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Postface: Reflections on The Literary Thames: River, City and Chronotope

Steven Barfield

I: Introduction

The Thames, as the contributors to this special issue of Literary London have made clear, is an ubiquitous and major strand of London’s cultural life and one that has persisted throughout the existence of the city. It functions in part as a kind of screen onto which a wide range of dreams, nightmares, anxieties, hopes and desires have been and are projected by London’s varied inhabitants, as well as by those who imagine the city from outside of London’s limits. The river can also act as a means by which writers envision change and transformation and revisit the half-forgotten traces of London’s past, just as much as somewhere that ordinary Londoner’s have used for work, pleasure and recreation. London, after all, has been since the eighteenth century at least, one of the cities that outsiders have most often dreamed about, particularly those who once belonged to Britain’s far-flung Empire. Contemporary Londoners appear obliged to continue with this wealth of representations, their anxiety recently sharpened by the fact the river, supposedly tamed finally by the Thames Flood Barrier, may once gain come to be seen as the enemy within that threatens London’s survival, due to rises in sea level caused by global warming. Simultaneously, the dreams/fantasies of government for a new ‘Linear City’ suggest that London may be expanded and extended along the Thames estuary to the sea itself, swallowing up a stretch of the Thames that has until now, been perceived as being outside of even Greater London. If this were true, then the Thames might have an even better claim to the suggestion of the title of Jonathan Schneer’s recent history of the river: The Thames: England’s River.

It is all too easy for Londoners to forget that, as Alexandra Warwick explains in her introduction, London is the Thames’ city and not vice versa: the Thames rises in the countryside long before London and flows through the city, via its large estuary into the sea. One Victorian music-hall actor, Dan Leno, liked to humorously remind his fellow Londoners: ‘London is a large village on the Thames where the principle industries carried out are music halls and the confidence trick.’ It was the fording of the Thames that determined the positioning of the original Roman settlement, and the city’s simultaneous expansion towards West and East followed the river’s course. The Thames has always been both inside and outside of London simultaneously, a major means by which the city communicated with the world through most of its history and also the aqueous highway by which the outside world entered London: the London docks in particular signalling the great flow of commodities that anchored London’s predominant position as the linchpin of an emerging global market during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. London was always a city whose importance depended upon trade. The docks themselves and their associated warehouses, functioning as storehouses for the world’s goods, were often singled out as one of the marvels of London by contemporary observers (Porter 1994: 188-190). These marvels of engineering and trade were also where immigrants to London often first made landfall and the Thames’ docks, were for many new arrivals, the first of London they saw. Such docks included Victorian ‘super-docks’ further down river such as Tilbury (built 1886, 26 miles down river) as well as the original earlier docks.

When the S.S. Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in 1948, bringing the first of many Caribbean immigrants to the then still imperial metropolis to aid the rebuilding of a war ravaged Britain, the youthful Trinidadian Calypsonian Lord Kitchener was filmed for the newsreels, upon his disembarkation from the ship (Sandhu 2003: 316-7). He was prompted to sing a calypso, ‘London Is the Place for Me’ to a new audience, some of whom were Londoners, suggesting how an imaginary London was central to his and others dreams. As Murray Fraser remarks in his essay, it is easy to forget that before the hotchpotch of recent urban development that has produced a kind of mini-Manhattan trading under the name of Docklands, London had possessed the most extensive and impressive series of docks of any world city to welcome newcomers to the delights of its Imperial grandeur. The river’s existence however, has always been able to blur boundaries and rupture demarcations between the entrenched conceptual oppositions on which a city like London is inevitably founded: the inside and outside of London; the domestic and the foreign: the city and the countryside; the natural and the urban.

II: Early Modern Pastoral Perspectives

Early modern literary depictions of the Thames often focused on its rural, quasi-pastoral nature, extolling its virtues as the main river among many, rather than a qualitatively special case because of its complex relationship to the city built on its banks. Michael Drayton (1563-1631) refers in a Sonnet from the sequence Idea (published 1594) to the Thames: ‘Our floods’ queen, Thames, for ships and swans is crown’d’. However apart from this first line, the Thames features as no more than the ‘queen’ of English rivers in Drayton’s poem and the poem moves on speedily to describe a 13 line list of English rivers for its remainder. London the city is not mentioned by Drayton in his poem. A similar treatment of the Thames can be found in The Compleat Angler (1653) by Izaak Walton (1593-1683); his celebrated account of how to fish in fishponds, rivers and estuaries (208-9):

The chief is THAMISIS, compounded of two rivers, Thame and Isis; whereof the former, rising somewhat beyond Thame in Buckinghamshire, and the latter near Cirencester in Gloucestershire, meet together about Dorchester in Oxfordshire; the issue of which happy conjunction is Thamisis, or Thames; hence it flieth betwixt Berks, Buckinghamshire, Middlesex, Surrey, Kent and Essex: and so weddeth itself to the Kentish Medway, in the very jaws of the ocean. This glorious river feeleth the violence and benefit of the sea more than any river in Europe; ebbing and flowing, twice a day, more than sixty miles; about whose banks are so many fair towns and princely palaces, that a German poet thus truly spake:
Tot campos, &c.

