LITERARY REFERENCES CAN give important clues to how London sounded in the past when the author’s intentions are understood. In an epic poem such as Derek Walcott’s Omeros, artistic effect is expected to come before realism:
near the angled shade of All-Hallows by the Tower,
as the tinkling Thames drags by in its ankle-irons
This post will look at two works emphasising the theme of silence in nineteenth-century London: James Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night, first published in 1874, and Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, published in 1907 but set in the 1880s. Solitary walks through the city are central to both.
The City of Dreadful Night is an allegorical journey, like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, with London as Giant Despair’s castle. The city is often described as noiseless:
The street-lamps burn amid the baleful glooms,
Amidst the soundless solitudes immense
Of ranged mansions dark and still as tombs.
The silence which benumbs or strains the sense
Fulfils with awe the soul’s despair unweeping:
Myriads of habitants are ever sleeping,
Or dead, or fled from nameless pestilence!
The few sounds which disturb the thin air of Thomson’s London are jarring and abrupt:
The rolling thunder seems to fill the sky
As it comes on; the horses snort and strain,
The harness jingles, as it passes by;
The hugeness of an overburthened wain:
A man sits nodding on the shaft or trudges
Three parts asleep beside his fellow-drudges:
And so it rolls into the night again.
Thomson must often have come across street preachers in London, and the sight and sound of one is reworked as an atheist with a revelation of the world in collapse:
He stood alone within the spacious square
Declaiming from the central grassy mound,
With head uncovered and with streaming hair,
As if large multitudes were gathered round
Thomson spent four years writing The City of Dreadful Night while under the thumb of severe depression. The London he depicts is his own mind as metropolis and its silence reflects Thomson’s isolation. The poem’s odyssey, however, may have been inspired by long, penniless walks in real life. Even the indifference of London’s streets would have given Thomson a break from the company of empty chairs at home.
The Scots writer Tom Leonard describes it as a great poem, and you can read his appreciation of James Thomson here.
Conard’s The Secret Agent is set among emigré Anarchists in late nineteenth century London. Direct references to city sounds are uncommon, and Conrad’s goal as a writer was ‘before all, to make you see’. When silence and muffling of sound are described, they aren’t meant as representative of the whole city, but of that part experienced by the Anarchists and those sent to pursue them.
The secret agent of the title, Adolf Verloc, runs a shop with his wife in a poor district outside the main business of London life:
Early in the novel, Chief Inspector Heat confronts the Anarchist known as ‘The Professor’ in an alleyway:
Conrad also makes inarticulacy and weakness of voices a recurring feature of the Anarchists and their associates. Michaelis, who years before had been gaoled after a cack-handed attempt to spring some comrades from a prison van, has a voice to match his failure:
Verloc’s brother-in-law Stevie, whom he exploits, struggles to express his sense of the world:
The docile Stevie went along; but now he went along without pride, shamblingly, and muttering half words, and even words that would have been whole if they had not been made up of halves that did not belong to each other. It was as though he had been trying to fit all the words he could remember to his sentiments in order to get some sort of corresponding idea. And, as a matter of fact, he got it at last. He hung back to utter it at once.
‘Bad world for poor people.’
Even the bell in the Verlocs’ shop is imperfect:
No such problems for the Home Secretary Sir Ethelred, whose ‘deep, smooth voice’ announces his power:
The major thoroughfares of the city are described as loud with traffic, either when bordering Mayfair or in the ‘the sinister, noisy, hopeless and rowdy night of South London’. The Assistant Commissioner of Police leaves that sound-world when he follows the Anarchists into their furtive and unfamiliar domain:
As his begins his solitary journeys, the Assistant Commissioner has ‘a pleasurable feeling of independence’. But he is only a visitor. When Ossipon the Anarchist walks the streets, it is through a silent London which belongs to him as much as The City of Dreadful Night does to James Thomson: