London: A History in Verse

Overview

Called “the flour of Cities all,” London has long been understood through the poetry it has inspired. Now poet Mark Ford has assembled the most capacious and wide-ranging anthology of poems about London to date, from Chaucer to Wordsworth to the present day, providing a chronological tour of urban life and of English literature.

Nearly all of the major poets of British literature have left some poetic record of London: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, ...

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Overview

Called “the flour of Cities all,” London has long been understood through the poetry it has inspired. Now poet Mark Ford has assembled the most capacious and wide-ranging anthology of poems about London to date, from Chaucer to Wordsworth to the present day, providing a chronological tour of urban life and of English literature.

Nearly all of the major poets of British literature have left some poetic record of London: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and T. S. Eliot. Ford goes well beyond these figures, however, to gather significant verse of all kinds, from Jacobean city comedies to nursery rhymes, from topical satire to anonymous ballads. The result is a cultural history of the city in verse, one that represents all classes of London’s population over some seven centuries, mingling the high and low, the elegant and the salacious, the courtly and the street smart. Many of the poems respond to large events in the city’s history—the beheading of Charles I, the Great Fire, the Blitz—but the majority reflect the quieter routines and anxieties of everyday life through the centuries.

Ford’s selections are arranged chronologically, thus preserving a sense of the strata of the capital’s history. An introductory essay by the poet explores in detail the cultural, political, and aesthetic significance of the verse inspired by this great city. The result is a volume as rich and vibrant and diverse as London itself.

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  • London: A History in Verse
    London: A History in Verse  

Editorial Reviews

Sunday Telegraph

A magnificent collection revealing [London] in all its splendor and squalor.
— Mark Sanderson

Evening Standard

Here is a rich, poetic evocation of [London] by one who is himself a learned poet; and dull would he be of soul who did not find something to enjoy in its voluminous bulk.
— A. N. Wilson

The Economist
No other city so inspires and infuriates poets like London… Spanning seven centuries, this fascinating new collection features Wordsworth and Pope alongside lesser-known and even anonymous poets, all of them moved by the city's labyrinthine streets and smells, sounds and textures. The volume includes an outbreak of plague, the Great Fire, the deposition of Charles I, the crowning of Charles II, two world wars and the introduction of the London Underground, all of it conveyed through the prism of poetry. It makes for a thrilling read… A wonderfully eclectic collection, which sees ballads and poems from popular pamphlets jostling alongside more meditative, contemplative works. There are many unknown gems, such as a rare poem by George Eliot ('In a London Drawingroom') and work from the under-appreciated Stevie Smith… Poems by Thorn Gunn and W.S. Graham, and the contemporary work of Seamus Heaney and Lavinia Greenlaw, prove that London is still a rich source of material. Both a history of London and a clever guide to some overlooked works, this volume is as unexpected and as dazzling as the metropolis itself.
Daily Telegraph

[A] wonderful and ceaselessly evocative anthology of London verse. All the way from 14th-century William Langland and Chaucer to the present, we hear echoes, and see reflections… This vast volume is a guide to the city's authentically enduring soul.
— Sinclair McKay

The Independent

[A] seething, clamorous megalopolis of a London anthology… I have never come across a London anthology (or any warehouse of urban poetry) as rich, as bold, as multifarious as this… Olympic visitors should lug this brick back home for a pungent souvenir of the original 'maximum city' in all its grot and grandeur.
— Boyd Tonkin

History Today

Traces an enchanting journey round the canonical to the quirky, from love lyrics, the cries of old London, ballads and limericks to satirical verses and epics.
— Juliet Gardiner

Weekend Australian

This anthology is as much about how history is made by words, and how we remember, as it is about the poetry. If it is a history it is unapologetically composed of shards and fragments. But it is possible to glimpse something like a spirit of place; the splendid flashing temperament of a wild animal. For those unwilling to detach history from narrative, this great sprawling collection offers multifarious delights on their own terms.
— Felicity Plunkett

Books & Culture

[A] superb book dedicated to Londons both past and present… London: A History in Verse, edited by Mark Ford, will engage not only poetry lovers but anyone interested in a nearly seven-century poetic record of how London's citizens and visitors have interpretively framed this city… This ample and handsomely produced book won't leave any readers feeling cheated. Ford takes care to reflect a contemporary London that is a global city and a postcolonial capital as well. Instead of a monotone 'London English,' different demotic voices reflect today's cosmopolis.
— Brett Foster

Los Angeles Times

This elegant selection of poets begins in the 14th century and ends in the present day.
— Nick Owchar

Country Life

[A] gold [medal] goes to London: A History in Verse, edited by Mark Ford. This beautifully produced, doorstop of an anthology runs from the 14th century to the present day.
— Michael Murray-Fennell

Open Letters Monthly

Lavish and intensely enjoyable… Ford has searched the highways and back-alleys of the poetry world and brought together an anthology so great in scope and inviting in scale that it thunderously surpasses anything similar ever attempted… This is a volume to keep, to savor, and to re-savor.
— Steve Donoghue

