Cockney Visionaries


A Harlot’s Progress, plate two, 1732, etching and engraving by William Hogarth


London Calling


The Cockney visionary tradition began early. William Langland, who lived in a hovel along Cornhill, has often been compared with William Blake and John Bunyan. But he has also been associated with William Hogarth. The first scholarly edition of the text of Piers the Plowman, edited by W. W. Skeat in 1869, remarks that “to remember the London origin of a large portion of the poem is the true key to the right understanding of it.” The conflation of Blake and Bunyan, Langland and Hogarth, however, is itself a “true key” to the London imagination. To hear the music of the stones, to glimpse the spiritual in the local and the actual, to render tangible things the material of intangible allegory, all these are at the centre of the London vision. There is a film made in 1946, Hue and Cry, in which one of the protagonists is asked, “So you’re the boy who sees visions in the middle of London?” It is a most pertinent question for Langland, too, who in the middle of a London tavern sees the everlasting figures of Gluttony and Sloth. They are his living companions, but they are also types of eternity.

In a city where the extremes of the human condition meet, wealth beside wretchedness and famine beside avarice, there must be room for imaginative extremity. The presence of hyperbole in Chaucer’s writing, for example, has often been noted in phrases such as “Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous. . . . So greet a purchasour was nowher noon. . . . In al this world ne was ther noon hym lik. . . . A bettre preest I trowe that nowher noon ys.” But it has escaped the attention of those who characterise Chaucer’s poetry that exaggeration was in fact a familiar aspect of London speech. We may turn to the sixteenth-century diaries of Henry Machyn to register a bravura or bravado which has never since been lost: “the goodlyest scollers as ever you saw . . . the greth pykkapus as ever was . . . ther was syche a cry and showtt as has not byne.”

If we are to denote a London style, then this is one of its most significant tokens. It suggests aggression, and a measure of latent cynicism, which have never been absent from the city; it reveals also the need to impress, in a milieu where everyone and everything competes to demand attention, as well as an appetite for extravagance and theatricality. These are all qualities which may be traced in the line of Cockney visionaries, no less in Milton and More, Blake and Turner and Dickens, than in Chaucer.

Dickens was known for his superlatives and over-statements: never had he seen such excitement, never had he sold so many copies, never had he entertained so large a number. It is, in turn, one plausible context for that mingling of the comic and the pathetic, the farcical and the tragical, which plays so large a part in Chaucer’s narrative; the variety itself represents that striving after effect which characterises the novels of Dickens just as much as The Canterbury Tales.

There is a further, if less familiar, conclusion to be drawn. It has been suggested that, in Chaucer’s narratives, “causation and analysis have little place.”1 This is demonstrably true of his fabliaux and saints’ stories, where psychological complexity is altogether unnecessary, but it has been traced in other tales. In Troilus and Criseyde, for example, idiosyncratic characterisation is of more significance than any profound growth or naturalistic development. In a curious parallel the same habit of mind has been found in the King James Bible, which manifests an “additive, non-analytical style.”2 Is it possible, then, that this aversion to causation and complexity is part of the English imagination? It might account for that delight in caricature, that preference for varied spectacle over profound feeling, which is so much part of a specifically London genius.

It might also be glimpsed in the early urban appetite for allegorical pageants on a glittering, if occasionally grotesque, scale; in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries giants and saints, classical gods and Christian emblems, contemporary and legendary figures, were all jumbled together in a common aspiration towards the scenic and the magnificent. Painted castles, naked children, fountains gushing with wine, white and red, were part of the stage business; the action itself consisted of dramatic monologues, allegorical dialogues and scenic tableaux. It was a rich mixture indeed, and materially affected the staging of Tudor and Elizabethan drama where the same penchant for spectacle and melodramatic excess is evident.

That passion for the marvellous in fact animates a more general London vision, whether it be in an eighteenth-century masquerade where “Tom Jones meets the Queen of the Fairies” or in the spontaneous combustion of Krook in Dickens’s Bleak House. It is present in those riverine scenes of Turner where Dido and Aeneas are glimpsed in the landscape of the River Tamar, provoking the comment of Sir George Beaumont that the Cockney artist was “perpetually aiming to be extraordinary.”

