Oscar Wilde's "Impression du Matin" (1881) paints a scene of London just waking in the morning. The poem, purely descriptive in nature, does not fall into the trap of pathetic fallacy, or proselytize on the morality of the woman (presumably a prostitute):

The Thames nocturne of blue and gold
Changed to a Harmony in grey:
A barge with ochre-coloured hay
Dropt from the wharf: and chill and cold

The yellow fog came creeping down
The bridges, till the houses' walls
Seemed changed to shadows and St. Paul's
Loomed like a bubble o'er the town.

Then suddenly arose the clang
Of waking life; the streets were stirred
With country waggons: and a bird
Flew to the glistening roofs and sang.

But one pale woman all alone,
The daylight kissing her wan hair,
Loitered beneath the gas lamps' flare,
With lips of flame and heart of stone.

Pip's first impression of London carries a more judgmental air: "We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty." And, upon visiting his living quarters for the first time, his regard for London only gets worse:

We entered this haven through a wicket-gate, and were disgorged by an introductory passage into a melancholy little square that looked to me like a flat burying-ground. I thought it had the most dismal trees in it, and the most dismal sparrows, and the most dismal cats, and the most dismal houses (in number half a dozen or so), that I had ever seen. I thought the windows of the sets of chambers into which those houses were divided were in every stage of dilapidated blind and curtain, crippled flower-pot, cracked glass, dusty decay, and miserable makeshift; while To Let, To Let, To Let, glared at me from empty rooms, as if no new wretches ever came there, and the vengeance of the soul of Barnard were being slowly appeased by the gradual suicide of the present occupants and their unholy interment under the gravel. A frowzy mourning of soot and smoke attired this forlorn creation of Barnard, and it had strewn ashes on its head, and was undergoing penance and humiliation as a mere dust-hole. Thus far my sense of sight; while dry rot and wet rot and all the silent rots that rot in neglected roof and cellar,—rot of rat and mouse and bug and coaching-stables near at hand besides—addressed themselves faintly to my sense of smell, and moaned, "Try Barnard's Mixture."

In "Impression du Matin," Wilde describes a bird as nothing more than "a bird," whereas in the above passage from Great Expectations, a bird becomes a "dismal sparrow." Wilde's poem clearly exemplifies "l'art pour l'art," which discourages the reader from confounding its content with emotions or morality. In the passage from Great Expectations, Dickens certainly intends the reader to share Pip's disgust by weaving bias into his descriptions.

Both these works draw attention to the state of London's highly urban environment. Dickens himself had great concerns about the state of public health and sanitation; the city faced a sewage and waste-removal problem that rendered it a veritable breeding-pool for disease, not to mention the associated wretched smell of filth. The Thames, a major dumping site for raw sewage and industrial waste, became horribly polluted, smelly, and unsanitary. Smoke from industrial activity darkened and polluted the city itself, leaving it dark and smoggy.


Source of text: Project Gutenberg: Oscar Wilde. Poems; etext was produced by David Price, email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk.

Last modified 11 September 2003