The Great Penny-Licker

a photo of London taken from the International Space Station

I was moved by this photo of London, taken from space in 2003.  It’s an exit wound in a skrying mirror, a conflagration of angels or countless corpse-lights over the cosmic fens.

London from this vantage seems ageless, eternal.  It appears as a vortex of light, but this is illusion.  As the will-o-wisp lures the traveler to the marsh, so is the lure of London.  This is not light but molten lucre.  Crystallized greed.

What can one do but be bled dry by it, reassured only that it’s ever been so, at least as long as the land were London.  I marvel at the middle-English poem London Lickpenny, which takes you through a tour of London, the narrator repeating the lament that without money he won’t prosper.  Totally broke, he wanders amid all the “gay gere” for sale: fine felt hats, spectacles for reading, mackerel, strawberries and sheep’s feet.  He’s jostled and cursed in Billingsgate, and he can buy a pint but can’t afford to eat in the pub, so he goes away hungry. In the beginning of the poem he has his hood stolen in Westminster, only to find it for sale again amongst the stolen goods in Cornhill, but he can’t afford to buy it back.   He has no peace until he gets himself to Kent.

3 thoughts on “The Great Penny-Licker

  1. The London Lickpenny is by one of my favourite poets. The great Anon. To whom many other fantastic works are also attributed. The last poem thought to have been composed by Chaucer (who has rightly been called the Father of English Poetry) was ‘The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse’ in which Chaucer’s refrain is ‘Beth hevy ageyn, or elles moote I dye!’

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