Louise Imogen Guiney

Quiet London

If one had to try his hand at the eternal parallel of London and Paris (next weariest, in the scale of human comparisons, to that between D——-s and T——y), or, indeed, of London with any city of known size, it might be said, in a word, that the chief variance between them is a variance of sound: and that under this, and expressed by it,—“alas, how told to them who felt it never?” as Dante sighs over the abstruse sweetness of his lady,—is a profound spiritual difference. Whatever tradition may say of

—the chargeable noise of this great town,

its instructed inhabitant knows it by strange whispers, meek undertones. Conceive anything more diverting than that a monstrous awe-engendering institution like the ’bus should be almost as deft and as still as humming-bird! Monosyllables, and pipe-smoke, and sciential collecting of fares make up the rolling van masculine; ever and anon the less certain step and the swish of a skirt on the lurching stair, announce to the heroes of the serene height that

Helen is come upon the wall to see.

With perfect skill, with masterful rapidity, the wheels slide over surfaces smooth as an almond-shell, in a mere ballroom jingle and rustle. Cabs are dragon-flies by day, and glowworms by night: they dart, noiseless, from north to west. Even the tuft-footed dray-horses vanish with such reverberation as might follow Cinderella’s coach. Exquisite voices of children, soft and shy, fall like the plash of water on the open paths of the Parks. In the viscid openings of alleys off the Strand, in the ancient astonishing tinkerdom of Leather Lane, where villainous naphtha torches light up the green lettuce on peddler’s carts, the pawnbroker’s golden balls significant above, and a knot of Hogarth faces in the Saturday evening flare,—there also, are the cockney gamins with honey-bright hair: profiles which corroborate Millais’ brush, and illustrate a lovely phrase of Minstral in Mireio, “couleur de joue” [colored cheeks]; flushed little legs in ragged socks, which have piteously set out on the dark thoroughfares of life; voices, above all, which have often a low harp-like tone not to be heard elsewhere out of drawing-rooms. It is as if tremendous London, her teeming thoughts troubling her, said “Hush!” in the ear of all her own. Hyde Park orators are seldom brawlers; immense crowds, out for sight-seeing, are controlled by the gentlest of police, who say “Please,” and are obeyed. Few stop to salute or exchange a word at the shelters. This is no experimental or villageous world: one man’s affairs are in India, another’s on the deep sea, and a third’s in a cradle three stories up. Sidneys and pickpockets intermingle, each on a non-communicated errand. Here whisks a Turk, in his extraordinary unnoticed dress; and yonder, a sprout of a man who might have been bow-legged, had he any legs at all: nothing new goes at its value, nothing stranger begets comment. The long-distance ironies, or intelligential buzz of street-life in New York, where folk go two and two, are here foreign and transatlantic indeed. The even pavements drink in all that might mean concussion, the soft golden air deadens it, the preoccupied seriousness of the human element contradicts and forbids it. An awful, endearing, melancholy stillness broods over the red roofs of High Holborn, and hangs, like a pale cloud, on the spires of the Strand, and the yellow-lustred plane tree of Cheapside: gigantic forces seem trooping by, like the boy-god Horpocrates, finger on lip. The hushing rain, from a windless sky, falls in sheets of silver on gray, gray on violet, violet on smouldering purple, and anon makes whole what it had hardly riven: the veil spun of nameless analogic tints, which brings up the perspective of every road, the tapestry of sun-shot mist which Theophile Gautier admired once with all his eye. The town wears the very color of silence. No one can say of S. Paul’s that it is a talking dome, despite the ironic accident of the whispering gallery in the interior. Like Wordsworth upon Helvellyn, in Haydon’s odd memorable portrait, it sees with drooped eyes, and exhorts with grand reticences and abstractions. Might stone broods above, on either hand, its curiously beautiful draperies of soot furled over the brow, in the posture of the speechless martyrs of Attic tragedy. There is an alchemic atmosphere in London, which interdicts one’s perception of ugliness. As the angles of the grimiest places, choked with trade, we stumble on little old bearded graveyards, pools of ancestral sleep; or low-lying leafy gardens where monks and guildsmen have had their dream: closes inexpressibly pregnant with peace, the caesural pauses of our loud to-day. Nothing in the world is so remote, so pensive, so musty-fragrant of long ago, as the antique City churches where the dead are the only congregation; where the effigies of Rahere the founder, Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, John Gower, and our old friend Stow are awake, in their scattered neighborhoods, to make the responses; and where the voices of the daily choir, disembodied by the unfilled space about, breathe ghostly four-part Amens, to waver like bubbles up and down the aisles. And to go thence into the highway creates no great jar. The tide there is always at the flood, and frets not. The perfectly ordered traffic, its want of blockade and altercation, the sad-colored, civil-mannered throng, the dim light and the wet gleam, make it as natural to be absent-minded at Charing Cross as in the Abbey. Shelley must have found it so; else whence his simile,

The City’s voice itself is soft like Solitude’s.

There is no congestion of the populace; yet the cheeks coves of that ancient sea remain brimmed with mortality, hour after hour, century after century, as if in subjection to a fixed moon. It is the very poise of energy, the aggregation of so much force that all force is at a standstill; the miraculous moment, indefinitely prolonged, when fruition becalms itself at the full, and satiety hesitates to set in. A certain subdued mighty hum, as of “the loom of time,” London lacks not; but a crass explosion never breaks it. The imponderable quiet of the vast capital completes her inscrutable charm. She has the effect of a muted orchestra on ears driven mad with horrible din of new America. As still as her deep history on library shelves, so still are her pace and her purpose to-day: her grave passing, would, like Lincoln in camp, discourage applause. Everywhere is the acoustically perfect standpoint. The cosmic currents ripple audibly along.