We saw so many woods and princely bowers,
Sweet fields, brave palaces, and stately towers;
So many gardens drest with curious care,
That Thames with royal Tiber may compare.

Although at first sight Walton’s gaze lingers on the capital’s river and its banks rather more than Drayton’s, this is in fact a view of the Thames placed in a much grander geographical and nationalist frame than just its London bound section alone would have allowed. The Thames is compared to the Tiber in Walton’s quotation, as the former is England’s main river and as Walton therefore implies is possessed of a classical glory akin to the river of the Empire of Rome. Walton’s is not therefore a view of the river confined within London’s perimeters and he emphasises a grand Arcadian setting for the Thames, rather than a simpler pastoral one (‘about whose banks are so many fair towns and princely palaces’). The Thames’ tidal relationship to the sea is also integral to Walton’s ambitious description of the special qualities of the Thames, as are the river’s ample length and magnitude a measure of its significance. Walton may have been a Londoner shopkeeper for much of his working life, as well as a writer of angling literature (albeit one born in Staffordshire), yet he still does not feel that London’s stretch of the Thames is really different from either the rest of the Thames, or indeed, other large English rivers.

Even Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599), while born a Londoner, does not perceive the Thames as London’s river in particular. Spenser penned the most famous English Renaissance poem about the Thames, ‘Prothalamion’ (1596), with its iconic, often quoted refrain, repeated as the last line of each stanza: ‘Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song.’ However, it is only in stanza 8 (l.127), that his ‘two Swannes of goodly hewe’ (Elizabeth and Katherine Somerset, the two daughters of the Earl of Worcester and soon to be married), actually arrive in their river journey at ‘mery London’. The greater part of the poem before that is taken up with imagery of their journey by barge from the tributary Lee to the Thames, which is drawn from the pastoral and classical tradition, rather than direct observation, or else concentrates its attention on extravagant praise of the brides to be. When Spenser’s poem does eventually reach the Thames it is striking to the modern reader how little description of the actual city there is, despite a striking image of the old London Bridge (149-150):

At length they all to merry London came,
To merry London, my most kindly nurse,
That to me gave this life’s first native source,
Though from another place I take my name,
An house of ancient fame.
There when they came, whereas those bricky towers
The which on Thames’ broad aged back do ride,
Where now the studious lawyers have their bowers,
There whilom wont the Templar Knights to bide,
Till they decay’d through pride:
Next whereunto there stands a stately place,
Where oft I gained gifts and goodly grace
Of that great lord, which therein wont to dwell,
Whose want too well now feels my friendless case:
But ah! here fits not well
Old woes, but joys, to tell
Against the bridal day, which is not long:
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.

Yet therein now doth lodge a noble peer,
Great England’s glory, and the world’s wide wonder,
Whose dreadful name late through all Spain did thunder,
And Hercules’ two pillars standing near
Did make to quake and fear:
Fair branch of honour, flower of chivalry,
That fillest England with thy triumph’s fame,
Joy have thou of thy noble victory,
And endless happiness of thine own name
That promiseth the same;
That through thy prowess, and victorious arms,
Thy country may be freed from foreign harms;
And great Eliza’s glorious name may ring
Through all the world, fill’d with thy wide alarms,
Which some brave Muse may sing
To ages following,
Upon the bridal day, which is not long:
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.

From those high towers this noble lord issuing,
Like radiant Hesper, when his golden hair
In th’ ocean billows he hath bathed fair,
Descended to the river’s open viewing,
With a great train ensuing.
Above the rest were goodly to be seen
Two gentle knights of lovely face and feature,
Beseeming well the bower of any queen,
With gifts of wit, and ornaments of nature,
Fit for so goodly stature,
That like the twins of Jove they seem’d in sight,
Which deck the baldric of the heavens bright;
They two, forth pacing to the river’s side,
Receiv’d those two fair brides, their love’s delight;
Which, at th’appointed tide,
Each one did make his bride
Against their bridal day, which is not long:
Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song.

It is tempting to say that this limited representation of the city was because London before the Eighteenth century was relatively smaller, enclosed within city walls and really meant the City of London alone. It thus impacted much less on the Thames and the way the Thames was perceived. Between the various aristocratic palaces near the Court of Westminster and the City of London itself, there was open country, meadows and such like, which made a recourse to pastoral convention more natural. The river Thames in the poem is more important as a means of communication than as a London setting and matches what we know about the Thames as the principal means of travel between the city proper and the Court at Westminster. Watermen and their boats were one of the most common means of transport in London before the nineteenth century. But while there was certainly less to see from the river in the sixteenth century when compared to later periods, it was never quite as little as poets such as Spenser suggested. In particular there is little sense of how by 1596, London had begun to develop its compacted physical identity in line with its increasing population and to overspill its city walls, nor of the development of grand commercial buildings such as Thomas Gresham’s The Royal Exchange, opened by Elizabeth I in 1570. In fact, contemporary panoramic maps of London such as Braun and Hohenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum of 1575, show how much was there to be seen and described (Porter 1994: 59). In 1632, Donald Lupton (Porter 1994: 138) described the Thames memorably:

always in motion: he seems something like a carrier, for he is still either going or coming, … Merchandise he likes and loves, and therefore sends forth ships and traffic to most parts of the earth; his subjects and inhabitants live by oppression like hard landlords at land, the greater rule, and many times devour the less; the city is wondrously beholden to it, for she is furnished with almost all necessaries by it.

