London Calling: The Urban Chronotope of Romanticism


The long-established scholarly project of a specifically literary history has often been called into question in recent decades, whether through challenges to the idea that literature constitutes a separate and distinct strand of culture or through critiques of the ideological and exclusionary bias in the concept of history itself. This is nowhere more the case than in literary studies of Romanticism, a period of Western culture whose intellectual coherence has been debated ever since its inception but which has been subject to particularly strong skepticism since the late 1960s. We have been shown through intricate close readings of its texts, that the “rhetoric of Romanticism,” anticipating late 20th-century poststructuralist theory, undermines belief that language can provide anything other than figures of speech; we have been told that this radical rhetorical shiftiness means that the major poetry of this period can do nothing more than gesture toward self-contradictory meanings, even as it does so with brilliant insight into its own blindness. We have also been told by critics engaged in cultural studies and ideology critique that the ideas of nature, myth, and the symbol-making imagination, unifying concerns of the Romantic movement for critics in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, are part and parcel of a self-mystified, politically reactionary “Romantic ideology.” A recent essay by Jerome McGann, who coined the latter phrase, asks bluntly, “Is Romanticism Finished?”

Allowing for the double-entendre of McGann’s title and acknowledging his conclusion—that the Byronic strain of Romanticism, at least, is still recognizable in the fiction of J. M. Coetzee—I propose that the larger implication of this question is not, indeed, justified. There is still plenty of forest discernable among these trees in the idea of Romanticism as a historical epoch or cultural movement, especially in the light provided by another critical theorist, rediscovered in these same decades, Mikhail Bakhtin, a thinker who looks back to Romanticism as well as ahead to Post-modernism from the perspective of a distinctively Russian modernity. The essay that follows takes up a topic not often associated with Romantic writers, the city—specifically the representation of the city of London in British Romantic literature—using Bakhtin’s suggestive but under-developed concept of the “chronotope” as an interpretive framework. Through Bakhtin’s chronotope, I will argue, we can see literary representations of London in the Romantic period in a usefully synoptic and generic way. To put it more poetically, the chronotope helps us hear London calling, articulating a version of urban experience through imaginative writers of this period and persuasion with distinctive and distinguishable intonations, a type of urban utterance quite different from the ones we find in earlier Neo-classical representations or later Realist renderings of the city.


Bakhtin introduces his concept of the “chronotope,” at the beginning of the long essay “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” in the following way: “We will give the name chronotope (literally, ‘time space’) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (84). He goes on to say that the concept has “intrinsic generic significance” (84-85). He then discusses the features of different “time space” configurations in a series of genres from the history of the novel: the adventure novel of ordeal, the adventure novel of everyday life, ancient biography and autobiography, folkloric comedy, and later forms of fiction like the idyll.  His concept offers an especially useful way of redacting the many Romantic representations of London. Such a chronotope is, of course, a huge simplification of the buzzing, blooming complexity of this, the largest and most industrialized city in the Western world at the time, with a population close to one million in 1801and well over six million by 1837. Nevertheless, in discerning a dominant time-space, an imaginative construction of “relative typological stability,” as Bakhtin describes it (85), in the literature of this period, we can see a literary mapping or imaginative positioning system informing otherwise quite different evocations of London—in texts by Blake, Godwin, Wordsworth, Mary Robinson, Byron, De Quincy, Leigh Hunt and other writers whom we still call—generically—Romantic today.1 Like the much older concept of literary genre, such formal and thematic characterizations of a literary period mediate between the minute particulars of an individual author, text or passage and the more generalizable agenda of intellectual concerns that these particulars together address.

Blake’s lyric poem “London” is a classic example, an exemplary instance, of the urban Romantic chronotope. What characterizes the poem’s temporal and spatial markings in the representation of the city is their otherness—the way the time and space of the lyric present of the poem are estranged from contemporary immediacy. London becomes a latter-day Jerusalem, as repetition of the word “mark” in the first stanza conjures up the ninth chapter of Ezekiel, invoking a Jerusalem whose ruling class has itself been estranged—exiled to a more powerful city, Babylon—from which Ezekiel is transported back in a vision. Furthermore, this biblicized London of the ancient past is awaiting an imminent future of more complete destruction, to be administered by the “destroying” angels who will only spare those “marked” by the recording angel because they alone are lamenting the city’s spiritual profanation. In the third stanza, with its vision of blood running down palace walls, London is geographically displaced as well. Superimposed upon it is the Paris of the ongoing Revolution in France, where the blood of monarchs, not just impressed soldiers, is being spilled. The chronotope of London is thus defined by a disorienting alterity of temporal and geographical coordinates. The otherness of the city, its estrangement from itself in this “Song of Experience,” will be writ large in Blake’s later apocalyptic epic Jerusalem, with its elaborate vision of “the Spiritual Four-fold/ London” (203).

