Lambeth! O
      lovely Hills
    'Of Camberwell, we shall behold you no more in
      glory & pride,
    'For Jerusalem lies in ruins & the Furnaces of Los
      are builded there.
    'You are now shrunk up to a narrow Rock in the
      midst of the Sea;
    'But here we build Babylon on Euphrates, compell'd
      to build
    'And to inhabit, our Little-ones to clothe in armour
      of the gold
    'Of Jerusalem's Cherubims & to forge them swords
      of her Altars.
    'I see London, blind & age bent, begging thro' the
    'Of Babylon, led by a child; his tears run down his

    (b. 1931)

    The Cities

      I was born in one of London's various cities.
    And travelled through others that I never could
    Explore except from an upper-deck front seat,
    In the time I was a nineteen-thirties child.

      Grown up from that, I learned to use the maps
    Of more of them; but forgot to understand
    What my own city told me, that outdated place
    I thought I had left behind. When I go back now,

       I can feel inside myself something waiting,
    By time and the Red Routes and the roundabouts,
    By the deaths of faces I grew up among
    And lost the strength to know.
      I like to think

      – Or fear to think it – that one day my city will
    Disclose itself, its faces reclaim their focus,
    Its culverted rivers flood the hypermarkets,
    The cinema organs rise through the motorways.

    W. H. AUDEN

    The Londoners

    A city is the creation of the human will.
    Upon the natural life of the field,
    Determined by the radiations of the sun and the
      swing of the seasons,
    Man imposes a human space,
    A human skyline,
    A human time,
    A human order.
    A city is not a flower.
    It does not grow right by itself.
    A human creation,
    It needs the human powers of intelligence and
    Without them it becomes only a monument to
      human greed
    Out of control, like a malignant tumour,
    Stunting and destroying life.

    * * *

    And the parks and open spaces inside the city:
    Battersea Park and Bostall Woods,
    Clapham and Tooting Commons,
    Peckham Rye and the island gardens of Poplar,
    The Regent Canal and the Round Pond of
      respectable Kensington,
    And pram-covered Hampstead.
    Areas of light and air where the bands boom on
      Sunday afternoons.
    Space for strollers,
      Liberty for lovers,
      Room for rest,
    Places for play.

    * * *

    It belongs to them, to make it what they choose
    For democracy means faith in the ordinary man
      and woman,
      in the decency of average human nature.
    Here then in London build the city of the free.


Excerpted from London in Poetry and Prose by Anna Adams. Copyright © 2002 Anna Adams. Excerpted by permission of Enitharmon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Anna Adams was born in West London in 1926. She studied art at Harrow Art School and Hornsey College of Art, and in 1947 married the painter Norman Adams. She has worked as an art teacher, a casual farm labourer, a pottery designer, and latterly as a freelance writer, while still drawing, painting and making terracottas. She passed away on 3 October 2011.

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