London Calling: The City of Immortal Rhymes
By Margie Goldsmith
It was sunny with cottony clouds as I strolled past the huge crowd at Buckingham Palace waiting for the Changing of the Guard. I had done that along with all the other London tourist attractions ten years ago.
Today, I was a tourist on a different mission. I wanted to see a real thatched roof, and I knew there was one at the Globe Theatre, a re-creation of Shakespeare’s theatre that didn’t exist the last time I was in London.
According to the map, I could get there by following the river path along the Thames. I planned to meander like the river, letting the day take me where it wanted, ending up at the Globe.
I leaned on the railing at Westminster Bridge, taking in the view. Boats of all sizes moved in both directions on the Thames. The sun made the river seem as though it was blanketed with glittering sparklers.
As I stood back up from the railing, I realized I had been leaning on a small plaque that read: “William Wordsworth 1770-1850, Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 1802.”
A poem followed and I read a stanza:
This city now doth, like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
Back in freshman English, I thought Wordsworth was boring, but now I was standing in exactly the same spot he’d been when he composed this poem.
I could see how the modern city evolved around old London. Tall buildings had replaced the fields, but the towers and domes remained. I could imagine the three-masted ships moving down river, sails billowing.
Today, the city’s garment was anything but silent and bare. Tourists speaking every language crowded the bridge, snapping photos of Big Ben and buying caps and T-shirts like “Mind the Gap” from sidewalk stalls.
I walked down the steps to the river walkway, past the long line waiting to get on the London Eye, a gigantic Ferris Wheel offering a bird’s eye view of the city. The road was bumper-to-bumper traffic in both directions as bright red double-decker London buses and sleek black turtle-shaped taxis pulled to a halt at the red light.
A little further up the path were outdoor bookstalls and the titles on their spines was like going back to my English lit class: Dickens, Keats, Hardy.
Further on, a man and woman covered head to foot in silver and wearing Elizabethan dress stood motionless, pretending to be statues.
The walkway continued through a little tunnel where a gaunt-looking man wearing a red artist’s cap, old red shirt and wrinkled rain jacket stood by a display of brightly colored envelopes spread out on a blanket.
He smiled at me through his white beard and gestured with delicate hands at a sign, which read, Poetry Recited.
About thirty envelopes were laid out like a patchwork quilt, each with a different crayoned inscription: “To a Muse,” “To a Rationalist,” “Bright Person,” “A Word of Love,” and “Incident at a Well.”
“Feel free to look,” he said “Do you have a poem for a tourist?” I asked, half joking.
“I do!” he said, his face brightening. “I just wrote one for a special friend of mine.”
He stood up taller, took a deep breath and began to orate in a deep theatrical voice:
This is London calling –
To a beautiful Lady
of the New World
Our old sends greeting.
He trilled his r’s dramatically, projecting like an actor on stage.
Set aside all hurts and harms
London has its special charms
No man of salt can be tired
In this home of the inspired.
The poem went on for a long time, the tunnel filled with the sound of the poet’s rich booming voice:
Out of the blue man can meet
A Lyric Poet on the Street –
Put some money in his cap
And the font of song untap;
A marvel in any land
Immortal rhymes on demand!
This is London calling
To one man’s special darling
Why not say it in a ditty:
Welcome, Lady, to our City!
I dropped a pound coin in his bucket. “Do I get a copy?” I asked.
From his vest pocket he pulled out a yellow envelope. “You do,” he grinned, eyes crinkling.
He handed me the envelope. Scribbled in purple crayon was, “A Welcome to London.” I unfolded the paper on which 38 stanzas filled the entire page.
“How can you possibly remember all those words?” I asked.
He seemed shocked at my question. “I wrote it.”
My poem tucked in my pocket, I continued along the bank of the Thames and suddenly there was the Globe Theatre: round, with white plaster walls and dark wooden beams, just the way I’d seen it in books, thatched roof and all.
I walked into the courtyard but wasn’t allowed inside because there was a matinee of Measure for Measure. But there were “Yard Standing” tickets available for five pounds, which was less than it would cost to take a taxi back to the Ritz, where I was staying.
I entered the theatre. There were no orchestra seats, just a big open pit where other audience members stood less than fifteen feet from the stage. The more expensive seats were in three tiers, just the way they’d been in Shakespeare’s day.
I was so close to the stage I saw the sweat on the Duke’s face, heard Isabella’s costume rustle as she entered the stage. But what astonished me most was hearing Shakespeare’s language, more than 400 years old, come alive when spoken by these actors.
I’d always understood Shakespeare’s words, but now I understood the meaning.
Later, as I stood in the underground waiting for the tube, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. In one afternoon, I’d stood in Wordsworth’s shoes on Westminster Bridge, had a poem recited to me by a modern poet who was a throwback to the Elizabethan era, and had seen a four hundred year-old play performed by actors who made the words spring to life.
I pulled out a notepad and scribbled:
If you plan every moment of your day
You’ll find you are living it only halfway
Instead wear your life like a loose flowing cloak
With room for surprises, adventure and hope.
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