Charles Simic
This marvelous anthology ranging over six centuries about one of the great cities of the world is not only a delight to read, but also a revelation: Who would have suspected that there were so many memorable poems written about London by poets one tends to identify with other interests? Starting with Mark Ford's informative and thoroughly-enjoyable introduction, we go from surprise to surprise turning the pages of this book, very much like someone taking in the sights of a city he was not familiar with, or has long known, and is now discovering to his astonishment, as if for the first time.
Frances Wilson
This vivid, vibrant and vital anthology takes us into the heart and history of Eliot's 'unreal city,' poem by poem. Mark Ford has gathered together poems born of London, in conversation with London, in combat with London, in awe of London, most of which were first published in London, centre of print and power. Covering six and a half centuries of wandering, whoring, watching, drinking, dancing, praying, building, courting, and cursing, here can be found Wordsworth's 'endless stream of men and moving things,' even when, as Fleur Adcock puts it, 'the traffic's as abominable as ever.' Packed as the Underground, this is as essential a guide to London as the A-Z.
Zadie Smith
A volume that holds a poetic mirror up to London - and how does she look? Sublime and squalid, high-born and street-smart, worthy of a sonnet and fit only for doggerel. This irresistible collection captures 600 years of the city's vibrant many-voiced chorus. A gem.
Sunday Telegraph - Mark Sanderson
A magnificent collection revealing [London] in all its splendor and squalor.
Evening Standard - A. N. Wilson
Here is a rich, poetic evocation of [London] by one who is himself a learned poet; and dull would he be of soul who did not find something to enjoy in its voluminous bulk.
Daily Telegraph - Sinclair McKay
[A] wonderful and ceaselessly evocative anthology of London verse. All the way from 14th-century William Langland and Chaucer to the present, we hear echoes, and see reflections… This vast volume is a guide to the city's authentically enduring soul.
The Independent - Boyd Tonkin
[A] seething, clamorous megalopolis of a London anthology… I have never come across a London anthology (or any warehouse of urban poetry) as rich, as bold, as multifarious as this… Olympic visitors should lug this brick back home for a pungent souvenir of the original 'maximum city' in all its grot and grandeur.
History Today - Juliet Gardiner
Traces an enchanting journey round the canonical to the quirky, from love lyrics, the cries of old London, ballads and limericks to satirical verses and epics.
Weekend Australian - Felicity Plunkett
This anthology is as much about how history is made by words, and how we remember, as it is about the poetry. If it is a history it is unapologetically composed of shards and fragments. But it is possible to glimpse something like a spirit of place; the splendid flashing temperament of a wild animal. For those unwilling to detach history from narrative, this great sprawling collection offers multifarious delights on their own terms.
Books & Culture - Brett Foster
[A] superb book dedicated to Londons both past and present… London: A History in Verse, edited by Mark Ford, will engage not only poetry lovers but anyone interested in a nearly seven-century poetic record of how London's citizens and visitors have interpretively framed this city… This ample and handsomely produced book won't leave any readers feeling cheated. Ford takes care to reflect a contemporary London that is a global city and a postcolonial capital as well. Instead of a monotone 'London English,' different demotic voices reflect today's cosmopolis.
Los Angeles Times - Nick Owchar
This elegant selection of poets begins in the 14th century and ends in the present day.
Country Life - Michael Murray-Fennell
[A] gold [medal] goes to London: A History in Verse, edited by Mark Ford. This beautifully produced, doorstop of an anthology runs from the 14th century to the present day.
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
Lavish and intensely enjoyable… Ford has searched the highways and back-alleys of the poetry world and brought together an anthology so great in scope and inviting in scale that it thunderously surpasses anything similar ever attempted… This is a volume to keep, to savor, and to re-savor.
New York Review of Books - Nick Laird
[A] superb anthology… Ford's collection shows the development of particular city-sensibilities: the hedonistic, jaded, nostalgic, urbane. Oppositions are played out as much between the classic dichotomies of country and town as by London's own inbuilt contradictions (wealth and poverty, pleasure and pain, fear and wonder)… By so assiduously unpacking the metropolis, Ford's anthology also stumps for poetry itself: as it leaps from historical events to the private dramas playing out in postal districts all over the 'great mean city,' the art asserts its primacy as a portal to the full range of the human.
PopMatters - Tobias Peterson
What's on offer is an exercise is historical–cultural geography. The experience of reading it is much like that of stepping out of King's Cross station and strolling the city's streets. Walk long enough, read deeply enough, and you'll be immersed in impressions of beauty, grime, humor, violence—often simultaneously. If this book succeeds as a celebration, it is only insofar as it admits everything, like the city itself.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Katy Evans-Bush
The book is as full of mayhem and color as the city itself… Ford's book packs in as much lore, as much fact and legend, as much gala occasion, as much glitter and cloud, gossip and prayer, sound and sight and smell as it's possible to imagine… Ford offers a wonderful sampler of British poets—as well as some of the many American ones who have washed up here, and written what they found. The titles of poems tantalize with place-names, stacking up like gold medals… Everyone's a winner, and London's finest moments are all here, for anyone who wants to look.
Australian Book Review - Geoffrey Lehmann
[Ford's] anthology, ranging from the mid-fourteenth-century poems of John Gower and William Langland to a poem of Ahren Warner (b. 1986), and across all genres (love poems, satires, anonymous ballads, street cries, limericks, personal memoirs) and all styles (free verse to sonnets and villanelles--Wendy Cope has a beauty), displays an openness of mind and a keen eye.
Independent on Sunday - Suzi Feay
If I were going to recommend one perfect present for a poetry lover, it would be London: A History in Verse.
Choice - E. D. Hill
This delightfully thick book offers poems from the late 14th century to the early 21st that are connected in one fashion or another with London. Offerings range from nursery rhymes through watermen's songs and pedlars' chants, with stops at less-familiar subgenres, such as 'Thames frozen over' poems...Sure to afford instruction and delight to readers who love London, to readers curious about the city, and (for that matter) to readers who loathe the place.
Times Literary Supplement - Lachlan Mackinnon
The huge anthology [Ford] has edited is a considerable and welcome achievement. Any literate cloakroom should have a copy, but so should anyone interested in London or, indeed, life.
Times Literary Supplement - Lachlan MacKinnon
The huge anthology [Ford] has edited is a considerable and welcome achievement. Any literate cloakroom should have a copy, but so should anyone interested in London or, indeed, life.
New York Review of Books

