Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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Industrialism and the
City

The distinction between peaceful, expansive, and settled country life and bustling, crowded city life has been the subject of literature from the time of the ancients (exemplified in Aesop's tale of the town mouse and the country mouse), long before the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave rise to the modern city and its unique character. The contrast between city life and country life is one aspect of the Active and Contemplative Lives theme, as writers usually associated the active, social life with the city, and the solitary, contemplative life with the country. Playwrights loved to contrast the sophisticated city dweller and the country bumpkin, who would visit the town with mud still on his boots and lay himself open to ridicule for his coarse, rustic ways. The poets of the eighteenth century usually regarded the city as the source of inspiration and ideas; they loved the social exchange of the coffeehouses and salons. The country was pleasant for a brief retreat (and well-to-do Londoners all fled to Bath or their country estates from time to time), but life was lived in the bustle of the city. The Romantic poets, writing at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, began the modern rejection of city life that Aesop's country mouse had exemplified so many centuries ago.

Long before the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the overcrowded, smoky cities of northern England, the brilliant eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift revealed the ugly underside of sophisticated London in his apparent tribute to the city, “A Description of a City Shower” (1710). The title suggests a pleasant, refreshing interlude, but from the opening heroic couplet we are warned to “dread” this particular shower because, unlike its country counterpart, the city shower amplifies the dirt and squalor of the town. Always quick to notice the seedier side of life, Swift begins to catalog the inhabitants—animal and human—of London, and

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