February 17 – the poet, the London street, the great love poem (and for good measure, castration, impotence and sodomy)

We have a sighting. Andrew Marvell, author of arguably the greatest love poem in English, touched down in Cow Cross Street. This London History Podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Can’t seem to keep away from it, can I? And I get it. I understand the reason. It’s a guide thing. You get the bug – and boy do I have it – it turns London into a gigantic game of monopoly. Historical and literary and biographical Monopoly. In the game Monopoly you get properties and build them up – put houses and hotels on them. 

Well, for us as guides – the London Monopoly that we play – any London street can be our property and the houses we put on it are the pieces of history and biography and literary matters that belong to it.

It’s like decorating a Christmas tree. 

“Oh, so this happened here. Oh, so he was here, she was here.” Just as houses on a Monopoly property make it more valuable, those bits of knowledge make a London street more interesting. They can turn the hum-drum, the ordinary, into an enchanted forest.

And that’s why I’m back here this morning. I’ve just found out that the great Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell was resident in Cow Cross Street in the fashionable area of Clerkenwell when he took the protestation oath on February 17th, 1642.

Ok, what’s a metaphysical poet and what’s the protestation oath? The Metaphysical Poets – it was the great 18th-century litterateur Dr Samuel Johnson who coined the term – the Metaphysical Poets were a group of 17th-century poets whose work was characterised by the inventive use of conceits, extended metaphors in other words.

And as for the protestation oath, it was an attempt to head off the English civil war. In May of 1641 Parliament passed a law requiring those over the age of 18 to sign the Protestation, which was an oath of allegiance to King Charles I.

It’s good solid documentary evidence in other words. Thanks to it we know that the youthful Andrew Marvell – he was 20 years old – was living in Cow Cross Street at the time. For me, that’s literally and figuratively a house on Cow Cross Street in my personal London Monopoly game. From here on out, when I’m in Cow Cross Street one thought I have is, “I’m in the street where lived the author of one of the greatest love poems in the English language.”

And of course the complicating factor – it’s complicated but agreeable – is how much play does Andrew Marvell get if I’m guiding Cow Cross Street. Is it just a bit of context: one of the great literary ghosts of this street is Andrew Marvell, the author of To His Coy Mistress. He was living here in 1642 when he signed the protestation oath. Give them a quick explanation of the protestation oath. Say that he was just 20 at the time. That his writing To His Coy Mistress was ten years in the future. And that it was his housekeeper who published it, in 1681, several years after Marvell’s death. 

Maybe quote a couple of its famous lines and leave it at that.

Or do I dive in deeper. Tell them about the literary wars Marvell got caught up in. That he was accused of sodomy and impotence and alleged to have been surgically castrated.

Well, sorting through those riches, that’s the sort of guiding problem you want to have.

But I’m not guiding here. I’m podcasting. So let’s end with a full reading of that great poem.

To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love would grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,

But thirty thousand to the rest;

An age at least to every part,

And the last age should show your heart.

For, lady, you deserve this state,

Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear

Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:

And yonder all before us lie

Deserts of vast eternity.

Thy beauty shall no more be found;

Nor, in thy marble vaults, shall sound

My echoing song; then worms shall try

That long-preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust:

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing soul transpires

At every pore with instant fires,

Now let us sport us while we may,

And now, like amorous birds of prey,

Rather at once our time devour

Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

Let us roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball,

And tear our pleasure with rough strife

Through the iron gates of life:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

You’ve been listening to the London History Podcast for February 17th. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya next time.

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