Essay on London: A Cultural City

4. London a Cultural City

London had become a wonder, but was it a marvel or a monster? The Intellectuals of the Enlightenment saw that the future lay with cities: despite ancient anti-urban prejudice, the city now seemed to promise development, profit, pleasure, peace and the decrease in ignorance; city man was a civilized man. Voltaire reckoned London the cradle of social liberties and mobility by contrast to the rigid hierarchies of the fields. Yet, cities had enemies as well as friends; many still considered them as Babylon or Sodom. And, by a perverse logic, the greater the benefits metropolitan life gave, the more the urban writers attacked it, idealizing nature and complaining about the loss of rural innocence, in a movement culminating in Romanticism, “that opium of the urban intelligence”1. But it was not only poets who criticized Georgian London. Critics believed London infected all it touched, sucking in the healthy from the countryside and devouring more than it bred. “The capital is become an overgrown monster” complained Smollett’s character Matt Bramble2. To such critics London was evil itself, the nursery of vice, the tainted spring of fashion, riot and all the other imperfection and cruelties pointed out in Samuel Johnson’s satirical poem London. Despite such censure, contemporaries were energized by the urban experience: the city was lively, challenging, an antidote to melancholy. London’s diversity thrilled Boswell3; he likened the city to “a garden, to a musical variation, to an exhibition”. The streets, sights and crowds inspired him, offering an infinite theatre in which to perform or watch. London was constantly stimulating: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London….

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