“On the pavement hot/The sooty chimney-boy, with dingy face/And tattered covering, shrilly bawls his trade,/Rousing the sleepy housemaid.”
Mary Robinson, “London’s Summer Morning” (1795)
Robinson’s description of London when stirring in the morning harkens back to Jonathan Swift’s infamous 1710 poem, “A Description of a City Shower.” Just like Swift, Robinson is not complimenting the city but instead showing its grittier, trashier side. The poem uses a Romantic or, more specifically, a pastoral style of describing this murky summer morning. The use of the pastoral, while creating a scene that is the exact opposite of the pastoral ideal, shows how satirical and critical Robinson was of her city and her society. Swift uses urban pastoral (a perfectly oxymoronic and satirical style of poetry) to show how disgusting London could be when it’s raining. Robinson merely strides in to inform us nothing much has changed over the years, raining or not.
While the poem begins with lines that are far dreamier in the sense of waking up to a “sultry” London and ending with the idea of the poet painting that waking London, its main body of text does not allow for such a kind, dreamy description. Instead, the reader gets lines like the ones above. London is hot, full of dirty, poor, loud, shrill, and even sleepy people. We are told the city has “busy sounds” but these sounds of being busy are not always productive or euphonious Romantic sounds but instead of people shouting and cajoling others. People like the chimney-boy who “shrilly bawls his trade.” The chimney-boy is in the early morning, standing on the street, either shrieking at people about what it is he does and that he’s for hire or, using the other meaning of ‘bawls,’ by which he is crying very loudly and is very upset by his current job. If it is the version of him just shouting to get attention and more customers, it becomes a commentary on how even the youth of London is industrial and business oriented. By presenting a child that is not permitted to be the idealized Child of the Romantic period, Robinson is making a heavy critique on poets and artists who believe children to be some sort of delicate, innocent fairy-like creature. Robinson’s chimney-boy, who is also the first character we see on the street, is a loud mocking to that ideal pushing the urban pastoral theme even more.
In the same sense, if the boy is actual crying because of how upset he is about his lot in life, it becomes an insult and blemish to the idealized Child once again because this is a child who is being ignored and only being noticed because he is “rousing the sleepy housemaid.” No one runs to his aide. No one is walking up to offer something better so he may keep his childhood innocence that the Romantic poets so desperately clung to like some strange fantasy. He is left there “sooty,” “shrilly [bawling],” and in his “tattered covering.” Bypassing even the insult to the Romantic artists of this time, Robinson could just as easily be commenting on child labor, orphans or just the general attitude of London’s mentality towards children, especially those of a lower class.
(Word count: 539)