Handel caught an air from a whistling tradesman, Turner borrowed scenic effects from a pantomime starring Polyphemus, and Blake adopted images from the Gothic dramas of the London patent theatres. Much has been written about “high” art influencing “low,” but the traffic often goes in the other direction.

When in the mid-sixteenth century the Princess Elizabeth asked her governess, “What news?,” she heard that she was about to marry Lord Admiral Seymour. She replied that “it was but a London news” concocted for the sensation and rumour of the moment. In a similar spirit the playhouses of the 1590s incorporated scandal and gossip, where one contemporary moralist depicted Londoners as “learning at the play what is happening abroad.” There was much enthusiasm among “London audiences for this kind of journalistic news and topical comment.”3 The demands of novelty were clamant and persistent, with the result that “sonnet sequences, plays, epigrams, satires and prose pamphlets had each year to differ from last year’s model.”4 Generic mutations and imitative flourishes abounded, but again we may see this as the condition of all successful London compositions where immediate effect and local sensation become indispensable. That is why in the sixteenth century new words were being constantly introduced within the ordinary vocabulary, with an affection for extravagant jargon. With the jargon came absurd mistakes in the use of overly expressive words, so intimately parodied by William Shakespeare in the argot of Mistress Quickly and others.

One of the great masters of jargon and topicality was Thomas More, the saint who all his life walked through the streets of London. He was indeed a Cockney visionary who created his Utopia out of an inverted and idealised image of his city; he lectured upon St. Augustine’s City of God in the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, and in his devotions at the Charterhouse tried to realise the divine city within the lineaments of the mundane one.

Paradoxically amongst the noise and mire of London it is possible to glimpse the spiritual destinies of humankind. That is what another Cockney visionary, William Blake, understood about his great city predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer when he remarked that “The characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations: as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same . . . Accident ever varies, Substance can never suffer change nor decay.” Only in the busy concourse of struggling existence, and among the transient movement of vast crowds, can such truths be vouchsafed.

Yet the spectacle of the city, with all the woes of the world, can produce hardness; the experience of its crowds might elicit only indifference to the undifferentiated mass. Thomas More’s writing against the “reformers,” Tyndale and Luther, is notorious for its spite and intemperance. In his Latin polemics More condemned Luther as “Furfuris! Pestillentissimum surram!” Luther was an ape, an arse, a drunkard, a lousy little friar, a piece of scurf, a pestilential buffoon. It is an example of Cockney invective which was used also by John Milton and William Blake in their attacks upon their adversaries. It is the language of the street. Thus More declares that Luther “ volutatur incestu” and “clunem agitat”; he writhes in incest and wriggles his bum. There is a scatological tinge to More’s polemics, also, which is wholly characteristic of the Cockney vision; Blake was preoccupied with “shite,” and More accused Luther of celebrating Mass “super fornicam” or upon the toilet. Luther is a shit devil; he is filled with “merda” and dung and filth. It is right to shit (“incacere”) and to piss (“meiere”) into his mouth and, look, my own fingers are covered with shit when I try to clean his filthy mouth. It is not the language of a saint, perhaps, but it is the language of a Londoner. It may be aptly compared with Pope’s excremental vision of London in The Dunciad. More’s writings in English also accommodate a wealth of colloquial speech that springs directly out of the people—“lyke a flounder out of a fryenge panne in to the fyre. . . . The lytle apple of myne eye . . . that can perceyue chalke fro chese well ynough . . . one swalow maketh not somer.” No account of the English imagination can ignore the persistence and power of such phrases; they have endured for perhaps a thousand years (certainly they were already proverbial in the late fifteenth century) and have become part of the folk-memory of the country.

It is appropriate to set Milton in the context of More’s polemic because he was also a master of Cockney invective. Milton was born in Bread Street, a few yards south of More’s childhood home in Milk Street, but they share more than local topography; they share the inheritance of that small London area where merchants and thieves and prostitutes thrived. “Noise it till ye be hoarse,” Milton exclaims in The Reason of Church Government , “. . . that ye be fat and fleshy, swoln with high thoughts and big with mischeivous designs. . . . O rather the sottish absurdity of this excuse!” He attacks the prelates who “have glutted their ingratefull bodies” with “corrupt and servile doctrines”; they were fed with “scraggy and thorny lectures . . . a hackney cours of literature,” and filled with “strumpet flatteries . . . corrupt and putrid oyntment”; they are scum, and harlots and open sepulchres. In an attack upon a rival scholar, An Apology Against a Pamphlet, he declares that the scholar’s papers “are predestin’d to no better end than to make winding sheetes in Lent for Pilchers.” “Delicious!” he announces while transcribing an argument, and declares: “How hard it is when a man meets with a Foole to keep his tongue from Folly.” His voice echoes that of another Londoner, John Donne:

Who wasts in meat, in clothes, in horse, he notes; Who loves whores, who boyes, and who goats

And then that of Pope:

Shut, shut the door, good John! fatigu’d I said, Tye up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead

It is the direct and colloquial speech, albeit turned into fluent cadence, which arrests the attention; the language of the streets has become golden.

Milton wrote polemical dialogues, like More, in which the demotic of the streets also enters. “Wee know where the shoo wrings you, you fret. . . . Y’are a merry man, Sir, and dare say much. . . . A quick come off!” He compares the prelatical liturgy to “an English gallopping Nun, proferring her selfe” for intercourse, and to a “Queene . . . that sanke at Charing-Crosse, and rose up at Queene-hithe.” He savours “a more perfect and distinguishable odour of your socks.” He works himself into a fine fury of discrimination and denunciation, trading insults as if they were blows and ending in withering asides such as “Wipe your fat corpulencies.” The same tone and manner emerge in the polemic of William Blake. The scatological emphasis—

The Hebrew Nation did not write it Avarice & Chastity did shite it

—can be set beside another couplet:

If Blake could do this when he rose up from shite What might he not do if he sat down to write

It is a characteristic London voice.

There are images in Thomas More’s writing which are also of urban provenance, particularly those of the prison and of the theatre. What better metaphors could, in any case, be chosen to represent the condition of the city? Allusions to the world as a prison run deep through London writing, and it may be significant that the earliest extant text discovered in the city was a prisoner’s prayer. More continued that theme with a threnody on the world as representing a city gaol, with “some bound to a poste, some wandring abrode, some in the dungeon, some in the upper ward, some bylding them palaces in the prison, some weping, some laughing, some laboring, some playing, some singing, some chiding, some fighting.” We may put this beside Dickens’s strictly comparable vision in Bleak House and Little Dorrit, where the whole world is described as a type of prison with all of its inhabitants as prisoners. In the final double number of Little Dorrit, in which the images of the gaol invoke all the weariness and melancholy of that London novel, there is a glimpse of sunset. “Far aslant across the city, over its jumbled roofs, and through the open tracery of its church towers, struck the long bright rays, bars of the prison of this lower world.”

The prison is everywhere in London writing. Thus John Donne, in a sermon preached to the Lords at Easter, surmised that “Wee are all conceived in close Prison . . . when we are borne, we are borne but to the liberty of the house; Prisoners still, though within larger walls.” He continued with this striking simile: “Now was there ever any man seen to sleep in the Cart, between New-gate, and Tyborne? between the Prison and the place of Execution, does any man sleep? And we sleep all the way. . . .” It is true that metaphors of prison arise naturally from our human state, and are to be found within many cultures, but the conditions of London in earlier centuries rendered it a particularly pressing and persistent motif. The dominant image of London in Tom Jones is that of a prison in which the hero wanders looking for relief; he may congregate in the prison yard of the city with “the mob” who have “one of their established maxims, to plunder and pillage their rich neighbours without any reluctance” or remain in solitary confinement, where “a man may be as easily starved in Leadenhall Market as in the deserts of Arabia.” In Amelia, another of Fielding’s novels, Booth and the eponymous heroine “are close prisoners in a metropolis of evil.”5 Wordsworth condemned London as “A prison where he hath been long immured,” and where its citizens are “Dreaming of nought beyond the prison wall.” William Morris maintained the imagery of incarceration with his apostrophe to the city as “this prison built stark / With all the greed of ages.” Matthew Arnold considered it to be a “brazen prison” and, in the twentieth century, V. S. Pritchett described it as “this prison-like place of stone.” The imagery employed by More, let loose as it were into the language, has a long history.

