England's place is in our poetry

Plastic bags bulging with discarded Christmas wrapping paper stand ready for the dustmen. The remains of the turkey sit in stiff cold slices waiting to be made into risotto. My partner is wearing his new sweater, a trifle self-consciously, and I a m flaunting my new silk scarf. It is after Christmas, the end of December,and these are the characteristic signs of this strange week of suspended animation.

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 ... ?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor