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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

A Poet In The City

Title:     A Poet In The City
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

'In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray.'

I (and when I say I, I must be understood to be speaking dramatically) only venture into the City once a year, for the very pleasant purpose of drawing that twelve-pound-ten by which the English nation, ever so generously sensitive to the necessities, not to say luxuries, of the artist, endeavours to express its pride and delight in me. It would be a very graceful exercise of gratitude for me here to stop and parenthesise the reader on the subject of all that twelve-pound-ten has been to me, how it has quite changed the course of my life, given me that long-desired opportunity of doing my best work in peace, for which so often I vainly sighed in Fleet Street, and even allowed me an indulgence in minor luxuries which I could not have dreamed of enjoying before the days of that twelve-pound-ten. Now not only peace and plenty, but leisure and luxury are mine. There is nothing goes so far as--Government money.

Usually on these literally State occasions, I drive up in state, that is in a hansom. There is only one other day in the year on which I am so splendid, but that is another beautiful story. It, too, is a day and an hour too joyous to be approached otherwise than on winged wheels, too stately to be approached in merely pedestrian fashion. To go on foot to draw one's pension seems a sort of slight on the great nation that does one honour, as though a Lord Mayor should make his appearance in the procession in his office coat.

So I say it is my custom to go gaily, and withal stately, to meet my twelve-pound-ten in a hansom. For many reasons the occasion always seems something of an adventure, and I confess I always feel a little excited about it--indeed, to tell the truth, a little nervous. As I glide along in my state barge (which seems a much more proper and impressive image for a hansom than 'gondola,' with its reminiscences of Earl's Court) I feel like some fragile country flower torn from its roots, and bewilderingly hurried along upon the turbid, swollen stream of London life.

The stream glides sweetly with a pleasant trotting tinkle of bells by the green parkside of Piccadilly, and sweet is it to hear the sirens singing, and to see them combing their gilded locks, on the yellow sands of Piccadilly Circus--so called, no doubt, from the number of horses and the skill of their drivers. Here are the whirling pools of pleasure, merry wheels of laughing waters, where your hansom glides along with a golden ease--it is only when you enter the First Cataract of the Strand that you become aware of the far-distant terrible roar of the Falls! They are yet nearly two miles away, but already, like Niagara, thou hearest the sound thereof--the fateful sound of that human Niagara, where all the great rivers of London converge: the dark, strong floods surging out from the gloomy fastnesses of the East End, the quick-running streams from the palaces of the West, the East with its wagons, the West with its hansoms, the four winds with their omnibuses, the horses and carriages under the earth jetting up their companies of grimy passengers, the very air busy with a million errands.

You are in the rapids--metaphorically speaking--as you crawl down Cheapside; and here where the Bank of England and the Mansion House rise sheer and awful from, shall we say, this boiling caldron, this 'hell' of angry meeting waters--Threadneedle Street and Cornhill, Queen Victoria Street and Cheapside, each 'running,' again metaphorically, 'like a mill-race'--here in this wild maelstrom of human life and human conveyances, here is the true 'Niagara in London,' here are the most wonderful falls in the world--the London Falls.

'Yes!' I said softly to myself, and I could see the sly sad smile on the face of the dead poet, at the thought of whose serene wisdom a silence like snow seemed momentarily to cover up the turmoil--'Yes!' I said softly, 'there is still the same old crush at the corner of Fenchurch Street!'

By this time I had disbursed one of my two annual cab-fares, and was standing a little forlorn at that very corner. It was a March afternoon, bitter and gloomy; lamps were already popping alight in a desolate way, and the east wind whistled mournfully through the ribs of the passers-by. A very unflowerlike man was dejectedly calling out 'daffadowndillies' close by. The sound of the pretty old word, thus quaintly spoken, brightened the air better than the electric lights which suddenly shot rows of wintry moonlight along the streets. I bought a bunch of the poor pinched flowers, and asked the man how he came to call them 'daffadowndillies.'

'D'vunshur,' he said, in anything but a Devonshire accent, and then the east wind took him and he was gone--doubtless to a neighbouring tavern; and no wonder, poor soul! Flowers certainly fall into strange hands here in London.