Further markers of otherness in this powerful and disconcerting poem will occur to anyone familiar with it: the estrangement from the verbal text of its visual design (an estrangement redoubled by the disconnected top and bottom images of human figures), the non-directional “wandering” of the speaker-observer, the downtrodden otherness of the urban underclass whom the speaker “marks” and “hears,” the continual morphing of visual details into auditory ones (and vice-versa), the transformation of marriage into funeral rites in the final oxymoron of the “marriage hearse” (27). But since this essay is focused on a generic construct and not just an individual text, let me add marks and echoes of otherness from other Romantic visions of London to this list. Consider Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” (composed as he was leaving London for France,), where the wonders of a clear sky and “smokeless air” at dawn in the typically smoke-filled atmosphere of the city lead to an extravagant shift of the poet’s attention from this transitory urban scene to a perennial “first splendor” of the sun rising anywhere in nature, perhaps in the first splendor of the Creation itself. But the vision turns to an intimation of mortality—of urban death, in the perception of the city’s “mighty heart as “lying still” rather than beating actively—in the last line (285).

Or, in a different emotional register, think of Don Juan’s entrance into London in the eleventh canto of Byron’s open-ended epic, the prospective view of the metropolis through the eyes of the hero, a cosmopolitan exile from Spain diplomatically representing imperial Russia (proceeding from the retrospective view of a cosmopolitan English exile writing in Italy). Here the abiding naiveté of the hero contrasts with the persistent ironic attitude of the narrator. Or think of the sleight of hand at the very end of Mary Robinson’s lyric “London’s Summer Morning,” in many ways not unlike Swift’s satiric sketch of London in the rain from the previous century, but suddenly dissolving the detailed realism of the outward scene not into the gutter, as in Swift’s poem, but into an inwardness of the imagination: “the poor poet wakes from busy dreams,/ To paint the summer morning,” the poem concludes (118).

In fact, it is often against the background of a more substantive and appealing world of Nature, far beyond the city’s precincts, that London, called by Cobbett a disfiguring “great wen” on the countryside in his Tory radical Rural Rides, is frequently judged (passim). It was not judged this way by Blake, the Londoner who found rural Felpham oppressive, but it certainly was by Wordsworth, the native son of the Lake District, as he described his “Residence in London” in Book VII of The Prelude.  In this configuration of the chronotope of urban otherness, the city is seen as an unnatural artifice, as a chaotic, disconnected series of “spectacles,” observable in the popular but vulgar panoramas, pantomimes and traditional fairs, sites where rootless (and, as far as Wordsworth is concerned, witless) citizens lose their moral moorings. It is symptomatic of the way his representation of London reaches north toward Nature throughout Book VII that the poet interweaves his account of a melodrama he saw in London, The Maid of Buttermere, with his memory of the wronged young woman on whose story the play was based, whom he has seen, pure and demure, back in Cumbria. Most notable and noted is the monitory blind beggar, with the “written paper” on his chest telling the public at large who he is, “a type,/ Or emblem” of city life that leads to the poet to feel he is being “admonished from another world.” “My mind did at that spectacle turn round/ As with the might of waters,” he reports (483). This is one of the many conversions from an outward here and now of perception to an inward elsewhere of imagination—provoked by the curiously spatialized arrests of temporality that Wordsworth later calls ”spots of time” (565).