But if London is a prison it is also a theatre in which each man and woman must play a part. Thomas More understood very well the vagaries of the city as a stage, since he walked in costume all his life, and he offers one of its very first metaphors in his history of Richard III. “They said that these matters bee Kynges games, as it were stage playes, and for the more part plaied vpon scafoldes. In which pore men be but ye lokers on. And thei yt wise be, wil medle no farther. For they that sometyme step vp and play with them, when they cannot play their partes, they disorder the play & do them-self no good.” He is describing political activity within a city which, in more than one sense, was devoted to drama.

There was extravagance, and hyperbole, and variety, in every form. The citizens attended the theatre in order to see themselves in “city comedies,” such as The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Bartholomew Fair, which were set among their familiar shops and houses. It may also be that the manner and behaviour of the citizens were subtly changed by these dramatic representations. Just as it has been observed that Londoners became more extravagant in the presence of Charles Dickens, so that they might appear more Dickensian, so the Londoners of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reverted or aspired to type. It is a fundamental feature of city life, and thus an aspect of the city imagination. That is why sentimental characterisation, rather than psychological complexity, became the standard; there is no depth or consistency to melodramatic portraiture, and realism necessarily is displaced by spectacle and energetic movement. The whole range of urban entertainment is thereby characterised in these terms. The heroic operas of seventeenth-century London “were not concerned with growth within the mind . . . not concerned with the interaction of character ”;6 musical theatre used songs “to break up the dramatic action, which was reduced in complexity”; 7 prose fiction of the seventeenth century contains “little psychological insight”;8 Fielding’s novels display “limited psychological range . . . seem to embody a certain moral, social, or psychological idée fixe and display little of that symbolic variability and emotional ambivalence.”9 There was even a “London School” of painting which utilised all the special effects of stage scenes to create history paintings, classical tableaux and dramatic episodes in the alcoves of Vauxhall or the walks of Renelagh Gardens.

When William Wordsworth composed that part of The Prelude entitled “Residence in London,” he chose to remark upon its “shifting pantomimic scenes” and “dramas of Living Men”; this “great Stage” encouraged “Extravagance in gesture, mien, and dress” so that even the roadside beggar wore “a written paper” announcing his story. This last detail may be the fruit of accurate observation; as early as the sixteenth century the beggars of London were renowned for their theatrical tendencies. A seventeenth-century beggar, Nan Mills, depicted by Marcellus Laroon in The Cryes of the City of London Drawne After Life, was known as an excellent actress and mimic who “could adapt her countenance to every circumstance of distress.”

In one of his essays in the Spectator, composed primarily for a London audience, Addison alludes to the notion of the world as a theatre in which “the great duty . . . upon a man is to act his part to perfection” and “to excel in the part which is given us.” According to one literary historian Addison was here alluding to the “arbitrariness” and “inscrutability” of the theatre itself.10 But these are of course precisely the characteristics of the city and, by an ineluctable process, of the theatrical art associated with it. In Henry Fielding’s “Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men,” he declares that “the whole world becomes a vast Masquerade, where the greatest Part appear disguised under false Vizors and Habits.” It was this vision which prompted Daniel Defoe’s vast assemblage of journalistic and fictional reportage, generally concerning the sensation of the moment; he was one of the true originators of the English novel.

The monkey, the mask and the mirror in the second stage of William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress are all tokens of theatricality and imitation; the pictorial series itself presents a number of highly dramatic scenarios in which Hogarth introduces his characters as if they were already on stage. One chapter of Tom Jones is entitled “A Comparison Between the World and the Stage,” in which Fielding suggests that “life more exactly represents the stage, since it is often the same person who represents the villain and the hero; and he who engages your admiration to-day, will probably attract your contempt to-morrow.” Hogarth confessed that “my Picture was my Stage and men and women my actors.” The conjunction of Hogarth’s name with those of Defoe and Fielding does indeed suggest a new and uniquely urban sensibility within the English imagination.

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