The answer seems to be that for Spenser and other literary writers, the city and the river were still not conceptually associated with one another in the way that they were to become in later periods. Although the movement of the river is clearly integral to the structure and sound of ‘Prothalamion’, and the two subjects of the poem are travelling by barge with the river’s flow, there is as with Drayton and Walton, little feeling that it is specifically London’s stretch of the Thames that concerns Spenser. Spenser’s details of London are limited to where Elizabeth and Katherine will arrive in London, a description of the Temple and of the nobility of Leicester House, as well as ruminations upon the poet’s own losses and potential gains through patronage, one that is matched by praise of important future and existing patrons. If anything, the part of London that most interested poets such as Spenser was the area of Westminster, where the monarch and the court resided, rather than the overcrowded and merchant governed City of London. The situation of the Thames and its literary depiction had not changed much by the time of John Milton. As Rachel Falconer argues, Milton followed Epic models in using the general image of a river in Paradise Lost, but it is his minor poem Mansus that links the Thames and swans (poets) singing. It does so, however, by locating this pleasant conjunction outside of London proper: ‘where the silver Thames pours her green tresses from shining urns and spreads them wide among the swirling currents of the ocean.’ (Milton cited in Falconer 1997: 270-271).[1]

III: Wordsworth and the Thames Chronotope

Literary responses to the Thames grew increasingly ambivalent and complex towards the river, as the city grew, prospered and expanded through trade and immigration from the seventeenth century onwards and began to change its relation to the Thames. The population of the city and greater London had risen considerably from probably about 180,000 in 1603, to perhaps 675,000 in 1750 and to 900,000 by 1801, when the first official census was taken (Porter 1994: 131). In 1807, the poet Robert Southey (cited in Porter 1994: 93) remarked of a plan of London: ‘I [was] dismayed at the sight of its prodigious extent.’ Jack Lynch (2006) has usefully analysed how and why Alexander Pope’s poetry represents two opposing traditions at different moments of his career in a published paper originally given at the 2006 Literary London conference held at Greenwich University. One strand is the type of pastoral tradition of representing the Thames that stems from the work of poets such as Spenser (discussed above) and which maintains a similar conceptual divorce of city and river. The other which is more satirical stems from comic tradition that satirise such pastoral depictions of the Thames and that represent the growing pollution of the river in the area of the city. The old London Bridge’s restriction of the current alongside a mushrooming population was the primary cause of such unsavoury sights and smells , as well as of the Frost Fairs when the Thames froze over and this more robust ‘anti-tradition’, often associates physical pollution and stagnation with moral and political corruption. While the second of these traditions is not wholly absent from the early Modern period, if never dominant, it not surprisingly gathers pace through the seventeenth and eighteenth century as London grows as a city and pollution increases. As Lynch explains, one of the originators of this frequently scatological tradition is the Elizabethan waterman poet, John Taylor (working in Southwark 1590-1625) and John Dryden’s MacFlecknoe (1682) is another more memorable instance of the city’s Thames depicted as sewer, complete with bobbing turds: ‘About thy boat the little Fishes throng,/ As at the Morning Toast, that Floats along’.

However, for Wordsworth and other Romantics, depicting the Thames seems to involve modifying both traditions simultaneously. At once they are conscious of the pollution of the river and increasing industrialisation, while viewing the river as still able to bear something of its traditional redemptive and pastoral powers. Though that was perhaps, already starting to be threatened with being overwhelmed by the city’s growing influence and effluent. William Wordsworth’s celebrated sonnet on London, ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’, chooses to play out its dislike of the rapidly industrialising and pollution filled metropolis on one of the few bridges then located across the banks of Thames (550). Westminster Bridge was upriver from the older city and the water was therefore likely to be clearer than downriver. In addition, the bridge was much more modern and less restrictive of the flow of the Thames, while Westminster also had fewer inhabitants than the city. As Wordsworth’s title suggests, the poem is based upon what he can immediately see of the London stretch of the Thames from Westminster Bridge (built in 1750), itself an example of the key bridge building that did much to promote London’s urban expansion by linking the north and south banks of the Thames (previously there had only been London Bridge).

‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
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;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that. mighty heart is lying still!

It would seem that only at the special and liminal time of daybreak (‘the very houses seem asleep’), can London appear once more as non-polluted (‘glittering in the smokeless air’), and the Thames therefore fulfil its traditional poetic function of beckoning towards the possibilities of pastoral return, (‘open unto the fields, and to the sky’). It is important here than Wordsworth is making his observation and producing his poem, when London is accelerating its dramatic expansion and process of industrialisation. As the eighteenth century city grew into the nineteenth century metropolis, it was effectively determining the Thames to be principally London’s river. As William Blake remarked in ‘London’ (1794), from Songs of Experience, the Thames was fast becoming mapped, legally defined and portioned out to commercial interests (the chartered companies): ‘I wander thro’ each charter’d street, / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.’ A succession of commercial docks were being built by private interests, in the latter part of the eighteenth century to replace the insufficient system of existing river wharves (Porter 1994: 136-139): West India Docks, 1802; London Docks, 1805, East India Docks, 1806, Surrey Docks, 1807. These were attempts, like the setting up of the Marine Police in 1798, to deal with the extreme overcrowding of the existing wharves along the Thames, but they simultaneously helped to regulate the landing of goods and people. Such work on the Thames matched the similar eighteenth century property construction boom that had and continued to produce so many new ‘charter’d streets’ from pre-existing aristocratic estates.

