Sharon Westerman, ’02
West Chester University

“London’s Summer Morning”: An Urban Poem by Mary Robinson

The dawning of the Industrial Revolution magnified urbanization, and London saw a dramatic increase in its population.  “Mining and textile factories were creating independent growth centers” in England, and as a result, nearly 80% of England’s population lived in either London or one of these growth centers (Porter 135, Mumford 146).  Workers were attracted to these centers largely because of better wages.  They fled “their clean healthy fields for a region of dirt, stink and noise” according to the agrarian writer Arthur Young in his writings of the times (Porter 133).  Still, a conscious effort was made to make the streets of London clean, safe and healthy with the introduction of various ordinances, together with the paving of the streets by the end of the 18th century (Botsford 196).

During these prosperous times London became a huge consumer and service center (Rudé 20).  Indeed, it became a center for international trade and shipping, and although London relied heavily on its provinces for its basic needs, it also drew upon its own resources (Rudé 24).  It had a “multiplicity of trades and crafts, [that were] variously engaged in producing, retailing and distributing, within [London’s] metropolitan boundaries” (Rudé 24).  It also had a varied social class — the aristocrats, the middle class and lower class.  The lower class comprised the working classes who were engaged in various endeavors, such as master craftsmen, small shopkeepers, skilled journeymen, apprentices, unskilled and semi-skilled laborers (Rudé 83).  Life was hard for many of these citizens, and they struggled to improve their lives.

In her blank verse poem, “London’s Summer Morning,” Mary Robinson depicts the hustle and bustle of a street in the congested metropolis of London.  One can imagine her contemporaries, as they woke from slumber, describing the sounds of nature, but not Robinson.  She fills her poem with noisy commerce, and captivates her audience by presenting the city in all its sublimity.

Robinson engages our senses with unrelenting street sounds:  “Who has not wak’d to list the busy sounds” (1).  She describes the numerous sounds that wake her every morning from her slumber.  It's this auditory imagery that identifies the occupations of each of these citizens in this busy London street.  For instance, the sooty chimney-boy “shrilly bawls his trade” (5).  One’s eardrums almost vibrate with the piercing sound.  In another instant she awakens our taste-buds with, “and the hunger-giving cries / Of vegetable venders, fill the air” (13-14).  One does wonder how well the chimney boy fares though, because business must surely be slow in the summer months.

Robinson constantly suggests how hot the summer morning is by using words such as “sultry” and “burning”.  These words also convey an image of how industrious these citizens are as they go about their various businesses.  For example, “At the private door / The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop,” (17-18).  The housemaid has a healthy red glow to her complexion, and again we associate red with heat.  Another example is:   “The porter now / Bears his huge load along the burning way;” (40-41).  We understand that he must work very hard to make his living.

Robinson alludes to the fact that the hot pavement has been sprinkled with water (16).  This would have been done to clean the pavements;   thus, improving the streets for the anticipated morning traffic of potential shoppers.  This no doubt was part of a conscious effort to clean up the streets, and improve London’s image during this great transition period.  However, Robinson mentions a pot-boy who presumably is about to fling the slops into the street hardly demonstrating a healthy environment (32).

Robinson also communicates her preoccupation with the nature of business.  For example:

Now ev’y shop displaces its varied trade,
.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .
Save where the canvas awning throws a shade
On the gay merchandise.  (15,  22-23)
During this time stricter ordinances had forced the shop owners to remove their wares off the pavements and into their stores (Botsford 196).  To entice shoppers they displayed their goods behind huge glass windows and Robinson remarks:   “Now the sun / Darts burning splendor on the glitt’ring pane,” (20-21).  The shops are doing a brisk business, and one is reminded of this fact when Robinson refers to herself as being a poor poet who is trying to carve out a living as a poet (42).

In short, Robinson does a fine job of conveying the clatter and the din of people who pack this busy London street and, although most of us would prefer to escape to the great outdoors, we can see that this busy street in London has many attractions for the citizens who have flocked to this great metropolis seeking to improve their lot.

Works Cited

Botsford, Jay Barrett.  English Society in the Eighteenth Century:  As Influenced From Oversea.  New York:  Octagon Books, 1965.

Mumford, Lewis.  The Culture of Cities.  New York:  Harcourt, 1970.

Porter, Roy.  London:  A Social History.  Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1995.

Robinson, Mary.  “London’s Summer Morning.”  The Norton Anthology English Literature.  Vol.  2.  Ed.  M.H.  Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt.  7th ed.  New York:  Norton, 2000.  92-93

Rudé, George.  Hanoverian London 1714-1808.  Berkeley: UP Cal, 1971.