London is alienated from itself in its artificial opposition to the otherness of nature. But it can also be rendered alien or other by its deep historical past, a past still visible within it. This is a temporal dislocation rather than the geographical and ontological one that Wordsworth envisions in The Prelude. The distant vista opened up within London by history can be seen most clearly in Leigh Hunt’s essays of The Town, originally called “The Streets of London.”  Hunt begins with an observation on a comment by Boswell about how different a place London was to people from different professions or walks of life. Even with Johnson’s help, however, Hunt ventures that Boswell “probably saw nothing in London of the days gone by” (3). Nevertheless, he asserts, to the trained eye the past is “nowhere so traceable” as in London, “nor is there a single spot in London in which the past is not visibly present to us, either in the shape of some old buildings, or at least in the names of the streets” (4). St. Paul’s Churchyard, to which he devotes two essays, even contains “the final remains of ancient Britons and of the sea”—“including the bones of “some unknown monster, mammoth or behemoth, [which] howled in the twilight over the ocean solitude now called London” (5-6). London’s past is visible, Hunt suggests, even from a time before the Flood. He deftly distinguishes Ancient British London, Roman London, Saxon London and Norman London, and he goes on to describe the still visible changes in the character and appearance of the city from Norman times to the present.

The displacement of attention from the commercial present to the antiquarian past can be found in other descriptions, for example, in Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon: in his several Christmas essays, in “London Antiques” and especially in “Little Britain,” which begins, “In the centre of the great city of London lies a small neighborhood consisting of a cluster of narrow streets and courts, of very venerable and debilitated houses” (197). The call of London past can also be heard clearly in some of Laetitia Landon’s poems, like “Picadilly,” which begins “The sun is on the crowded street,/ It kindles those old towers;/ Where England’s noblest memories meet,/ Of old historic hours” (243). The otherness of London’s history shows a more pathetic, human face in Charles Lamb’s essay, “A Complaint of the Decay of Beggars in the Metropolis.”

Still another form of the time-space of estrangement in the city occurs in Godwin and De Quincey.  This might be called the vision of urban otherness through the lens of psychic distress. In the nightmarish London chapters of Godwin’s Caleb Williams, the hero finds the city “an inexhaustible reservoir of concealment” for others but a source of paranoid isolation for himself, “a deserted, solitary wretch in the midst of my species” (254, 255). This extended description of the city as the site of arrest and imprisonment, threatened and realized, makes London a site of unjust removal from normal society, removal from hopeful ‘things as they should be’ to desperate “things as they are,” as the subtitle has it. Of course this was not an unreasonable way for Godwin to imagine London during the increasingly harsh government repression during the 1790s. It is even echoed, I would argue, in the Miltonic word “pent,” used in passing by Keats as well as Coleridge to describe their claustrophobic experience of London. “For I was raised/ In the great city, pent mid cloisters dim,” the poet tells his infant son in “Frost at Midnight” (88). The trope of the city as a prison, a place of institutional confinement, was not uncommon in this period.

In the case of the London episodes in De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the trauma of the city is more personal, an agony, he calls it, compounded of financial destitution, social isolation and desperate physical hunger. A young prostitute, “one of the female peripatetics who are technically called Street-walkers” (203), as he calls her with the benefit of more detached and ironic hindsight, becomes his best friend—and a source of real grief when he loses contact with her. The ultimate psychic distortion of the urban scene, of course, comes to De Quincey via the drug of his title: “Opium: dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain” (217). The man who gives it to him is the “unconscious minister of celestial pleasures” and remains “the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself” (218). Wordsworth’s spot of time can be chemically induced; Blake’s fourfold vision can be purchased for a shilling. And yet London can be the site of more mysterious psychological derangement, as in Hawthorne’s late Romantic tale “Wakefield,” where a husband walks out on his wife and lives for 20 years in the next street in London without her knowing what has become of him. “He had contrived, or rather he had happened, to dissever himself from the world—to vanish—to give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead,” we are told at the time of his inexplicable return to hearth and home (197).

I’d like to return to my exemplar of this Romantic chronotope, Blake’s poem “London.”  In this evocation of the city, we are given unspecified “charter’d” streets, inhabitants under divine judgment as well as those under social oppression, a landscape transforming itself into a soundscape through highly condensed figurative language, an undirected “wandering.” The specific time-space of Blake’s London is symptomatic of the time-space of the generic urban chronotope we have been considering. London is estranged from itself, haunted by the various arenas of otherness that organize the larger period imagination of Romanticism: rural nature, the historical past, the lower classes, the oppressive artifice of civilization and the prospect, exciting or alarming, of revolution.  London is seen as otherwise and elsewhere, most of all through the power of the Imagination itself, that quintessential creative faculty that purports to “see into the life of things” but ends up seeing through the fixities and densities of the urban setting.