[A] superb anthology… Ford's collection shows the development of particular city-sensibilities: the hedonistic, jaded, nostalgic, urbane. Oppositions are played out as much between the classic dichotomies of country and town as by London's own inbuilt contradictions (wealth and poverty, pleasure and pain, fear and wonder)… By so assiduously unpacking the metropolis, Ford's anthology also stumps for poetry itself: as it leaps from historical events to the private dramas playing out in postal districts all over the 'great mean city,' the art asserts its primacy as a portal to the full range of the human.
— Nick Laird

PopMatters

What's on offer is an exercise is historical–cultural geography. The experience of reading it is much like that of stepping out of King's Cross station and strolling the city's streets. Walk long enough, read deeply enough, and you'll be immersed in impressions of beauty, grime, humor, violence—often simultaneously. If this book succeeds as a celebration, it is only insofar as it admits everything, like the city itself.
— Tobias Peterson

Los Angeles Review of Books

The book is as full of mayhem and color as the city itself… Ford's book packs in as much lore, as much fact and legend, as much gala occasion, as much glitter and cloud, gossip and prayer, sound and sight and smell as it's possible to imagine… Ford offers a wonderful sampler of British poets—as well as some of the many American ones who have washed up here, and written what they found. The titles of poems tantalize with place-names, stacking up like gold medals… Everyone's a winner, and London's finest moments are all here, for anyone who wants to look.
— Katy Evans-Bush

Library Journal
London began as a Roman settlement around 43 C.E., and was a city (Londinium) by 121 C.E. It has been a part of our cultural imagination ever since. Poet Ford (English, University Coll. London) has edited a rich anthology of poems and selections from poems that describe, evoke, and trace the history of London, beginning with the 14th-century Middle English poets Gower, Langland, and Chaucer, and continuing on to current ones such as Tom Chivers and Ahren Warners. In addition to the usual suspects such as Swift, Blake, and Eliot, there is a wide and deep diversity of poets, crossing national, class, and ethnic boundaries in order to express the full response to London. Following a chronological arrangement, Ford includes work commemorating the city's various defining historical events from insurrections to the Great Plague and Fire, the Industrial Revolution, the Blitz, the Swinging Sixties, and terrorist bombings. Readers' only quibble may be a lack of explanatory notes about contexts and allusions. American readers will likely not be as familiar with London's geography as British readers. VERDICT A fine anthology aimed not just at poetry specialists but for the general reader who loves both London and verse anthologies.—T.L. Cooksey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674065680
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 7/31/2012
  • Pages: 784
  • Sales rank: 963,985
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Ford is a poet and Professor of English at University College London.
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Read an Excerpt

Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)

Beyond the Last Lamp

(Near Tooting Common)

I

WHILE rain, with eve in partnership,

Descended darkly, drip, drip, drip,

Beyond the last lone lamp I passed

Walking slowly, whispering sadly,

Two linked loiterers, wan, downcast:

Some heavy thought constrained each face,

And blinded them to time and place.

II

The pair seemed lovers, yet absorbed

In mental scenes no longer orbed

By love’s young rays. Each countenance

As it slowly, as it sadly

Caught the lamplight’s yellow glance,

Held in suspense a misery

At things which had been or might be.

III

When I retrod that watery way

Some hours beyond the droop of day,

Still I found pacing there the twain

Just as slowly, just as sadly,

Heedless of the night and rain.

One could but wonder who they were

And what wild woe detained them there.

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