The Cockney Poets
The great church of St Mary le Bow stands on Cheapside and it’s always been said that if you are born within the sound of its bells you are a true cockney. So let me introduce you to the Cockney poets of the City of London.
Souls of poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
That was John Keats on the Mermaid Tavern a drinking club for Elizabethan writers that included John Donne and Ben Johnson (but was unlikely to have seen Shakespeare walk through its doors despite the image below painted by John Faed in 1851)
When you start looking into it you realise there were times in the City’s history when you could hardly walk the streets around Cheapside without bumping into a poet, following his muse up and down the alleyways of the place that is generally thought of as a mecca for devotees of Mammon. Bread Street in particular, that little street that runs from Cheapside to Queen Victoria Street.
Location of the Mermaid Taven itself, it was also where, in 1816 in the church of St Mildred in Bread Street, Percy Bysshe Shelley married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of philosopher and political writer William Godwin and feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. They had been lovers since 1814 when Mary was just 17 and Shelley still married; it was the death/suicide of his wife that brought them to that little City church to tie the knot.
John Donne and John Milton were both born in Bread Street. Donne was the man who nearly lost everything when he fell in love, caught the attention of a King and was the Catholic poet who went on to become the Dean of the first Anglican Cathedral.
Milton, best known for Paradise Lost was the mouthpiece for the Puritan Commonwealth – he was the Secretary for the Foreign Tongue, an official position in Oliver Cromwell’s government, handling diplomatic correspondence. On the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Milton went into hiding when an arrest warrant was issued in his name, but was later pardoned.
A little further down Cheapside you’ll find a plaque commemorating Thomas Hood. Born above his father’s bookshop he was well known for his humorous poetry but yearned to be taken seriously. His poem ‘The Song of the Shirt’ was taken up by social activists and feminists and his fans included Michael Rosetti (brother of Dante Gabriel) and Prime Minister Robert Peel.
And to finish as I started, there’s John Keats. Born a little further away in Moorgate, Keats gravitated to the Cheapside area to live with his brother and write poetry (when he wasn’t studying to be an Apothecary or walking the wards in Guy’s hospital in Southwark).
Keats died in Italy and is buried in the Protestant (sometimes called the English) cemetery in Rome. Shelley wrote the poem Adonais as an elegy for Keats and is himself buried in the same cemetery.
Two cockneys keeping each other company in a foreign land.
In 2012 the Daily Telegraph reported research that suggests the sound of the Bow Bells has been significantly affected by ambient noise level in the capital (meaning you can’t hear them very far away) Dick Whittington would never have made it back from Highgate in the 21st Century apparently …
Meet the Cockney Poets on Jill’s walk ‘The City by the Book’. Part of Fooprints of London’s Literary Footprints Festival in October. Walks run on Saturday 18th October and Saturday 24th October, meet at 11am at St Paul’s tube station.