Restlessness and Rush of London

st PaulsSnippets 69.  Lydia Sigourney was a popular American poet during the early-mid 19th Century. Although she enjoyed considerable success in her lifetime she is now almost forgotten, perhaps due to the impersonal nature of her work. However, despite largely keeping her own life and her poetry separate, her poetry is descriptive, often beautiful, with depth of thought and great Christian conviction. In 1840 she crossed the Atlantic for a tour of Britain and France, keeping a journal of her travels. This was published in 1842 as Pleasant Memories of Pleasant Lands, a mix of her recollections and the poetry she wrote on her travels, inspired by the places she visited. In London she was overwhelmed by the huge population:

The restlessness and rush of the people, in the most populous parts of London, are among the best helps to a stranger in forming an idea of its magnitude. At first there is a dreaminess, an uncertainty whether one is, of a very truth, in the “world’s great wilderness capital.” Parts of it are so much like what have been seen at home, that we try to fancy we are still there. Names, too, with which we have been familiar from the lispings of our earliest lessons in geography, or whose imprint was in the most precious picture books of our nursery, assist this illusion. Paternoster Row, Temple Bar, Charing Cross, The Strand, Fleet Street, Bolt Court, from whose sombre windows it is easy to imagine Dr. Johnson still looking out, are to us as household words. But when you see the press and struggle of the living mass, at high noon, through some of the most frequented streets, or when, on some thronged Sabbath in St. Paul’s, listen to the tread of the congregation, like the rush of many waters, upon the marble pavement of that vast ornate pile, you begin to realize that you are indeed in the midst of two millions of human beings. A kind of suffocating fear steals for a moment over you, lest you might never get clear of them, and breathe freely in your own native woods again; and then comes a deep feeling, that you are as nothing among them; that you might fall in the streets and die, unnoticed or trodden down; that with all your home-indulgence, self-esteem, and vanity about you, you are only a speck, a cypher, a sand upon the sea-shore of creation; a humiliating consciousness, heavy, but salutary.

Two millions of human beings! Here they have their habitations, in every diversity of shelter, from the palace to the hovel, in every variety of array, from the inmate of the royal equipage to the poor street-sweeper. Some glittering on the height of wealth and power, others sinking in the depths of poverty and misery. Yet to every heart is dealt its modicum of hope, every lip hath a taste of the bitter bread of disappointment. Death, ever taking aim among them, replenishes his receptacles night and day, while in thousands of curtained chambers, how many arms and bosoms earnestly foster the new-born life, that he may have fresh trophies. For earth and the things of earth, for fancies and forms of happiness, all are scheming, and striving, and struggling, from the little rill; working its way under ground in darkness and silence, to the great crested wave, that with a thundering echo breaks on the shore of eternity.

The population of London has continued to increase since Sigourney visited and now stands at around eight and a half million.  However, at the time of Sigourney’s tour, London was the largest city in the world by population.


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