Nevertheless, London was not always seen this way, nor did this continue to be London’s typical or dominant literary representation thereafter. The indignantly departing character Thales of Samuel Johnson’s “London: A Poem in Imitation of Juvenal’s Third Satire,” unlike Blake’s poet-prophet, judges “these degenerate days” against the imperial glories common to Rome and London in their golden ages (69). Johnson’s Neoclassical or Enlightenment city gives a generalized representation of a paradigmatic world capitol, the capitol city here and now as well as back then. Rome is not culturally other than or historically distant from London. In its vices as well as its virtues, it is fundamentally—perennially—the same. The Enlightenment chronotope of London emphasizes a reassuring sameness rather than a disconcerting otherness across the ages. The sardonic perspective of Juvenal is still perspicuous for Johnson. Later on, in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, the “venerable Jew” Riah, unlike Blake’s wandering observer, “went into the fog, and was lost to the eyes of St. Mary Axe. But the eyes of this history can follow him westward, by Cornhill, Cheapside, Fleet Street, and the Strand, to Picadilly and the Albany” (420-21). Riah’s journey is purposeful, and its mimetically orienting, specifically named streets belong to the later chronotope of Victorian or Realist London. The unexpected, often sinister connectedness of its diverse inhabitants and far-flung neighborhoods is only gradually revealed in the reversals of fortune and lineage in this and other Dickens novels.2


Having offered these instances of the typical representation of London’s urban time and space, “intrinsically connected” in Romantic literature as Bakhtin assures us they must be, I need to return to Bakhtin’s formulation in my conclusion and acknowledge that this particular chronotope of urban otherness was not the only one available to a writer in the Romantic period. “Within the limits of a single work or within the total literary output of a single author we may notice a number of different chronotopes, and complex interactions among them,” Bakhtin cautions. “Chronotopes are mutually inclusive, they co-exist, they may be interwoven with, replace or oppose one another” (252). I am arguing that the chronotope I have described here is the most characteristic way that London was represented by writers in the several decades before and after 1800. But it was not the only way. In Mary Robinson’s “total literary output,” there is her essay “Present State of the Manners, Society, Etc. Etc. of the Metropolis of England.” Here Robinson celebrates the cosmopolitan diversity and commercial progressiveness of London.  I have already noted the similarity of her “London’s Summer Morning” to Swift’s earlier “Description of a City Shower.” And in Canto XI of Don Juan, I must acknowledge that Byron has “interwoven” the new Romantic chronotope of London with the earlier neoclassical one characterized above, Byron being more indebted to the techniques of 18thcentury satire than most of his contemporaries. Within the literature of American visitors to London, Joseph Ballard’s journal of 1815 takes a pragmatic, republican view of the city’s wonders. Ballard points out to his guide that the grand royal residences he is being shown are all very well, but they must have cost British taxpayers a great deal of money, a perception quite different from Irving’s antiquarian appreciations. Indeed, one might go further and identify a Utilitarian chronotope of London, a Unitarian chronotope, a Working Class Radical chronotope and the like, all within the Romantic era, so-called.

Such a taxonomy would require a good deal more time and space to develop than I have here, however. And it would simply identify counter-genres to the dominant generic construction—alternative chronotopic representations of the “world city,” the “scattered city,” the “metropolis of empire,” as London was also called at the time. The variety of such alternative time-space constructs, acknowledged by Bakhtin at the risk of proliferating his usefully generalizing concept out of conceptual existence, hints at the persisting idiographic resistance to the nomothetic attempts of writers and thinkers, creative and critical, past and present, to sum up the city and the period definitively, even provisionally, with scientific exactitude. It conjures up the Crocean subversion of genre theory, where there are as many genres of literature as there are literary works, a view which is also a subversion of literary history.

But hope springs eternal. As reported in an article by Jennifer Howard in The Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago, there is now a “Map of Early Modern London” on the Internet.  The master builder of this site, Jenelle Jenstad, talks of putting up tens of thousands of visual and verbal texts describing London between 1475 and 1650. “We’ve created a literary corpus of immense size,” another digital humanist said of a similar site, “and surely this is going to allow us to ask questions of these documents that have literally never been asked.” Perhaps descriptions of London in succeeding centuries can be added to this exhaustive cyber-map.

