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Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 11272

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02

You cannot stir the ground of London anywhere but straightway it flowers into romance. Read the inscriptions on the crumbling tombs of our early merchant princes and adventurers in some of the old City churches, and it glimmers upon you that if ever the history of London's commercial rise and progress gets adequately written it will read like a series of stories out of the Arabian Nights. Think what dashing and magnificent figures, what tales of dark plottings, fierce warfare, and glorious heroisms must brighten and darken the pages of any political history of London; and even more glamorous, more intensely and humanly alive, would be a social history of London, beginning perhaps in those days of the fourteenth century when Langland was living in Cornhill and writing his Vision of Piers Plowman, or farther back still, in Richard the First's time, when that fine spirit, the first of English demagogues, William Fitzosbert, was haranguing the folkmoot in St. Paul's Churchyard, urging them to resist the tyrannic taxations of the Lord Mayor and his Court of wealthy Aldermen-a passion for justice that brought him into such danger that he and certain of his friends had to seek sanctuary, and barricaded themselves in Bow Church. The church was fired by order of a bishop who had no sympathy with reformers, and Fitzosbert and his friends, breaking out through the flames, were stabbed and struck down in Cheapside, hustled to the Tower, hastily tried and sentenced, dragged out by the heels through the streets, and hanged at Smithfield. I have always thought this would make a good, live starting-point, and had I but world enough and time I would sooner write that history than anything else.

No need to hunt after topics when you are writing about London; they come to you. The air is full of them. The very names of the streets are cabalistic words. Once you know London, myriads of great spirits may be called from the vasty deep by sight or sound of such names as Fleet Street, Strand, Whitehall, Drury Lane, The Temple, Newgate Street, Aldersgate, Lombard Street, Cloth Fair, Paternoster Row, Holborn, Bishopsgate, and a hundred others. You have only to walk into Whitefriars Street and see "Hanging-sword Alley" inscribed on the wall of a court at the top of a narrow flight of steps, and all Alsatia rises again around you, as Ilion rose like a mist to the music of Apollo's playing. Loiter along Cornhill in the right mood and Thomas Archer's house shall rebuild itself for you at the corner of Pope's Head Alley, where he started the first English newspaper in 1603, and you will wonder why nobody writes a full history of London journalism.

As for literary London-every other street you traverse is haunted with memories of poets, novelists, and men of letters, and it is some of the obscurest of these associations that are the most curiously fascinating. I have a vivid, youthful remembrance of a tumble-down, red-tiled shop near the end of Leathersellers' Buildings which I satisfied myself was the identical place in which Robert Bloomfield worked as a shoemaker's assistant; Devereux Court still retains something of the Grecian Coffee-house that used to be frequented by Addison and Steele, but I knew the Court first, and am still drawn to it most, as the site of that vanished Tom's Coffee-house where Akenside often spent his winter evenings; and if I had my choice of bringing visibly back out of nothingness one of the old Charing Cross houses, it would be the butcher's shop that was kept by the uncle who adopted Prior in his boyhood.

Plenty of unpleasant things have been said about London, but never by her own children, or such children of her adoption as Johnson and Dickens. Says Hobbes, who was born at Malmesbury, "London has a great belly, but no palate," and Bishop Stubbs (a native of Knaresborough) more recently described it as "always the purse, seldom the head, and never the heart of England." Later still an eminent speaker, quoting this fantastic dictum of Stubbs's, went a step further and informed his audience that "not many men eminent in literature have been born in London"; a statement so demonstrably inaccurate that one may safely undertake to show that at least as many men eminent in literature, to say nothing of art and science, have been born in London as in any other half-dozen towns of the kingdom put together.

To begin with, the morning star of our literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, was born in Thames Street, not far from the wharf where, after he was married and had leased a home for himself in Aldgate, he held office as a Comptroller of Customs, and the pen that was presently to write the Canterbury Tales "moved over bills of lading." The "poets' poet," Spenser, was born in East Smithfield, by the Tower, and in his Prothalamion speaks of his birthplace affectionately as-

"Merry London, my most kindly nurse,

That to me gave this life's first native source,

Though from another place I take my name."

Ben Jonson was born in Hartshorn Lane, Charing Cross; four of his contemporary dramatists, Fletcher, Webster, Shirley and Middleton, were also Londoners by birth; Sir Thomas Browne, author of the Religio Medici, was born in the parish of St. Michael-le-Quern, in the very heart of the city; and Bread Street, Cheapside, is hallowed by the fact that Milton had his birth there.

Dr. Donne, the son of a London merchant, was also born within a stone's throw of Cheapside; and his disciple, Cowley, came into the world in Fleet Street, at the corner of Chancery Lane. But Cowley was a renegade; he acquired an unnatural preference for

the country, and not only held that "God the first garden made, and the first city Cain," but ended a poem in praise of nature and a quiet life with-

"Methinks I see

The monster London laugh at me;

I should at thee too, foolish city,

If it were fit to laugh at misery;

But thy estate I pity.

Let but thy wicked men from out thee go,

And all the fools that crowd thee so,

Even thou, who dost thy millions boast,

A village less than Islington wilt grow,

A solitude almost."


The daintiest of our lyrists, Herrick, was born over his father's shop in Cheapside, and you may take it he was only playing with poetical fancies when, in some lines to his friend Endymion Porter, he praised the country with its "nut-brown mirth and russet wit," and again when, in a set of verses on "The Country Life," he assured his brother he was "thrice and above blest," because he could-

"Leave the city, for exchange, to see

The country's sweet simplicity."

If you want to find him in earnest, turn to that enraptured outburst of his on "His Return to London"-

"Ravished in spirit I come, nay more I fly

To thee, blessed place of my nativity!...

O place! O people! manners framed to please

All nations, customs, kindreds, languages!

I am a free-born Roman; suffer then

That I amongst you live a citizen.

London my home is, though by hard fate sent

Into a long and irksome banishment;

Yet since called back, henceforward let me be,

O native country! repossessed by thee;

For rather than I'll to the West return,

I'll beg of thee first here to have mine urn."

There speaks the true Cockney; he would sooner be dead in London than alive in the West of England. Even Lamb's love of London was scarcely greater than that.


It was fitting that Pope, essentially a town poet, should be born in Lombard Street. In the next thoroughfare, Cornhill, Gray was born; and, son of a butcher, Defoe began life in the parish of St. Giles's, Cripplegate. Shakespeare was an alien, but Bacon was born at York House, in the Strand; which, to my thinking, is the strongest argument in favour of the theory that he wrote the plays. Churchill was born at Vine Street, Westminster; Keats in Moorfields; and, staunchest and one of the most incorrigible Londoners of them all, Charles Lamb in Crown Office Row, Temple. He refers, in one of his essays, to Hare Court, in the Temple, and says: "It was a gloomy, churchyard-like court, with three trees and a pump in it. I was born near it, and used to drink at that pump when I was a Rechabite of six years old." The pump is no longer there, only one half of Hare Court remains as it was in Lamb's day, and Crown Office Row has been rebuilt. His homes in Mitre Court Buildings and Inner Temple Lane have vanished also; but the Temple is still rich in reminiscences of him. Paper Buildings, King's Bench Walk, Harcourt Buildings, the fountain near Garden Court, the old Elizabethan Hall, in which tradition says Shakespeare read one of his plays to Queen Elizabeth-these and the church, the gardens, the winding lanes and quaint byways of the Temple, made up, as he said, his earliest recollections. "I repeat to this day," he writes, "no verses to myself more frequently, or with kindlier emotion, than those of Spenser, where he speaks of this spot-

'There when they came whereas those bricky towers

The which on Themmes broad aged back doth ride,

Where now the studious lawyers have their bowers,

There whylome wont the Templar knights to bide,

Till they decayed through pride.'"

And, "indeed," he adds, "it is the most elegant spot in the metropolis."


But his letters and essays are full of his love of London. "I don't care much," he wrote to Wordsworth, "if I never see a mountain. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of your mountaineers can have done with dead Nature.... I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy in so much life." Again, "Fleet Street and the Strand," he writes to Manning, "are better places to live in for good and all than amidst Skiddaw." After he had removed to Edmonton, on account of his sister's health, it was to Wordsworth he wrote, saying how he pined to be back again in London: "In dreams I am in Fleet Market, but I wake and cry to sleep again.... Oh, never let the lying poets be believed who 'tice men from the cheerful haunts of streets.... A garden was the primitive prison, till man, with Promethean felicity and boldness, luckily sinned himself out of it. Thence followed Babylon, Nineveh, Venice, London.... I would live in London shirtless, bookless."

But to get back to our catalogue of birthplaces-Blake was born in Broad Street, near Golden Square; Byron in Holles Street; Hood in the Poultry, within sight of the Mansion House; Dante and Christina Rossetti were Londoners born; so were Swinburne, Browning, Philip Bourke Marston, John Stuart Mill, Ruskin, Turner, Holman Hunt, Sir Arthur Sullivan-but if we go outside literary Londoners this chapter will end only with the book. Moreover, my purpose is not so much to talk of authors and artists who were born in London, as to give some record of the still surviving houses in which many of them lived; whether they had their birth here or not, the majority of them came here to live and work, for, so far as England is concerned, there is more than a grain of truth in Lamb's enthusiastic boast that "London is the only fostering soil of genius."

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