J’ai embrassé l’aube d’été… in London! A poem by Mary Robinson: London’s Summer Morning

Marc Bordier by Marc Bordier /

  Back in London after a month travelling to Australia and the south of France, I am enjoying the summer mood of the British capital in August. Yesterday, I spent the whole morning reading London, a biography, Peter Ackroyd’s authoritative book for anyone who is interested in the history of London. In the first few chapters, Ackroyd desccribes the noisy atmosphere of London streets throughout history. It immediately reminded me of Mary Robinson’s poem London’s Summer Morning. Published in 1800, this famous composition depicts a typical beginning of the day on a busy London street. Written in blank verses with carefully chosen rythms and sounds that mimic its subject, it places the reader on the street with the sounds and sights of daily life. It is a vivid painting of the movement and activity of a busy London street at the turn of the XIXth century, and portrait of the city itself through its tradesmen and inhabitants, and an instantaneous capture of London’s unique identify.

Who has not waked to list the busy sounds
Of summer’s morning, in the sultry smoke
Of noisy London? On the pavement hot
The sooty chimney-boy, with dingy face
And tatter’d covering, shrilly bawls his trade,
Rousing the sleepy housemaid. At the door
The milk-pail rattles, and the tinkling bell
Proclaims the dustman’s office; while the street
Is lost in clouds impervious. Now begins
The din of hackney-coaches, waggons, carts;
 While tinmen’s shops, and noisy trunk-makers,
Knife-grinders, coopers, squeaking cork-cutters,
Fruit barrows, and the hunger-giving cries
Of vegetable venders, fill the air.
Now every shop displays its varied trade,
And the fresh-sprinkled pavement cools the feet
Of early walkers. At the private door
The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop,
Annoying the smart ‘prentice, or neat girl,
Tripping with band-box lightly. Now the sun
Darts burning splendour on the glittering pane,
Save where the canvas awning throws a shade
On the day merchandize. Now, spruce and trim,
In shops (where beauty smiles with industry),
Sits the smart damsel; while the passenger
Peeps through the window, watching every charm.
Now pastry dainties catch the eye minute
Of humming insects, while the limy snare
Waits to enthral them. Now the lamp-lighter
Mounts the tall ladder, nimbly venturous,
To trim the half-fill’d lamp; while at his feet
The pot-boy yells discordant! All along
The sultry pavement, the old-clothes man cries
In tone monotonous, the side-long views
The area for his traffic: now the bag
Is slily open’d, and the half-worn suit
(Sometimes the pilfer’d treasure of the base
Domestic spoiler), for one half its worth,
Sinks in the green abyss. The porter now
Bears his huge load along the burning way;
And the poor poet wakes from busy dreams,
To paint the summer morning.