A Yorkshireman once sneered at a London essayist for being "not even a Cockney humorist" and the essayist replied to that "not even" with a long roll of names, from Chaucer to Dickens, to prove that all the best humour in our language is Cockney humour. But the City of London is something more, and even greater, than the home of so much of English laughter. It is a birthplace of English poets.
Chaucer was born there, in Thames street, and with him English poetry. And after him, in the little list of less than a dozen names of great writers who were born in the City, all but two are poets. Those two are Defoe, first and greatest of journalists, and Lamb, most beautiful of essayists and wisest of critics.
And when we come to the poets what a rare list it is! Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Herrick, Cowley, Pope, Gray, Keats and Hood. Is there any city but Athens which can match that list?
Yet the City gave those poets birth and has almost forgotten it. They were the sons of men carrying on the ordinary trades of her markets. Chaucer's father was a wine-merchant and tavern-keeper, Milton's and Gray's were clerks, Spenser's a tailor, Pope's a linen-draper, Keats's a keeper of a livery-stable, Herrick's a goldsmith, Cowley's a stationer, Hood's a bookseller.
If the City scarcely remembers them as her sons, it is because when we think of the great Cockneys in our literature, the lovers of London and those who wrote most about her, we do not think of them. It was men born elsewhere who came to London and discovered her. In that sense the great Cockneys are Shakespeare and Johnson and Dickens. Only Lamb and Hood are Cockneys in both senses.Next page: Spenser, Milton, Cowley, and Gray