London and the Thames that ran through it was becoming a map, as its open fields were being turned into regulated streets and squares of various degrees of social exclusivity and its previously tumbling, motley collection of quays and jetties into the docks that were being cut into the banks of the Thames. Wordsworth is perhaps more conscious of this change in the perception of the Thames in relation to London’s own development than he is often given credit for. But, whether we agree with Wordsworth’s view or not, which seems to suggest that only a dreamlike, perhaps deathly London can be perceived as beautiful: it is significant that the Thames and what is immediately around it should play such a central part in his poem, (‘ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples’). Yet, while the Thames of 1802 was very different because of Londoner’s activities than the Thames of 1596, the Thames still seems able to escape the city’s attempts to reign it in, (‘the river glideth at his own sweet will’), much like Spenser’s earlier portrait of the free-flowing, unimpeded river. This in turn suggests how easily in Wordsworth’s outsider’s vision, London’s may be transformed from bustling commercial metropolis to rural retreat, running deliberately against the grain of what was actually happening to London and its river. The real city in 1802 is not so much, ‘open unto the fields’, as in fact, inexorably gobbling the fields and river up, replacing it with a ‘mighty mass of brick, and smoke, and shipping’ as Byron described the city in Don Juan. Wordsworth’s poem imagines that the city of the much earlier eighteenth century (or perhaps even earlier than that) still exists because thinking of the river itself can transport us back to earlier times.

The Thames functions for Wordsworth and later writers as an imaginative chronotope, as Bakhtin defined it originally with relation to the novel, leading contemporary perceivers back to the river’s and the city’s past existence. (Wordsworth, values rivers as part of the rural, poetic landscape, for example, consider his description of the Derwent in The Prelude.) The chronotope is a figure that is simultaneously temporal and spatial, creating not only the pattern of the plot or argument of a text, but also the main symbolic structuration of that particular text. As Bakhtin argues, the chronotope materialises ‘time in space’, as well as the embodying the ‘abstract elements’ of the text (Bakhtin 250) Falconer has argued very persuasively that the river is a dominant chronotope in Epic literature and my discussion of the term owes much to her original essay, although the Thames within London seems less dominant and specific an image in Epic poetry than it does in other literary forms and genres. The Thames is a therefore a consistent feature and trope in cultural and literary depictions of London that wish to measure or relate the past to the present, or what is outside the city to what is inside, and a strategy which comes to exist because the city, the river and the city’s relationship to the river have all changed so radically. Yet as Wordsworth suggests in his poem, there is still something sublime about even a Thames that is being so altered by human activity, and it nonetheless seems to escape the orbit of the city that would own and control it. In large part this is because until the building of the embankments that Stuart Oliver describes in his essay, there was still a demonstrable wildness to the river in terms of regular flooding.

IV: T.S.Eliot, Fred D’Aguiar and the Intertextuality of the Thames

As David Skilton suggests in his article, Victorian poetry also uses the river to comment on the present, past and future. The Thames as an imaginative structure prompts that kind of reflection through inherent juxtaposition between its periods, its fluctuating chronotope providing a resource that can be reused for irony and critique. As London continued to grow exponentially in the nineteenth century, the few green spaces that remained were garden and parks, so it was one of the last examples of what was natural the city itself, even after being tamed by the embankments. In within this sense, when T.S. Eliot (1888-1865) deploys an ironic/ satirical citation of the lines from Spenser’s ‘Prothalamion’ (‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my Song’) in ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of The Waste Land, he is following a tradition of representing the Thames in part established by Romantics and Victorians. The Waste Land is more continuous with earlier traditions of literary representations of the Thames than it might first appear, though it is resolutely Modernist in the manner of its abrupt, fragmentary, unfinished presentation of previous literary representations. Eliot repeats the line from ‘Prothalamion’ twice and a third time in varied form (1005): ‘Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long’.

The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

Eliot as many commentators suggest, is using the quotation from Spenser to compare socially alienated, spiritually diminished twentieth century London and its river, to the historical fullness of the river of Spenser’s imagination. As Eliot’s poem develops , Katherine and Elizabeth Somerset’s progression to London by barge that is depicted in Spenser’s ‘Prothalamion’ becomes transformed into a retelling of an anecdotal story about Queen Elizabeth I and her favourite Leicester (one of Spenser’s patrons), who are also travelling upon a river barge. Whitworth (1998) considers Eliot’s strategy of allusion in more depth than I have space for in the present article. However, if ( as could hardly be true in reality), the Thames bears no minor pollution tracing the amours of ‘summer nights’ (‘no empty bottles, sandwich papers,/ Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends.’), then Eliot implies it hosts something rather worse, the by-products of London’s continuing industrialisation: ‘The river sweats/ Oil and tar’ (1008). Eliot’s strategy can be considered an extension of the kind of work Wordsworth was already using the Thames to do in his earlier poem, juxtaposing the present of the river against the past, though while Wordsworth’s use of the Thames as chronotope succeeds in offering up a transformed city, Eliot’s use ends in failure and alienation: London remains the ‘Unreal City’ (1006) that it was earlier in the poem, beyond the redemptive affects of its river. The inhabitants of Eliot’s The Waste Land ( the lost souls that flow over London Bridge), are reminiscent of the people ideologically remade by London’s industrialisation that Friedrich Engels had so memorably described in 1844 (1987:68 ):

And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their one agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance.

Eliot is perhaps also alluding to the passage at the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness her, in his image of the drifting barges with ‘red sails’; Conrad’s image is discussed later in my essay. Eliot’s description and use of the Thames in The Waste Land is complex, in juxtaposing an Elizabethan Thames against its modern counterpart, The Fire Sermon section of the poem goes on to point to the abjection of the present that has even overwhelmed the upriver riverside suburbs of the upper middle classes (Richmond and Kew). Hence the semi-personification of the Thames as a female voice (an ironic river nymph) telling us in her own voice of mechanical, passionless, perfunctory sex: ‘Richmond and Kew / Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees./ Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.’

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores
Southwest wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towers
Weialala leia
Wallala leialala
‘Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.’

The story regarding Eliot’s use of Spenser, however is not completely over. As Michael Chanan’s essay on William Raban’s Thames Film suggests, Eliot’s own method of intertextual citation and historical discontinuity is reused in a different type of chronotopic representational space and as part of a different representational medium. Raban’s film ends as more celebratory than Eliot’s poem and also disinters and render explicit the complex history of the river within the urban city. In this respect we should also note the work of the contemporary Black British poet, Fred D’Aguiar, for whom imagining the Thames becomes a reflection on his personal history as a lyric poet who grew up by the river in London, as well as a way of commenting on past, present and future. The Thames helps to fund D’Aguiar’s mapping of connections between the discontinuities and continuities of the experience of being Black and British, in turn relating this to how the history of the river is a metaphor for London’s changing communications with the world outside and inside of itself. As John McLeod (2004: 173-4) has argued, poems such as ‘Dread’ ‘Greenwich Reach’ and ‘Domestic Flight’ in D’Aguiar’s poetry collection British Subjects (1993), dwell on the possibilities of the river as a space that allows investigations of what it means to be British, now and in the past, and where the Thames points to the possibility of London’s transformation to a multi-cultural city. However, if the Thames and T.S.Eliot’s description in The Waste Land is alluded to in poems such as ‘Greenwich Reach’, then there is a more direct and sustained encounter with the history of literary representation of the Thames in the poem made for television in 1992, ‘Sweet Thames’. As Sukhdev Sandhu (2003: 311-328) informs us, this is a collection of stories, which attempt to reclaim the history of the river from the point of view of colonised and racially defined subjects and narrators (these include Olaudah Equiano, the passengers of the Windrush), whose lives intersected with the Thames at various points in the city’s long history of immigration and work. D’Aguiar’s Sweet Thames even includes the newsreel footage of the youthful Lord Kitchener singing ‘London Is The Place for Me’, as well as archive footage of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. For example, the real Equiano apparently never learnt to swim, but was pushed into the Thames in 1760. In D’Aguiar’s magical realist re-narration of the incident he is saved by a transformation that reminds us of how the Black community in London has transformed itself (the film shows footage of contemporary Black children swimming happily). In ‘Sweet Thames’ the fictional Equiano recalls :

When those boys pushed me in
It was for good or dead or both.
That’s why when the water
Quick time cover my head
I summoned Legba, dahomey,

Shango and their God too
Customised into mine.
With so many gods to my rescue
I was laughing all the way to the bottom of the Thames

‘Sweet Thames’ is unlike Eliot’s poem in terms of emotional tone and is perhaps more like Wordsworth in that respect: it is a poem that looks to the possibility of personal and cultural transformation through London’s river. [2] Despite the many problems that the various narrators of the stories speak about in their attempts to belong to a grudging British society, and against barriers of official and unofficial racism, D’Aguiar’s poem is finally celebratory, perhaps even Utopian in its optimistic gesture towards London. It looks to the successes of London’s Black and Asian arrivants in a communal transformation of the city, rather than dwelling on the problems they faced. In this sense the poem is more optimistic about the present and the future than Eliot’s The Waste Land, which after all is set after World War I, though in both cases the poems work through similar poetic techniques such as montage, citation/quotation and a polyphonic array of different character voices. Eliot’s influence on D’Aguiar is more at the level of form than of intention, despite the employment of the Thames as an effective chronotope in both poems. This perhaps suggests how much the view of the river as a reminder of social alienation, melancholy, disaffection and despair for T.S. Eliot (one consistent with how the river and its docks seemed to nineteenth and twentieth century observers who were not simply bowled over by its industrial wonder), had been erased because of the way the riverscape itself has itself altered, as riverside industry had departed and the docks were remade. Significantly in this sense, D’Aguiar in ‘Sweet Thames’ associates the Thames Flood Barrier, meant to finally protect London from the threat of flooding, with the barriers that protect London equally from immigration and new ways of thinking. For D’Aguiar the chronotope of the Thames allows the present to redeem the past, whereas for Eliot the same chronotope points to a critique of the present.

