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Urban Poetry

Urban PoetryBlake visually represents London in this piece entitled "London" from the Songs of Experience
Even though naturalistic imagery is often used in Romantic poetry, the city does appear in major works of this period. Wordsworth, despite his primary involvement with pastoral, natural environments, uses the city as a setting in some of his poetic works. In his sonnet "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802," Wordsworth presents London in the early morning hours. This view of London seems to have as powerful of an effect on him as the natural scenery one encounters in much of his poetry. As the sun moves upon the city, the speaker observes, "Never did sun more beautifully steep/ In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;/ Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!" In this poem, the human-constructed city possesses the same majestic, calming properties that he observes in nature. He also uses London in Book VII of his epic poem The Prelude. The city in this section of the poem, at times, seems like an unpleasant place, but at other moments, the speaker enjoys being involved with the life of the city: "...I then had heard/ Of your green groves, and wilderness of lamps,/ Your gorgeous ladies, fairy cataracts,/ And pageant fireworks; nor must we forget/ Those other wonders different in kind,/ Though scarcely less illustrious in degree."

Romantic poetry often evokes the idea of the sublime; for Romantic poets, the sublime was often experienced when encountering and considering natural objects and concepts that seem massive and incomprehensible. This often fosters a sense of terror and wonder. In these poems, the city contains aspects of the sublime, as the city evokes these sensations in the speaker. The setting of London in the morning inspires deep awe in the speaker like the natural world does in other poems by Wordsworth. In Book VII of The Prelude, the city is presented as an unknowable force, with peoples' faces becoming mysterious. The unknowable aspects of nature are part of the appeal of the sublime.

The city also factors heavily in some of William Blake's poetry. In Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, Blake presents London in order to illustrate the inequality present in English society. In "London," the city is a place of woe and injustice. The meditation upon child labor in London in both versions of "The Chimney Sweeper" convey the injustice and exploitation present in his society more directly than would a poem that is removed from the urban environment. However, the urban world becomes a place of hope and imagination in his work Milton: a Poem, in which Blake presents a city of art in order to bring the poem's main character to a state of imaginative enlightenment. In poems written during this time, the city functions a multifaceted place: it can be a place of injustice, despair, and isolation or it can be a place of beauty in which one is moved and enlightened by the vitality of human life and civilization.

Brandon Haynes

Select Bibliography

Romantic Metropolis. Eds. James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Romanticism and the City.Larry H. Peer. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2011.