The treatment of cities and urban spaces from different historical periods

An active Irish poet and playwright since 1939-2013, Seamus Heaney is considered as Ireland’s most influential writers since Yeats and among many of his awards, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995. Heaney’s poetry collection District and Circle was published in 2006 (and won the most Prestigious poetry award in England, the T.S. Eliot Prize). It is a collection of poems pertaining spaces and attitudes of cities and urban areas similarly to the second poet I will be focusing on; William Wordsworth and his collection of Lyrical Ballads published in 1798. Wordsworth is a prominent poetic figure in Romantics being Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1843 to his death in 1850. He is also very much, like Heaney, concerned with the relationship and treatment of spaces and in this essay I will be discussing the representations of the related theme of city and urban spaces and the differences and similarities of their discussion between the two in the different time periods. Within this question, I will be including the question of who controls these spaces, if they are restrictive, what they look like (aesthetics) including smells, feels, sounds, actions and structures. Furthermore, cultural behaviours and settings between the urban and rural will be imperative to discuss and their process and evolution as seen by the writer.

Beginning with Seamus Heaney’s poetry collection District and Circle, I’d just like to state before starting that I don’t believe you can discuss the treatment of cities and urban spaces without also mentioning the natural and rural spaces. Heaney does this constantly in his collection; he focuses on the city but worries about its course, whether that is the concern with human behaviours or its displeasing aesthetics and is frequently reminiscent of nature. It is clear that one of the biggest themes in the treatment of cities is the negative connotations that come with it, it seems to be that one of the only escapes from the city is getting back to the rural areas and its natural landscapes.

In his poem District and Circle which is named after the 1960’s way of travelling to work though the London underground, Heaney takes us on a journey of his own experiences of going to work on a typical day. He arrives at the entrance with the stares of the familiar face of the underground homeless. Instantly we are greeted by urban designs and sounds. Homeless people are generally associated with the urban areas and as a product of the urban cities being over populated and not being able to provide or not caring enough to provide for its people. Heaney seems to comment at his knowledge of this and the guilt he feels; “but now my gaze was lowered”[1] almost in shame. The next stanza comments on the speed of cities and urban areas. This is the most typical illustration of cities and Heaney illustrates it very well with his poetic techniques. While reading this stanza we start rushing our words due to the use of frequent commas “Elsewhere, underneath, an engine powered,/ Rumbled, quickened, evened, quietened.” And we feel the effect of rushing and busyness of the underground. There is also a sense of a great disconnection between people, they are like robots programmed for a certain direction as opposed to the idea that Heaney transports us to in reminiscence of nature. The pace of the words and sentences slow down and instead of robotic aggressive unemotional words we are flown into a tranquil memory where, even without formally saying it, a connection between people enjoying lunches under the sun and on the grass is clearly made. The restrictiveness of cities are quite often a common trait of discussion in both Wordsworth and Heaney poems. In the third stanza of Heaney’s district and circle we are shown the restrictiveness of this urban space visually with the trapping carcass of the train but also the sad rush of men to give themselves up to its entrapment: “A crowd half straggle-ravelled and half strung,/ Like a human chain, the pushy newcomers/ Jostling and purling underneath the Vault,/ On their marks to be first through the doors”. Next he goes on to talk about the rustling and pushing of the unfamiliar but same bodies, the sadness of this imagine paints a familiar tone to the associations of urban cities, where we can brush up against each other every day but not know anything about them “when any forwardness/Was unwelcome and bodies readjusted/ Blindsided to themselves and other bodies”.  There is something deeply sad about this reality that I can still relate to, the final stanza sums up the paradoxical truth of the city life. We have progressed too much technologically but we have strategically regressed in our alienated social structures where people do not interact with each other but are engrossed with their own technology.  Heaney suggests this with his description of the unnatural designs of iron through earth, the “haulage of speed” (which may also represent the pace of technological progress) and the unjustified and unfeeling face of his father’s in his own reflection, alone while in a tight nit of bodies in a iron carcass.

