Augustan Satires and Panegyrics on London and Byron’s Image of the City

  • Michael Gassenmeier


Having described the journey of his hero from Russia to Holland where ‘he embarked … for the island of the free’ (X, st. 64) the narrator eventually leads Don Juan over Shooter’s Hill from where he first espies the ‘great city’:

… Juan now was borne, Just as the day began to wane and darken, O’er the high hill which looks with pride or scorn Toward the great city … (X, st. 80; italics mine)

It is unusual, even in Don Juan, to find two rarely compatible perspectives or attitudes like ‘pride’ and ‘scorn’ attributed to a hill. But it may be felt to make sense if we bear in mind that Shooter’s Hill, situated on the Dover Road eight miles from London, is possessed of a remarkably ambiguous fame both in literature and in history. In the former it is praised as offering one of the most magnificent views of London, and censured in connection with highway robbery. In the latter it is mentioned as a battlefield of consequence in the Civil War from which the triumphant Roundheads hailed and the desponding Cavaliers cursed the city of London which had supported the Great Rebellion.1 In key with this literary and historical ambiguity, here, at the very beginning of the London passage of Don Juan, the ‘hill which looks with pride or scorn/Toward the great city’ figures as a metaphor for Byron’s narrative conception, for presenting London from two rarely compatible perspectives. This becomes very evident in the following stanza:

The sun went down, the smoke rose up, as from A half-unquenched volcano, o’er a space Which well beseemed the ‘Devil’s drawing-room,’ As some have qualified that wondrous place. But Juan felt, though not approaching home, As one who, though he were not of the race, Revered the soil, of those true sons the mother, Who butchered half the earth, and bullied t’other. (X, st. 81)

And a few lines later, after just such another juxtaposition of dissimilar views

A mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping, Dirty and dusky … (X, st. 82)

But Juan saw not this: each wreath of smoke Appeared to him but as the magic vapour Of some alchymic furnace, from whence broke The wealth of worlds … (X, st. 83)

the narrator ends his first contemplation of London from this vantage-point with the phrase: ‘He paused — and so will I’ (X, st. 84) Thus the contradictory views of the city are explained explicitly as those of the poem’s protagonist and the poem’s narrator.


Great City Great Fire Urban Experience Glorious Revolution Political Connotation 
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  1. 3.
    Cf. G. Gernentz, Laudes Romae, (Rostock, 1913); cf. C. J. Classen, Die Stadt im Spiegel der Descriptiones und Laudes urbium in der antiken und mittelalterlichen Literatur bis zum Ende des zwölften Jahrhunderts, (Hildesheim, New York, 1980), pp. 1–36; cf. M. Gassenmeier, Londondichtung als Politik: Texte und Kontexte der City-Poetry von der Restauration bis zum Ende der Walpole-Ära, (Niemeyer, Tübingen, 1989), pp. 2f., 104f., 298f.Google Scholar
  2. 23.
    Trivia: or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London, Bk II, 115ff. and 126ff., in John Gay, Poetry and Prose, ed. V. A. Dearing, (Oxford, 1974), I, pp. 146f.; cf. H. Meller, ‘Swifts Stadtsatiren und Gays Ursprungsmythos des vierten Standes’, Irland: Gesellschaft und Kultur, IV, ed. D. Siegmund-Schultze, (Halle, Saale, 1985), p. 165.Google Scholar

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© Michael Gassenmeier 1990

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  • Michael Gassenmeier

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