V: Dickens and the Victorian Thames

This function of the Thames as a kind of emotional locus and source of fascination for Londoners and non-Londoners, is perhaps not so very different from the similar role that all rivers upon which cities were founded seem to play in their respective cities imaginary lives; usually an inland city only exists because of its river’s initial importance. Yet for all the prosperity that such waterways as the Thames brought to the table through trade and communication with what is outside the city, as well as the water which resourced so much bank side industry, they also brought with them a myriad of fears concerning the ungovernability of these river, the dangers of pollution and disease and anxieties over what was foreign to the city, whether in the form of immigrants or culture. Stuart Oliver argues in his article that the nineteenth century was the scene of the epic battle between the Thames and London’s government, as embankments were built to domesticate and subdue its power. While as Alexandra Warwick suggests, the Victorian period was also the time when Londoners learnt to fear the increasingly abject river Thames; the city itself had turned the river into a source of pollution and disease. This malodorous reality is sometimes reflected in nineteenth century representations of the river as a place of moral and political degradation. Lynda Nead in Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain as shown that the river was associated with the figure of the fallen woman, as a cheap (and in the view of some Victorians) wholly appropriate place for such women to end their decent into sin with a watery suicide. In contrast, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations portrays the Thames as offering the possibility of another kind of far more positive escape, for Pip and his convict benefactor Magwitch, despite the fact that the river appears at first much more like a chaotic, rubbish dump than a navigable waterway to freedom (431); Dicken’s description a measure of how despite the docks built in the early part of the nineteenth century, London’s Thames is still positively overflowing with shipping and trade.

Again among the tiers of shipping, in and out, avoiding rusty chain-cables frayed hempen hawsers and bobbing buoys, sinking for the moment floating broken baskets, scattering floating chips of wood and shaving, cleaving floating scum of coal, in and out, under the figure-head of the John of Sunderland making a speech to the winds (as is done by many Johns), and the Betsy of Yarmouth with a firm formality of bosom and her nobby eyes starting two inches out of her head, in and out, hammers going in shipbuilders’ yards, saws going at timber, clashing engines going at things unknown, pumps going in leaky ships, capstans going, ships going out to sea, and unintelligible sea-creatures roaring curses over the bulwarks at respondent lightermen, in and out – out at last upon the clearer river, where the ships’ boys might take their fenders in, no longer fishing in troubled waters with them over the side, and where the festooned sails might fly out to the wind.

This begins as an image of an escape at speed from a river that is the polluted by-product of Victorian London’s working practices and which exists only as an extension of the city; one just as crowded (with flotsam and jetsam, congested ships and busy people), as are the teeming streets of London itself. The fourfold fold repetition of the phrase ‘in and out’, culminating in the final ‘- out at last’, rhythmically structures Dicken’s breathlessly long sentence, suggesting the physical exertion and emotional strain of the act of rowing out of the river into the open. The Thames is so jam-packed that shipping is tiered, as if in layers in a crate like those from far off locations the ships are depositing at the London docks, and the river seems a semi-solid impediment that their small boat must literally force its way through. The situation is much as a person might discover in having to force their way through mud or marshy ground, looking for firmer footing and recalls the gloomy, viscous Kent marshes in which Pip was raised. Samuel Beckett (Beckett 1999: 29) remarked in an aside on Dickens in an essay on James Joyce: ‘We hear the ooze squelching all through Dickens’ description of the Thames in Great Expectations’.[3] At last, with Pip’s gasp of success and surprise, he and Magwitch reach ‘the clearer river’, perhaps alluding to earlier literary descriptions of the Thames, such as Spenser’s as a flowing waterway, one fit for pescatory adventures. Here sails, boats and even fishing nets can operate freely and they can hope to catch the steamer that will take them to continental Europe, where Magwitch may avoid the gallows for breaking the terms of his original sentence of transportation to Australia. Dickens reminds us that it is the fact that the Thames itself escapes London which allows it to serve as a means of escape from London. This is why the same river, although a long way outside of London, also serves as the backdrop for Jerome K. Jerome’s later escapist and humorous novel, Three Men in a Boat (1889).

