Sunday, 2 December 2012

Isaac Rosenberg's 'Fleet Street', London Life and Keith Douglas

FLEET STREET (Isaac Rosenberg)

From north and south, from east and west,
Here in one shrieking vortex meet
These streams of life, made manifest
Along the shaking quivering street.
Its pulse and heart that throbs and glows
As if strife were its repose.

I shut my ear to such rude sounds
As reach a harsh discordant note,
Till, melting into what surrounds,
My soul doth with the current float;
And from the turmoil and the strife
Wakes all the melody of life.

The stony buildings blindly stare
Unconscious of the crime within,
While man returns his fellow's glare
The secrets of his soul to win.
And each man passes from his place,
None heed. A shadow leaves such trace.

The above poem is another gem which I discovered in the pages of Mark Ford's London poetry anthology. The photograph of Fleet Street is from 1904.

It seems that Isaac Rosenberg did not write only war poems in his too-short life. There are a few reasons why this poem spoke to me, I think. I worked at the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane a few years ago, and I love that part of London - although the impression given by this poem is more one that I would associate with somewhere like Oxford Circus. The media has left Fleet Street behind and it's mostly legal and other business today, which is probably where "The stony buildings blindly stare/Unconscious of the crime within" comes in. It is quieter than it used to be, anyway - although that is all relative, since we are now in 2012 rather than the early years of the twentieth century. I loved Fleet Street, Temple Bar and the City for the glimpses they gave me of the past, rather than their modern bustle.

I caught a glimpse of why Rosenberg is one of Keith Douglas's spiritual ancestors, too, and why Douglas wrote "Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying". Far more so than Wilfred Owen, for example. In both, there is an almost cold detachment which veils a great depth of emotion, a faint irony, and a constant awareness of the presence of death. Compare the final lines of 'Fleet Street' to the final stanza of Douglas's 'How to Kill':

The weightless mosquito touches
Her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

(from 'How to Kill', Keith Douglas)

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