Metropolitan Miscreants

Matthew Bevis

  • BuyVictorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton
    Yale, 380 pp, £25.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 15447 4
  • BuyMetropolitan Art and Literature, 1810-40: Cockney Adventures by Gregory Dart
    Cambridge, 297 pp, £55.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 02492 2

‘The test of poetry which professes to be modern’, Arthur Symons wrote in 1892, is ‘its capacity for dealing with London, with what one sees or might see there.’ And what the poets see is a transformation of the human face. In the country, ‘The face of every neighbour whom I met/Was as a volume to me,’ Wordsworth recalled in The Prelude, but neighbours were harder to read in London: ‘The comers and goers face to face,/Face after face’. Blake’s Londoner can only ‘mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. In The City of Dreadful Night, James Thomson’s narrator prowls ‘lonely streets/Where one may count up every face he meets’. This is what the metropolitan insomniac does instead of counting sheep. For J. Alfred Prufrock, faces are masks – ‘there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’ – and in The Waste Land these masks can’t be looked straight in the eye: ‘each man fixed his eyes before his feet./Flowed up the hill and down King William Street’.

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