No, this is not a round-up of 1994 but something quite different. A recent conversation made me wonder about the salient characteristics of English poetry. The chief one, I think, is a sense of place. There is great love poetry in every language. The Hungarians are famous for their patriotic, rebel-rousing poetry. The Germans specialise in mordant poetry of pain, terror and grief.
But the English have apostrophised their cities ever since William Dunbar wrote in the 15th century: "London, thou art the flower of cities all!" thus starting a flood of poems in praise of London. Wordsworth's "On Westminster Bridge" was the first poem I ever learnt by heart, followed 10 years later by a time of adolescent self-dramatising, when I identified more with TS Eliot, poet of sad City clerks and drab bedsitter typists.
This week I thought I would try to make an A to Z of towns and cities of Britain addressed in poetry. The first is almost self-evident:
Yes, I remember Adelstrop which is, of course, the opening of Edward Thomas's incomparable evocation of a midsummer day's motionless heat, ending with the birds soaring and spiralling over Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
S is easy, too: that has to be John Betjeman's unjust (as he later admitted) condemnation:
Come friendly bombs, and fall on Slough It isn't fit for humans now.
But then Betjeman was the great poet of place - and brand - and surnames. He specialised in the dormitory towns round London, from Woking to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn (furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun), but he wrote wonderfully about his favourite corner of Cornwall, near Polzeath. You could probably find the whole alphabet of English place-names in Betjeman alone.
Tainted nowadays by modern associations is Rupert Brooke on Grantchester:
But he also wrote:
But Cambridge people rarely smile, Being urban, squat and packed with guile.
All these must be among the first half-dozen lines that would spring to anyone's mind when trying to think of poetry that names English places. For the slightly more obscure is Michael Drayton's pastoral:
Few Vales (as I suppose) like Evesham, hapt to find Nor other Wold like Cotswold ever sped... (which will do for E).
I have searched in vain for a poem in praise of Bristol or Bath, York, Manchester or Birmingham, Blackpool or Hartlepool. There must be some, but to qualify for my round-up, the lines should be instantly familiar - it's the "Oh yes, of course!" response I require.
RS and Dylan Thomas are the 20th-century poets of Wales, just as Yeats and Seamus Heaney are those of Ireland. Robert Burns has to be the poet of Scotland, though he's a little short on place-names. GK Chesterton was the great Sussex poet, best known for:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
Shakespeare hardly figures in this list. Where is Shakespeare on Stratford, on Arden, on Avon, speaking directly to the places where he grew up and which he surely remembered from the Great Wen? (Not that he would have known that phrase, for its first recorded use is in William Cobbett's Rural Rides.)
It is my general impression that the medievals, excluding great Chaucer, wrote principally about the seasons, which no doubt ruled their lives; and that Shakespeare's contemporaries and those who came after him wrote about time, love and honour. Not until the end of the 18th century did poets begin to concentrate upon specific places. We have Dryden and Pope on London; Wordsworth on the Lakes. Byron wrote his best verse from, and about, abroad. Then came the Victorians, grappling with change and doubt.
Matthew Arnold's "Scholar Gipsy" is set in the countryside around Oxford, but the greatest description of that city ever written only mentions it in the title, which is "Duns Scotus's Oxford":
Towery city and branchy between towers; cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river-rounded... Poor Gerard Manley Hopkins, tormented by guilt and doubt, wrote those serene observant lines.
From the 18th floor of Canary Wharf we look across miles of dense urban sprawl, more beautiful by darkness than by day. Where are the poets of the new London and its architecture; of Docklands and skyscraper, tunnel and tube? What is the modern equivalent of Spenser's:
Sweet Thames, runne softly, till I end my song ... ?