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The thick, dim distances . . . in my opinion are the most romantic town-vistas in the world; they mingle with the troubled light to which the straight, ungarnished aperture in one's dull, undistinctive house front affords a passage and which makes an interior of friendly corners, mysterious tones, and unbetrayed ingenuities, as well as with the low, magnificent medium of the sky, where the smoke and fog and the weather in general, the strangely undefined hour of the day and season of the year, the emanations of industries and the reflection of furnaces, the red gleams and blurs that may or may not be of sunset — as you never see any source of radiance, you can't in the least tell — all hang together in a confusion, a complication, a shifting but irremoveable canopy. They form the undertone of the deep, perpetual voice of the place. [11-12]

The air always seems to me heavy and thick, and here more than elsewhere one hears old England — the panting, smoke-stained Titan of Matthew Arnold's fine poem — draw her deep breath with effort. In fact one is nearer to her heroic lungs, if those organs are figured by the great pinnacled and fretted talking-house [Parliament] on the edge of the river. [23]

If in the beloved foggy season I delight in the spectacle of Paddington, Euston, or Waterloo, — I confess I prefer the grave northern stations, — I am prepared to defend myself against the charge of puerility; for what I seek and what I find in these vulgar scenes is at bottom simply so much evidence of our larger way of looking at life. The exhibition of variety of type is in general one of the bribes by which London induces you to condone her abominations, and the railway-platform is a kind of compendium of that variety. I think that nowhere so much as in London do people wear — to the eye of observation — definite signs of the sort of people they may be. If you like above all things to know the sort, you hail this fact with joy; you recognise that if the English are immensely distinct from other people, they are also socially — and that brings with it, in England, a train of moral and intellectual consequences — extremely distinct from each other. You may see them all together, with the rich colouring of their differences, in the fine flare of one of Mr. W. H. Smith's bookstalls — a feature not to be omitted in any enumeration of the charms of Paddington and Euston. It is a focus of warmth and hght in the vast smoky cavern; it gives the idea that literature is a thing of splendour, of a dazzling essence, of infinite gas-lit red and gold. A glamour hangs over the glittering booth [38]

Nowhere is there such a play of light and shade, such a struggle of sun and smoke, such aerial gradations and confusions. To eyes addicted to such contemplations this is a constant diversion, and yet this is only part of it. What completes the effect of the place is its appeal to the feelings, made in so many ways, but made above all by agglomerated immensity. At any given point London looks huge; even in narrow comers you have a sense of its hugeness, and petty places acquire a certain interest from their being parts of so mighty a whole. Nowhere else is so much human life gathered together, and nowhere does it press upon you with so many suggestions. These are not all of an exhilarating kind; far from it. But they are of every possible kind, and that is the interest of London. [134]

Other Discussions of London by Henry James


James, Henry. English Hours. Illustrated by Joseph Pennell. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1905. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the Library of Congress. Web. 12 April 2020.

Last modified 12 April 2020