Well, it was nearing four, and if I wanted a grateful country's twelve-pound-ten, I must make haste; so presently I found myself in a great hall, of which I have no clearer impression than that there were soft little lights all about me, and a soft chime of falling gold, like the rippling of Pactolus. I have a sort of idea, too, of a great number of young men with most beautiful moustaches, playing with golden shovels; and as I thus stood among the soft lights and listened to the most beautiful sound in the world, I thought that thus must Danae have felt as she stood amid the falling shower. But I took care to see that my twelve sovereigns and a half were right number and weight for all that.

Once more in the street, I lingered a while to take a last look at the Falls. What a masterful alien life it all seemed to me! No single personality could hope to stand alone amid all that stress of ponderous, bullying forces. Only public companies, and such great impersonalities, could hope to hold their own, to swim in such a whirlpool--and even they, I had heard it whispered, far away in my quiet starlit garret, sometimes went down. 'How,' I cried, 'would--

'... my tiny spark of being wholly vanish in your deeps and heights ...
Rush of suns, and roll of systems, and your fiery clash of meteorites,'

again quoting poetry. I always quote poetry in the City, as a protest--moreover, it clears the air.

The more people buffeted against me the more I felt the crushing sense of almost cosmic forces. Everybody was so plainly an atom in a public company, a drop of water in a tyrannous stream of human energy--companies that cared nothing for their individual atoms, streams that cared nothing for their component drops; such atoms and drops, for the most part, to be had for thirty shillings a week. These people about me seemed no more like individual men and women than individual puffs in a mighty rushing wind, or the notes in a great scheme of music, are men and women--to the banker so many pens with ears whereon to perch them, to the capitalist so many 'hands,' and to the City man generally so many 'helpless pieces of the game he plays' up there in spidery nooks and corners of the City.

As I listened to the throbbing of the great human engines in the buildings about me, a rising and a falling there seemed as of those great steel-limbed monsters, weird contortionists of metal, that jet up and down, and writhe and wrestle this way and that, behind the long glass windows of great water-towers, or toil like Vulcan in the bowels of mighty ships. An expression of frenzy seems to come up even from the dumb tossing steel; sometimes it seems to be shaking great knuckled fists at one and brandishing threatening arms, as it strains and sweats beneath the lash of the compulsive steam. As one watches it, there seems something of human agony about its panic-stricken labours, and something like a sense of pity surprises one--a sense of pity that anything in the world should have to work like that, even steel, even, as we say, senseless steel. What, then, of these great human engine-houses! Will the engines always consent to rise and fall, night and day, like that? or will there some day be a mighty convulsion, and this blind Samson of labour pull down the whole engine-house upon his oppressors? Who knows? These are questions for great politicians and thinkers to decide, not for a poet, who is too much terrified by such forces to be able calmly to estimate and prophesy concerning them.

Yes! if you want to realise Tennyson's picture of 'one poor poet's scroll' ruling the world, take your poet's scroll down to Fenchurch Street and try it there. Ah, what a powerless little 'private interest' seems poetry there, poetry 'whose action is no stronger than a flower.' In days of peace it ventures even into the morning papers; but, let only a rumour of war be heard, and it vanishes like a dream on doomsday morning. A County Council election passeth over it and it is gone.

Yet it was near this very spot that Keats dug up the buried beauty of Greece, lying hidden beneath Finsbury Pavement! and in the deserted City churches great dramatists lie about us. Maybe I have wronged the City--and at this thought I remembered a little bookshop but a few yards away, blossoming like a rose right in the heart of the wilderness.

Here, after all, in spite of all my whirlpools and engine-houses, was for me the greatest danger in the City. Need I say, therefore, that I promptly sought it, hovered about it a moment--and entered? How much of that grateful governmental twelve-pound-ten came out alive, I dare not tell my dearest friend.

At all events I came out somehow reassured, more rich in faith. There was a might of poesy after all. There were words in the little yellow-leaved garland, nestling like a bird in my hand, that would outlast the bank yonder, and outlive us all. I held it up. How tiny it seemed, how frail amid all this stone and iron! A mere flower--a flower from the seventeenth century--long-lived for a flower! Yes, an _immortelle_.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Poet In The City