Wednesday, 31 July 2013

"London Original, Wolf-Wrapped": D H Lawrence's 'Town in 1917'

An October Night Raid on London, 1917: Seen from the Royal College of Science by Norman G Arnold, 1918. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1071)

I was coming home late from drinks at Canary Wharf a few nights ago, and the startling round dial of Big Ben caught me by surprise as I took the train from Waterloo to Vauxhall - for a moment I thought it was a very round, very low full moon. It reminded me of the below poem, 'Town in 1917' by D H Lawrence - a little inappropriately, because although the poem refers to Big Ben, it is about a blackout during the bombing raids of 1917.

D H Lawrence tends to be a bit too drama for me, and this poem occasionally borders on that, but the way in which it reveals London as a place of darkness is original and powerful. I like what it has to say about continuity, how the tendencies of its early history are not gone. London is a city whose spirit is not subservient to those who populate it. Someone recently said to me that all the building that is happening around the city - skyscrapers, and too many of them - is changing it forever. On the surface, yes, a lot is changing, but I think it would be a big mistake to believe that a few buildings (even if they're very tall and very Dubai-esque) are going to alter the essence of a very ancient and determined city.

TOWN IN 1917 (D H Lawrence)

Used to wear her lights splendidly,
Flinging her shawl-fringe over the River,
Tassels in abandon.

And up in the sky
A two-eyed clock, like an owl
Solemnly used to approve, chime, chiming
Approval, goggle-eyed fowl!

There are no gleams on the River,
No goggling clock;
No sound from St Stephen's;
No lamp-fringed frock.

Darkness, and skin-wrapped
Fleet, hurrying limbs,
Soft-footed dead.

Original, wolf-wrapped
In pelts of wolves, all her luminous
Garments gone.

London, with hair
Like a forest darkness, like a marsh
Of rushes, ere the Romans
Broke in her lair.

It is well
That London, lair of sudden
Male and female darknesses,
Has broken her spell.

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