Another aspect of urban space through Seamus Heaney’s poetry is shown in The Aerodrome, a place where aircraft fight operations take place. Here the smells, senses and controllers of the urban spaces are integrated within the poem. The historical background to this comes through the theme of World War Two, he tells the reader the story of a particular time he visited the airfields during wartime. Heaney begins by the abandonment and re-development of the airfield “First…back to grass, then after that/ To warehouses and brickfields/…its wartime grey control-tower rebuilt and glazed/into a hard edged CEO-style villa”. Here represents the post-war capitalist opportunities by the change in the place aswell as the change in language as he swifts us through a list of evolution from the basics of “grass” to the “hard-edged CEO style Villa”. Again the urban is described as threatening and a picture of oppression “Hangars, runaways, bomb stores, Nissen Huts/The perimeter barbed wire, forgotten and gone”, these always manmade objects conflict with positive human affection, “bomb stores” are built to destroy emotions and “barbed wires” are built to keep them out. Rather than the treatment of urban spaces this poem becomes the treatment of nature by urban spaces, cities tend to obliterate natural beauty “not a smell of daisies”. Heaney goes on transporting us through time “hot tar/On a newly-surfaced cart-road, Easter Monday/1994” the child in him is shown through the memory of wanting to be elsewhere and he transports us to the fair “The annual bright booths of the fair at Toome/All the brighter for having denied/…Wherever the world was, we were somewhere else” his disappointment is shown through this “denied” opportunity but he does not expect “her” to be a fulfilment of his wished “Had bee and would be”. Young Heaney is aware of an unfolding drama as he tries to focus on his love interest but the power of war clouds this. The suspense remains with aircraft and there is a clear mechanic description of this “Sparrows might fall,/ B-26 Marauders not return, but the sky above/That land usurped by a compulsory order/ Watched and waited- like me and her that day” he then injects young emotion in this “A fear crossed over then like the fly-by-night/And sun-repellent wing that flies by day”. Again urban settings are portrayed as a clear repellent of nature whether that is the aesthetics or emotional things “If self is a location, so is love” This also represents how emotionally; loss of nature can also mean a loss of love as it does not work with his love interest.

Some may say that Seamus Heaney is pessimistic about the city, however I have found that the majority of poets tend to be quite negative when the subject of the urban life comes to light but not quite always, quite surprisingly we will find that William Wordsworth sheds a rarely good light on the city especially in “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” where we see the interesting changes in themes and attitudes of the city through historical periods. This Italian sonnet was written about an experience that took place when he was with his sister Dorothy Wordsworth during a trip to France. The most intriguing thing about this poem is that fact that it is by a Romantic poet who speaks of the urban life in a positive light which is very rare due to their obsession with the beauties of nature. Stranger still, he starts with the quote “Earth has not anything to show more fair;” speaking about not nature but the city. His expressions speak of intimacy and the beauties of progress and the dullness of people who do not appreciate it. He then goes on to give a list of man-made phenomenon’s “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” this is quite unlike Heaney who does not find hope and beautifulness in man-made subjects that seem to always be in conflict with nature, Wordsworth suggests that they rather are a part of it. This suggestion becomes even clearer when he starts involving nature in line 7 as he suggests that the city is “open unto the fields, and to the sky”. Something quite controversial even in a logical sense as the two are so different when compared to nature and especially when he suggests that the city is free from pollution. “Smokeless air” Wordsworth writes a statement that is confusing in the sense that it is ironic and untrue, cities are most of the earth’s causes of pollution and it is ironic that he says this in a situation where there would indeed be pollution. Pollution resulting in global warming is a subject that Heaney is very much concerned about too especially in the poem “in Iowa” where a floods had taken lives, on the other hand, his concern is a result from different historical periods as Heaney would have been much more alert of these problems than Wordsworth. He continues however to surprise the reader by describing the beauty he feels the sun reflects on the city is more beautiful than when it reflects on nature. Wordsworth finally finishes by personifying the city with a “mighty heart” that peacefully lies still in the morning; he paints a calming picture of tranquillity in contrast to Seamus Heaney’s description of the rapid pace of city life.

Another one of Wordsworth poems is titled by the city “London 1802”, he declares the city as a place of selfish grandeur and ignorance

John Milton’s soul is addressed and required to be alive at that time in history as England needs him to raise her up again. The sonnet starts with a dramatic outburst of the speaker crying for Milton’s soul to return as England

[1] Seamus Heaney, District and Circle, Faber and Faber 2006, poem District and Circle p17

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