The Thames and what stands and happens beside it can work (and does work) in both ways however. It does not just go out to the sea and to what is foreign, but also leads in to London from the sea. Keith Wilson, in his essay reminds us of the way the riverside setting of Conrad’s The Secret Agent in maritime Greenwich, dramatises the relationship between late Victorian Imperial Britain and its others, in this case foreign anarchists who threaten both Britain’s stable ‘democracy’ and British ‘democratic’ traditions. The river as Imperial and world-city gateway was always a site of anxiety, contestation and opposition, until in more recent times, air travel, the Kent ports and the ubiquitous lorry have replaced the river’s previous role in the British and non-British public imagination and the tabloid newspapers. As John McLeod argues in his essay on MacInnes’ work, MacInnes attempted to change representations of the Thames as the vital heart of London, in order to contest and alter the way the river was linked to the dangers of immigration and especially to that of immigration from the Caribbean. A linkage that became retrospectively epitomised by the arrival of the S.S. Empire Windrush (1948) and its Caribbean passengers and all that they would come to stand for. Unintentionally, perhaps, MacInnes is refuting the trope that connect rivers such as the Thames ( that bring ‘outsiders’ to London and thus Britain) with the adverse affects of immigration, a connection that was later crystallised in Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968 (that redeployed an image from the Aeneid of ‘the Tiber foaming with blood’). While MacInnes’ deliberately positive representations of the exciting world of a multi-cultural and Bohemian London revolving round the river might seem stereotypical and therefore problematic in some ways, as McLeod argues. These representations nevertheless suggest parallels with later writers such as Fred D’Aguiar’s more politically nuanced reading of the relationships between the Thames and London’s post-colonial identity, as well as the complex and changing identities of London’s first and second generation immigrant communities. In 2006, the Docklands Museum, which is housed in No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, Canary Wharf (, held an exhibition, Unquiet Thames: Photographs by Crispin Hughes. The exhibition which explored the world beneath London’s bridges and quays at low tide, was accompanied by a sound track produced of sounds found and recorded at the locations where the panoramic photographs were taken by Hughes. The exhibition reminds us in visual and aural fashion how the Thames and London still have hidden and obscured locations, many of them forgotten by contemporary Londoners. One of these hidden passages which the museum has to its credit included in a new exhibition launched in 2007, Sugar and Slavery, is the fact that London’s general expansion and the West India Docks in particular were both built upon the proceeds of the Atlantic slave trade.

VI: The Thames and Heart of Darkness

Although it might seem a curious place to finish this perusal of the literary Thames, because none of the novel’s action actually occurs within the river’s London portion, nonetheless Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novel which depends upon the weight of previous literary representations of the river. The novel’s famous opening is not set in the world of the Thameside docks, but downriver in the Thames Estuary, alluding ironically to earlier representations of the river where it was not overshadowed by the city that it had given birth to, or as in the case of Dickens, was capable of signifying escape from the city.

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide (31).

The Thames’ tide is therefore at its highest point and in the absence of any appreciable wind, the Nellie is becalmed. Waiting for the turn of the tide is therefore the only option for a boat, as in this case, heading seaward. The Thames is after all as Drayton told us ‘our floods’ queen’ and as Wharton suggested is a powerful estuarine river: ‘ [a] glorious river [that] feeleth the violence and benefit of the sea.’

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth (31).

More complex a passage than it first appears, Conrad reminds the reader that the Thames is indeed an interminable waterway, one that stretches if not to the ‘uttermost ends of the earth’ (32), then ranging at least to the ends of the British Empire, thus effectively joining the world to ‘the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth’: London. The use of ‘town’ is odd here, and helps set up the later sense of the description of the river moving Marlow and the reader back into London’s past when London was more commonly referred to as a town. The city itself, the first ‘heart of darkness’ of the novel, is capable of overshadowing with it’s ‘mournful gloom’, any pastoral thoughts implied by the story being set outside of London’s apparent grasp. Unlike Dickens’ description of the river after Gravesend, Conrad’s report is of a river empty, gloomy and without any suggestion of freedom: the Nellie is stopped, the wind dead calm.

Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth. We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever, but in the august light of abiding memories. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea (32).

The text here unpacks the Thames as an explicit chronotope, which takes us and the narrator and his companions back to the much earlier history of the ‘the race that peopled its banks’ and the Thames as London’s traditional maritime gateway. It is a history, however, not of peaceful trade, nor of immigration from elsewhere, but instead is one of bloody struggle, exploration, conquest and ‘glory’. Unlike Dickens description of the Thames in Great Expectations, which begins much closer into the city and which emphasises trade, such as the ships bringing coal from places such as Newcastle in order to fuel the great city; Conrad locates the Nellie in the Thames estuary largely because it becomes easier to think about the river as Imperial London’s gateway to the world. The next passage makes this theme much clearer:

It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled–the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her rotund flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests– and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith — the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires (32).

This is a fine piece of stately description by Conrad, deliberately Elizabethan in its balance and poise, as well as its examples: ‘Sir Francis Drake … the Golden Hind returning with her rotund flanks full of treasure’. The Thames is equal to, if not surpassing Rome’s Tiber (to recall Wharton’s description), not because of what the river actually is, but because of the masculine deeds the river has allowed: ‘the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time’, that ‘all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire.’ In the context of other writing on the Thames it becomes obvious that this passage ( and indeed the novel) is not remotely interested in the Thames’ domestic role, but only in the Thames as a waterway to the building of Britain’s Empire, which is ‘the gigantic tale’ that the text refers to. While it is possible to read this passage as optimistic about the progress and process of Empire’s ‘ growing greatness’, and perhaps Marlowe is indeed carried away in thinking about past adventures at this point, we should not forget that London was initially figured by the text as the centre of a ‘mournful gloom’ and ironically reduced in stature to a ‘town’ in his earlier description, while the phrase ‘hunters for gold’ recalls that the Elizabethan privateers were exactly that. The Thames chronotope allows Marlow’s sudden shift in time and tone, which parallels the original building of the Roman Empire in Britain with Britain’s own Empire building in countries such as Africa (33). ‘ “And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” ‘ This is often read straightforwardly as stating that ancient Britain was like nineteenth century Africa, to be regarded as a place of darkness to which light must be brought by force. The text continues this line of argument by suggesting that the Roman Empire was morally deficient compared to its British successor in Marlowe’s view:

