Poems on the Underground

Posted by admin | June 3, 2008 0

One of the most satisfying moments on a crowded Tube Train is when suddenly you stop thinking of the Aussie controlled haversack banging into you every time its owner moves or the blast of sound from the zombie commuter with the ridiculous headphones unconscious of your presence. Between the strap hangers your eyes alight on a Poem on the Underground cab card and as you read you are transported to a different place where there are fields of daffodils, floating clouds and babbling brooks. You have discovered, been delighted and most possibly gone on your way happier because of one of the most successful Public Art programmes, London’s famous “Poems on the Underground.”

Poems on the Underground was launched in 1986. The programme was the brainchild of American writer Judith Chernaik, whose aim was to bring poetry to the wide ranging audience of passengers on the Underground. Judith Chernaik, together with poets Cicely Herbert and Gerard Benson, continue to select poems for inclusion in the programme which provides relief and interest to the commuters who make over 3.5 million journeys on the Underground each weekday. Poems on the Underground has been the inspiration for similar programmes around the world: in Dublin (on the DART suburban railway) and in Adelaide, Melbourne, New York, Paris, Stuttgart, Sydney, Barcelona, Athens, Moscow, St Petersburg and most recently Shanghai. The UK Poems on the Underground have been displayed in the subway systems of Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm and Vienna. Themes have included European Poetry, Young Poems on the Underground, Commonwealth Poetry, Chinese Poetry, African Poetry and 1,000 Years of Poetry.

The programme goes from strength to strength, with tube card spaces increased by a third to 3,000, thanks to a new association with TfL’s Platform for Art. Sister programmes abroad (Paris’s Poemes dans le Metro, New York’s Poetry in Motion, among many others) continue to flourish.

London Underground is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of poet John Milton by displaying his poems on trains across the network from 2 June. This is part of a year-long international celebration of his writings with exhibitions taking place from Cambridge to New York. The new series of Poems on the Underground features The Expulsion from Eden – the final lines from Paradise Lost, Book 12 by Milton, which is considered by many as one of the greatest poems written in the English language. Works by other poets, both classical and contemporary, are also part of the series, and have been chosen to add a varied literary point of interest to passengers’ journeys.

John Milton, despite his Puritanism and Parliamentary associations has always had a certain fascination for me. Not too far from Castle Caldwell is the pretty Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St. Giles where you find “Milton’s Cottage.” When Milton came here in 1665 he was a broken man. Aged 57 he had gone blind and fled London to escape the Plague. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 many of his friends had been arrested, tortured and executed and he himself feared arrest at any time. He had been no bit player in the Civil war and the Parliamentary Government of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. He had written a pamphlet defending the regicide of Charles I and had acted as Cromwell’s Foreign Minister. His third marriage to a woman 30 years younger had bitterly estranged him from his two daughters and this former man of substance was now in poverty, relying on the discrete charity of friends. The Parliamentary and Puritan cause he had allied himself with was in ruins and in his blindness and sadness he returned to poetry he had put aside 20 years earlier for solace.

Milton’s Cottage

The cottage, the only one of Milton’s many dwellings to survive and now a museum and has changed little since the 17th Century. It was in Chalfont St Giles that Milton’s neighbour, the Quaker Thomas Ellwood, read Paradise Lost (as yet unpublished) and commented, “thou hast said much here of Paradise Lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise found?” On completing Paradise Regained Milton told Ellwood “this is owing to you; for you put it into my head by the question you put to me at Chalfont.” The garden is still stocked with the scented plants so beautifully described by the blind Milton in his poetry.

Thomas Jones was a Milton admirer and painted this view of the cottage in 1774

“Laurel and Myrtle and what higher grew
Of firm and fragrant leaf: on either side
Acanthus and each odourous bushy shrub
Fenc’d up the verdant wall, each beauteous flower,
Iris all hues, Roses and Jessamine
Reard high their flourish’d beads between, and wrought

Paradise Lost, Book 4, Line 694

In the mid 17th century, before dissenters were allowed to build meeting houses, local Quakers gathered in various homes throughout south Buckinghamshire, and eventually a worshipping group formed at Jordans Farm, which had originally been part of the manor of Grove Place, owned by Thomas Russell and then his son William.

