Poetry, Art and Memories via the London Underground

I know that I did the right thing nine years ago, when I left London and came home to Cornwall. But there are things I miss. My stock answer is bookshops, museums and galleries, friends and colleagues. The wealth of choices.

But when a certain book, a lovely new edition of Poems on the Underground, appeared I realised that there was something more.The buzz, the indefinable something that London has because the big city is made up of so many wonderful small things. A mosaic if you like, while Cornwall is an oil painting.

Poems on the Underground was one of those wonderful small things. I was commuting when it began and I remember spotting a poem where an advertisement would usually be for the first time, and then seeing more and more.

I never thought I’d feel nostalgia for commuting days …

Many poems struck a chord, called up a memory, but none more than this one that had lived in my head ever since my mother read it to me when I was very young.

The Tyger by William Blake

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

* * * * *

And not only did it pull me back to my childhood, not only did it take me back to the London Underground, it took me back to the National Gallery too.

For around five years I had an office that was five minutes away from the bookshops in Charing Cross Road and five minutes away from the National Gallery. I spent most of my lunch breaks in one or the other.

I was taken back to one picture, striking on the page, but so much more powerful, so utterly compelling when you stand in front of it.

Surprised! by Henri Rousseau

I really didn’t think that one lovely book, one memorable poem, could stir up so much and take me so far.

4 responses

  1. I love the poems on the underground. I remember one of the first ones had a line in it about a mother’s hands always smelling of onions. I know now that I have turned into my mother!!! Will have a look out for the book.

  2. One of my favourite poems but I can never read it now without a smile as, years ago, I picked up one of those bedside books which had the following anonymous snippet in it:

    The Hunter’s Epitaph

    Tyger, tyger, my mistake
    I thought you were William Blake!

    I’m sorry but I’m not a fan of the Underground because I’m too grounded in the peace and quiet of Cornwall . . . I’ll depart before cries of ‘Yokel!’ assail my ears!

  3. I’d like to experience the bustle of London (can’t wait for my first trip, probably next fall) – the many delights of the city never cease to amaze me.

    I can’t imagine spending my lunch hours in a place like the National Gallery! Surprised is so colorful and beautiful – I’m sure it is unbelievably striking in the flesh.

  4. I’m so glad to live in the country now, but I did enjoy my time in London. How lovely to have worked so close to those bookshops and to the National Gallery. I was always based in the City or Docklands and I remember many happy lunchtime escapes to the Waterstones near St Paul’s. I love the cover design of this book.

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