Simone Few

Family Learning Manager

27 February 2017

Poetry aflame: verse inspired by the Great Fire of London

Take a deep breath and take in the evocative scenes of the Great Fire of London in this painting. It’s hard not to be swept up in the drama taking place on the streets of London. From what began as a tiny spark in the hush of night, the ‘story’ of the Great Fire is incredible. It even has a dramatic climax – with St Paul’s Cathedral, presumed safe from the flames, catching alight – and an inspirational finale that saw London rising as a though a phoenix from the ashes.

The Great Fire of London. This painting shows the great fire of London as seen from a boat in vicinity of Tower Wharf. The painting depicts Old London Bridge, various houses, a drawbridge and wooden parapet, the churches of St Dunstan-in-the-West and St Bride's, All Hallow's the Great, Old St Paul's, St Magnus the Martyr, St Lawrence Pountney, St Mary-le-Bow, St Dunstan-in-the East and Tower of London. The painting is in the syle of the Dutch School and is not dated or signed.

The Great Fire of London, 1666

Anonymous artist. The fire as seen from a boat in vicinity of Tower Wharf. ID no. 57.54

Poet Sara Hirsch performs.

Performance poet Sara Hirsch

Photo credit: Perry Jonsson

With such a series of events, it’s no surprise that countless paintings, novels and dramatisations have been inspired by the fire of 1666.

So now it was our turn! What could a poem inspired by the Great Fire look and sound like? And could our visitors help us shape it?

First, we needed an expert. We teamed up with award-winning performance poet Sara Hirsch, who was keen to tackle the subject of the fire:

“Fire is so dramatic and vivid; it lends itself to all sorts of metaphors. It’s so destructive and powerful. The Great Fire itself is was such a huge moment in our history. It really shaped this City and so it still feels relevant”.

Now onto content – Sara needed some help getting started, and who better to ask than the families visiting the museum? The Great Fire of London is a key topic in Key Stage 1 classrooms across the nation. Children and their families are exposed to the story, facts and figures of the Great Fire of London in a unique way, compared to many other visitors to the museum.

Sara Hirsch performance poet at the Museum of London.

Sara Hirsch performs at the Museum of London

So one day during February half term 2017, Sara set up some drop-in poetry workshops in our City Gallery, setting families the task of thinking about the fire in a different way. How might you describe the fire if you were the sky that night? What would fire look like if it was an animal? What would it sound like if it was a piece of music?

“The families were so enthusiastic and generated loads of text and drawings from which I got so many ideas! Things people wrote made me see the fire in a whole new way and from that came the idea of a rumour and writing from the perspective of the fire itself. I am so grateful for everyone’s input in creating the finished piece.”

Inspired by the families’ work throughout the day, Sara then went away to craft her own response to the Great Fire of London, using loads of rhyming fire imagery and deciding how best to merge all those ideas into one poem.

After a fantastic performance of the first draft later that day, Sara’s final product is below for you all to enjoy.

Like Wildfire

By Sara Hirsch

No one knows exactly who started the rumour.
Some say it was the baker, but we know
it doesn’t really matter.

A rumour is not about the source but the spread.
Like disease, its power is not in the
first bitten, but in counting the dead.

***

I was always just supposed to be a whisper
A rumbling in the gutter, a mutter under
London’s breath, blending in, part of the clutter

but a lot of people like to chatter, and I
scattered like sparks from one mouth to another,
It’s not my fault they built themselves so close together.

I grew louder. Until the streets hummed red with
mentions of my name. My ears were burning bright
as each house flamed gold in jaundiced shame

and then the wind changed

and suddenly this humble mumble
was given a gust of confidence.

I took the inhalation gifted to me by the breeze
and I coughed and I wheezed and I billowed
and I blew. Flew, through every wooden door.

I was a scarlet scandal, volcanic gossip
like you’ve never heard before, an unstoppable
explosion of did you hear? loosed like a lion’s roar.

I was music, electric, buzzing under skin,
I was a proud peacock showing off
to anyone who let me in. I was a warrior

I was brave, I caught on like a Mexican wave,
I pulsed like blood through the city’s veins,
I was the circus animal escaped from its cage.

I was laughter, I was hunger, I was rage.

Don’t you recognise me? Are you sure?
Look closer, through the smoke,
trust me, we’ve met before.

In the blaze of a bitter word
or the crackle of a callous cackle,
every time you’ve scrunched your face,

every furious flicker of your tongue,
London has always been an angry place.
I’m nothing new, I just joined in the race.

You called me great.

I’m what you wanted,
I’m your morbid fascination
don’t you dare weep in my wake.

***

So, before you tell your children
of a sleeping City savaged by slander,
tell them the truth behind my name.

The rumour is nothing
without those that spread it.

I am not the one to blame.

If you'd like to learn more about the Great Fire of 1666, the Fire! Fire! exhibition is on display at the Museum of London until 17 April 2017.