By 1669 William Russell, Thomas’s grandson, was holding a “conventicle” (a secret or unauthorised assembly for worship) in the Jordans farmhouse, attended by sixty or seventy people, with Isaac Penington as their “head” or “teacher”.

In 1671 William sold about a quarter of an acre of the Well Close to Thomas Ellwood and others for the purpose of a burial ground. As soon as King James 11 issued the Declaration of Indulgence in 1687, which stopped the direct persecution of Friends, licenses for 100+ Meeting Houses were taken out.

‘New Jordan’s’ as it was then known, was one of these and a 4 acre plot adjacent to the burial ground was sold to John Penington for £400 in June 1688. We are told that the building was finished in four months and the first Meeting for Worship was held on 30th September 1688.

William Penn (October 14, 1644 – July 30, 1718) was founder and “Absolute Proprietor” of the Province of Pennsylvania, the English North American colony and the future U.S. State of Pennsylvania. He was known as an early champion of democracy and religious freedom and famous for his good relations and his treaties with the Lenape Indians. Under his direction, Philadelphia was planned and developed.

As one of the earlier supporters of colonial unification, Penn wrote and urged for a Union of all the English colonies in what was to become the United States of America. The democratic principles that he set forth in the Pennsylvania Frame(s) of Government served as an inspiration for the United States Constitution. As a pacifist Quaker, Penn considered the problems of war and peace deeply, and included a plan for a United States of Europe, “European Dyet, Parliament or Estates,” in his voluminous writings.

Penn died penniless in 1718, at his home in Ruscombe, near Twyford in Berkshire, and was buried next to his first wife in the cemetery of the Jordans Quaker meeting house near Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire in England.

A contemporary poem records;

No elegy or ivy-mantled tower –

For William of the Philadelic State

Rests secret in his friendly Jordans bower

Interred with Hannah, many years his mate.

While other Penns chose pomp and Poges’ vault,

This pilgrim lived and died below the salt.

William & Hannah Penn’s grave at Jordans

Jordans Meeting House

For me Milton’s most important piece is not his two famous poems of Paradise Lost and Regained but his earlier prose work: Areopagitica. It is a foundational text in the philosophy of the freedom of speech and is famously quoted in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: Milton denounces censorship, and argues for toleration and the free expression of ideas (except for Catholics!). He imagines an enlightened commonwealth where all men can weigh the available evidence and come to informed decisions on important questions?

Paradise Lost

Milton today is remembered for the seriousness of his writing and life but it was not always so as his work is not devoid of “quips, and cranks, and jollities”, notably his sixth prolusion and his jocular epitaphs on the death of Hobson, the driver of a coach between Cambridge and London which gives us the expression “Hobson’s Choice.” Milton’s radical, republican politics and heretical religious views, coupled with the perceived artificiality of his complicated Latinate verse, alienated T.S. Eliot and other readers; yet by dint of the overriding influence of his poetry and personality on subsequent generations (particularly the Romantic movement) the man whom Samuel Johnson disparaged as “an acrimonious and surly republican” must be counted one of the most significant writers and thinkers of all time.

So hopefully John Milton will enjoy his season on Poems on the Underground, particularly as London has been plague free for a while! The poems on the carriages often awaken curiosity in poetry amongst readers who sample the poems on their way to work often want to read more. The ninth edition of the book, “Poems on the Underground”, has sold more than a quarter of a million copies since it was published in 1999. 2001 is the 15th anniversary of “Poems on the Underground”, and sees the publication of a tenth edition of the book. It features more than 300 works displayed on the Tube since 1986.


My personal favourite is the one which captures the flavour of Olde London and appears on the cover of the book and on the cab cards as a facsimile of a woodblock print from the British Library.

London Bells.

Two sticks and an apple,
Ring the bells at Whitechapel.

Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring the bells Aldgate.

Maids in white aprons,
Ring the bells at St. Catherine`s.

Oranges and Lemons,
Ring the bells at St. Clement`s

When will you pay me?
Ring the bells at the Old Bailey.

When I am rich,
Ring the bells at Fleetditch.

When will that be?
Ring the bells of Stepney.

When I am old,
Ring the great bell at Paul`s.

Anon. (Early 18th Century)


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