Saturday, 9 March 2013

James Elroy Flecker's 'Ballad of the Londoner': "I Will Cross the Old River..."

Regent Street in the Rain by Grant Cherrington. Used under Creative Commons license

BALLAD OF THE LONDONER (James Elroy Flecker)

Evening falls on the smoky walls,
And the railings drip with rain,
And I will cross the old river
To see my girl again.

The great and solemn-gliding tram,
Love's still-mysterious car,
Has many a light of gold and white,
And a single dark red star.

I know a garden in a street
Which no one ever knew;
I know a rose beyond the Thames,
Where flowers are pale and few.

I came across this poem in one of the older Poems on the Underground anthologies. I wasn't at all familiar with James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915), but apparently his death from tuberculosis was considered a great loss to English literature, certainly in terms of what he might have accomplished. A quick glance at some of his other work makes me think that I would very much like to look into it further.

A few things struck me about this poem. I like the North London/South London nature of the romance; so many people think it's not possible to cross the Thames in any significant way. (I lived north of the river for several years, and have now lived south for a few years. and felt quite at home in both; this in itself is generally considered unusual. Maybe as a foreigner it's actually a little easier to manage than if you're a born-and-bred Londoner.) Flecker was from Lewisham in southeast London originally, but I am not sure whether there are any clues as to which direction the speaker is taking in this poem.

I also like the "hidden" nature of the poem; this is very London. Flecker's vision of the tram made me think of similar moments of unexpected urban transcendence in other works. There is a U2 song called 'Moment of Surrender' where the protagonist says "At the moment of surrender, I folded to my knees, I did not notice the passersby and they did not notice me...I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross, every eye looking every other way, counting down till the pain will stop..." I suspect this could be either London or New York, but it is very much about spiritual or transcendent experiences in big cities. I think such moments are why I continue to try writing about the Underground, too.

The final stanza is about bringing the hidden to light, too - or at least the speaker's delight in having found someone wonderful, and perhaps undiscovered by others, in the city wilderness. The mystery of it is rather lovely.


  1. The lines are tremendously evocative. As if they're really about something unspoken, words yet unpronounced, or someone still unnamed. The noise of the underground drops away in the hush and charm of the poem, which for me creates world all its own.

    1. I agree. There is a lot unstated in this poem and it is obviously pregnant with meaning for the speaker, but also allows the reader to imbue it with their own significance.