It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind -– as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

However, we should bear in mind a number of issues before concluding that the text expects us to take these lines at face value. The chronotope of the Thames points backwards as much as forwards, its very temporal instability is hard to curtail, and had often been used to criticise the present in texts written from the Romantic period onwards. Second, the subsequent parallels that the text constructs between both the Congo and the Thames, as rivers, as well as the atrocious and ivory-led behaviour of the Europeans that Marlow meets in the Congo, would suggest that European colonisers are just as rapacious as their Roman equivalents were (according to Marlow). We should perhaps more easily read Marlow’s comments as an ironic and sardonic commentary on the similarity between the Roman and British Empires and the accompanying motivations of their respective Empire builders. Rivers like the Thames are, Conrad seems to be suggesting, not just trade routes which communicate between the city and what is outside, but also the means by which countries exert force and dominate one another in the name of culture as opposed to nature. The Thames’ history is such and London which is never seen except at a distance at the beginning ( and perhaps the end) of Conrad’s novel, is shown to be a product of what the river allowed people to make it, for better or worse. Trade, empire and a belief in the value of their civilisation were what brought the original builders of the first London settlement from overseas and that same complex historical conjunction was to be repeated in different ways throughout London’s and the Thames’ subsequent history. Rivers of course can lead both ways, and when Heart of Darkness returns to the crew of the Nellie with the close of Marlow’s tale, it is to reaffirm the Thames’ connection to darkness, but whether this is the darkness of London or the darkness of what is elsewhere, or perhaps both, is more difficult to determine (105). ‘The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky -– seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.’


[1] I am grateful to Rachel Falconer for pointing this poem out to me and for initially suggesting the connection between river and chronotope.

[2] It is a great shame that ‘Sweet Thames’ is not available commercially from the BBC. The film and script are available for watching and reading at the archives listed below.

[3] Samuel Beckett, ‘Dante … Bruno .Vico … Joyce’ was originally presented as part of a collection of essays on Joyce’s Work in Progress, which later became Finnegan’s Wake: Our Examination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. ‘Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes Toward a Historical Poetics’ in The Dialogic Imagination, (ed.) Michael Holquist, (trans.) Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. (University of Texas Press, 1981), 82-258.

Beckett, Samuel. ‘Dante … Bruno .Vico … Joyce’ in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, (ed.) Ruby Cohn. (Grove Press, 1999)

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness in Heart of Darkness & Other Stories, (intro.) Gene M. Moore. (Wordsworth, 1999) 29-106.

D’Aguiar, Fred. British Subjects (Bloodaxe Books, 1993).

D’Aguiar, Fred. Sweet Thames. Broadcast BBC2, 3July 1992. Video available for consultation at the British Film Institute, programme no. 1 146F/71X. Script held at BBC Written Archive Centre, Caversham, Reading.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations, (ed.) Margaret Cardwell (intro.) Kate Flint. (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England, (ed.) Victor Kiernan (Penguin Books, 1987).

Falconer, Rachel. ‘Bakhtin and the Epic Chronotope’ in Face to Face: Bakhtin in Russia and the West, (eds.) Carol Adlam, Rachel Falconer, Vitalii Makhlin, and Alastair Renfrew. (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) 254-272.

Hughes, Crispin. Unquiet Thames: Photographs. Exhibition details available online at: Date accessed: 10 March 2007.

Lynch, Jack. ‘Pope’s Thames’, 14 July 2006. Available online at: Date accessed: 10 March 2007.

Kitchener, Lord. ‘London is the Place for Me’ (audio track recording on CD), London Is The Place For Me: Trinidadian Calypso In London, 1950-1956 (Honest John 2003).

McLeod, John. ‘Millenial Currents: David Dabydeen, Fred d’Aguiar, and Bernadette Evaristo’, in Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis (Routledge 2004) 158-188.

Nead, Lynda. Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain (Blackwell, 1990).

Porter, Roy. London: A Social History (Hamish Hamilton, 1994).

Sandhu, Sukhdev. London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City (Harper Collins 2003).

Schneer, Jonathan. The Thames: England’s River, New Ed. (Abacus, 2006).

Spenser, Edmund. ‘Prothalamion’ in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Third Edition (eds.) Alexander W. Allison et al. (W.W.Norton and Company, 1983) 146-150.

Thornbury, Walter. ‘The River Thames: Part 2 of 3’, Old and New London: Volume 3 (1878), 300-11. Available online at: , republished electronically by the Centre for Metropolitan History, London. Date accessed: 10 March 2007.

Walton, Izaak and Charles Cotton. The Compleat Angler, (ed.) John Buxton, (intro.) John Buchan. (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Whitworth, Michael. ‘ “Sweet Thames” and The Waste Land’s Allusions’, Essays in Criticism, 1998, XLVIII, (1): 35-58.

Wordsworth, William. ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802’, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Third Edition (eds.) Alexander W.Allison et al. (W.W.Norton and Company, 1983) 550.

To Cite This Article:

Steven Barfield, ‘Postface: Reflections on The Literary Thames: River, City and Chronotope’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access].