But literary critics should also recall a similar project described by Borges, in a fragment entitled “On Exactitude in Science.” Citing a Spanish traveler’s narrative from the 17th century (a historical source of his own invention), Borges writes of an unnamed empire where “the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a single Province. In time those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But alas, “The following generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that the vast Map was useless.” So they left it to “the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters,” and (as with Shelley’s statue of Ozymandias) only tattered ruins of the map can be found today—“in the Deserts of the West,” Borges writes (325).

Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope balances our perception of Romantic representations of London, it seems to me, keeping us from the excesses of scientific exactitude and all-inclusiveness, ultimately useless, on the one hand, and the excesses of untethered humanistic imagining, the unscientific though delightful “invisible cities” of Calvino’s postmodern fiction of this title, on the other. As Bakhtin writes in another essay, “Discourse in the Novel”: “Every utterance participates in the ‘unitary language’ (in its centripetal forces and tendencies) and at the same time partakes of social and historical heteroglossia (the centrifugal, stratifying forces). Such is the fleeting language of a day, of an epoch, a social group, a genre, a school and so forth. It is possible to give a concrete and detailed analysis of any utterance, once having exposed it as a contradiction-ridden tension-filled unity of [these] two embattled tendencies in the life of language” (272). Such a dialogic view of human communication, cognizant of the power of norms as well as the force of exceptions, seems to me to point the way beyond our current uncertainty toward a reinvigoration of genuine literary history.

Works Cited

Alter, Robert. Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl      Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin. U of Texas P, 1981.

Ballard, Joseph. England in 1815: A Critical Edition of the Journal of Joseph Ballard. Ed. Alan    Rauch. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2009.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly Revised Edition. Ed.     David V Erdman. Commentary by Harold Bloom. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking Penguin,           1998.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Byron. The Oxford Authors. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Oxford:         Oxford UP, 1986.

Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Cobbett, William. Rural Rides and Social Commentary 1821-34. Vol. I. London:   Routledge/Thoemmes P, 1998.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Oxford Authors. Ed. H. J. Jackson.        Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

De Quincey, Thomas. The Works of Thomas De Quincey. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000.

Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend. The Oxford Illustrated Dickens. London: Oxford UP,        1970.

Godwin, William. Caleb Williams. Ed. David McCracken. London: Oxford UP, 1970.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Tales and Sketches. [New York]: The Library of America, 1982.

Howard, Jennifer. “Literary Geospaces.” The Chronicle Review. August 1, 2008.

Hunt, Leigh. The Town: Its Memorable Characters and Events. London: Hutchinson, 1906.

Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Ed. Haksell Springer. The   Complete Works of Washington Irving. Vol. VIII. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Jenstad, Jenelle, gen. ed. The Map of Early Modern London.

Johnson, Samuel. The Poems of Samuel Johnson. Ed. David Nichol Smith and Edward L.            McAdam. 2nd edition. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1974.

Lamb, Charles. Essays of Elia. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2003.

Landon, Letitia. Selected Writings. Ed. Jerome McGann and Daniel Reiss. Ontario: Broadview P, 1997.

McGann, Jerome J. “Is Romanticism Finished?” The Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature. Ed. James Chandler. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900. London: Verso, 1999.

Robinson, Mary. “Present State of the Manners, Society, Etc. Etc. of the Metropolis of     England.”PMLA 119:1 (2004), 103-07.

____________. The Works of Mary Robinson. Vol. 2. Ed. Daniel Robinson. London: Pickering    & Chatto, 2009.

Wordsworth, William. William Wordsworth. The Oxford Authors. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford:        Oxford UP, 1984.


1.I would like to acknowledge the help of colleagues on the listserv of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR-L) in identifying some of these Romantic descriptions of London. My understanding of Bakhtin’s “chronotope” has benefitted from an unpublished paper on the concept by Michael Holquist.

2.For a detailed sociological mapping of Dickens’ London with particular attention to Our Mutual Friend see Franco Moretti, pp. 115-34. Robert Alter devotes two chapters of Imagined Cities to the figurative realism of Dickens’ late novels.