Therein I hear the Parcæ reel
The threads of life at the spinning-wheel.
The threads of life and power and pain.

Coal-smoke and river-fog are kind to the humanist. They build his priory cell, where he can sit and work on his illuminations, and know that he lays his colors true. “The man, sir, who is tired of London,” said the great Doctor, in one of his profound generalities, “is tired of life.”

At certain hours, the City is tenantless, and sunrise or sunset, touching the vidual tower of All Hallows Staining, gives it the pearl and carmine tints of a shell. “At such a time you may wander in the very luxury of loneliness, from London Bridge to Lambeth, watching the long yards swing at their moorings by the palace wall, and Thames running tiger-coated to the sea; and from the Gray’s Inn limes pass on to an unvisited and noble old bronze of an inconsiderable Stuart, lustrous from the late shower, beyond whom are the forgotten water-stairs of Whitehall, above whom is his own starlit weather-vane, with “the Protestant wind still blowing.” Where the Boar’s Head was, where the Roman Baths are, in the strange exchanges of chronology, where, in a twinkle, the merchants and journalists shall be, are the depopulated presence-halls in which you are

In dreams a king, but walking, no such matter.

All that was temporal in them has been swallowed by the wave of the generations of men who are no more. Poet by poet, from the beginning, has known the look of London’s void heart at night, and has had, next it, his keenest gust of sovereignty, on jealous marches when his own footfall is soft as a forest creature’s, for fear of man and of mortal interruption. The living are gone for the moment: the dead and their greatness are “nearer than hands and feet.” The divinest quality of this colossal calm, “mirk miles broad,” is that, to the sensitive mind, it is a magic glass for musings. In such a mysterious private depth Narcissus saw himself, and died of his own beauty. The few who have had eternity most in mind, have worshipped London most; and their passion, read of in biographies, has expanded, insensibly, the imagination of the many. The terror of the vast town lies on any thoughtful spirit; but without some touch or other of golden casuistry, of neo-Platonism, none can sincerely adore her. For the adorable in her is man’s old adoration itself, breathed forth and crystallized. That indeed, is the everlasting delight: London has nothing so simple in her bosom as instinctive charm. She is the dear echo, the dear mirror, of humanity. The Charles Lamb who was wont to relieve his tender over-burdened nature by a plunge in the surging crowd, and who was not ashamed that he had wept there, “for the fullness of joy at so much life,” might be the first to apply to the majestic and bitter mother who bred him, the illumining line of Alfred de Musset:

Car sa beauté pour nous, c’est notre pour elle.
[For its beauty for us is our love for her.]

She gives us freedom, recollection, reverence; and we attribute to her the sweetness of our own dispositions at her knee. Blessing us with her silence, the glad incredible thing, she lets us believe we have discovered it, as a fresh secret between lover and lover.

On Sundays, too, the dreary English Sundays of old complaint, what idyllic opportunity wastes itself at the door! Hampstead and Blackheath are efflorescent with the populace, but dark London wears her troth-plight ring of meditation. Her church-bells, indeed, speak: there is a new one at every turning, like the succession of perfumes as you cross a conservatory, and felt as a discord no more than these. Good to hear are the chimics of S. Giles Cripplegate, the aged bells of S. Helen, with their grace-notes and falling thirds, the great octave-clash of Wren’s cathedral, which booms and sprays like the sea on the chalk-cliffs almost within its sight. And the ghosts are cut again under the eaves of Little Britain and Soho. It is usually on Sundays, or at night, that you may view the young Cowley (curled up, among the geraniums, on the window-ledge of an Elizabethan house near S. Dustan’s-in-the-West) reading Spenser, his light bronze curls curtaining the folio page; and a figure of uncontemporaneous look, coming heavily from the Temple gateway, almost opposite, with a black band on his sleeve, is saying brokenly to himself: “Poor Goldy was wild, very wild; but he is so no more.”

The elective London of choicest companionship, of invited sights and sounds, of imperial privacy, is always open to the explorer: “London small and white and clean,” walled and moated, fairer than she ever was at any one time, warless, religious, pastoral, where hares may course along the friendly highway, and swans breast the unpolluted Fleet. Like the gods, you may, if you will, apprehend all that has ever been, at a glance, and out of that all, seize the little which is perfect and durable, and live in it: “in the central calm at the heart of agitation.” By so much as London and her draggled outer precincts are bulging and vile, and her mood stupid, cruel, and senseless, victory is the larger for having found here a spiritual parterre of perpetual green. And it is, perhaps, owing to respect towards those who yet believe in her, whose presence imposes upon her, in romantic tyranny, the remembrance of what she has been to her saints, that she does, in reality, walk softly, speak low, as if her life-long orgies were fabulous, and wear, to her faithful lover, the happy innocent look becoming the Republic of Selected Peace. Donne’s subtly beautiful cry is ever in his ear:

O stay heere! For to thee
England is only a worthy gallerie
To walk in Expectation: till from thence
Our greatest King call thee to His presence.”

O Stay here! Who would not be such a city’s citizen?

(1890)

MLA Citation

Guiney, Louise Imogen. “Quiet London.” 1890. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 27 Nov 2008. 25 Jun 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/guiney/quiet_london/>.

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