Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Our City of Doggerel and Visionaries

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Our City of Doggerel and Visionaries

Article excerpt

Byline: A.N. WILSON

LONDON: A HISTORY IN VERSE Edited by Mark Ford (Harvard University Press, [pounds sterling]25) A.N. WILSON FIRST, let it be said that for bookish Londoners all your Christmas and birthday problems are solved. Here is a rich, poetic evocation of our city 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. That said, this compiler has set himself a formidable task: not merely an anthology of verse about London but A History in Verse. There are some really great poems about London, such as Wordsworth's Sonnet on Westminster Bridge, but they do not tell us much about the city's history.

Meanwhile, there are many famous events, such as the Plague of 1665, the Gordon Riots, the Great Exhibition of 1851 or the Blitz, which have either inspired no poems at all, or -- worse for the anthologist's purpose -- only bad ones.

There's no getting around this, so you'd have thought Mark Ford would have scrapped the word "History"and settled for "A Book of London Verse". What he has actually produced is a very long collection of verses, some of which (such as Simon Ford's London's Resurrection or Dryden's Annus Mirabilis or Geoffrey Hill's very great To the High Court of Parliament) do relate to the History of London; and others (such as Spenser's Prothalamion or the immortal Parliament Hill Fields, by Betjeman) which merely evoke London as a place.

The result is a doorstopper, bulging with the very familiar (Oranges and Lemons), and the less familiar (George Eliot's surprisingly bad poem, In a London Drawing Room, or UA Fanthorpe's Rising Damp, a surprisingly good one about the lost rivers of London).

Naturally, one of the pleasures of reading an anthology -- vexing as it is to the compiler to state this obvious fact -- is puzzling over omissions. …

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