A model response to a poem which has been used by AQA as a GCSE unseen. Written under timed conditions. The question: How does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about the city at night?
This poem , written in free verse possibly to echo the uncontrolled spread of a major city, presents the feelings of loneliness and alienation felt by an outsider, viewing the city. The specifying of ‘2AM’ suggests a loneliness drawn from wakefulness at the deepest point of night. As though the speaker is craving comfort as she looks from her window. The indefinite article suggests that this street is not specific and that the same scenario might be played out in myriads of similar locations.
The alienation is emphasised from the opening with the foregrounding of the othering of the speaker by the use of the pronoun ‘they’ – a group to which she evidently does not belong. As she looks at the ‘watered’ street, which has not been washed, but simply wetted, she focuses on two ideas: the harsh, unnatural lighting and the metaphor of the ‘slow moving river’.
In description more redolent of a prison camp, the lighting is ‘cold,’ ‘white’ and shines as a ‘glare’, suggesting a hostility to life which is echoed at the end of the poem when the lighting is contrasted with the ‘lustreless’ light of the moon which seems unable to compete. Man’s construction seems to have defeated nature and the speaker is all too aware of this. The city is ‘too bright’ and ‘glitters coldly’. This almost oxymoronic phrase suggests a city which might be attractive, but whose coldness suggests unfriendliness and rejection.
The wet streets are described as a slow-moving river in a simile which is repeated for emphasis in Line 15. The free verse form allows this compound adjective to be placed on a single line to emphasise the image. Given the amount of negative imagery around the stanza – ‘squalid and sinister’ for example, we cannot see this as a peaceful image, but one of disdain. The ‘river/road’ rolls on relentlessly, despite any slight human interaction, rather as Time moves on continuously through life. In Line 16, the river is seen as leading nowhere. The image is clear – the journey of life is ultimately pointless and has no intended outcome.
The free verse form allows a literary trick in Line 4 which helps to emphasise this idea: whilst the word ‘lies’ is grammatically a verb, relating to the road itself, a reader pauses briefly at the end of the sudden short line before the enjambment into Line 5. The visual clue is to see ‘lies’ as a noun. As pat of a list linked to the lamps. The underlying meaning is created and does not leave the reader: the lighting presents a false image which can trick us into thinking all is well.
In the same stanza, free verse is used to convey the craving for company felt by the speaker. At first she focuses on ‘cabs’, possibly suggesting a wish to escape. The poet places the ‘one’ cab seen on a single line on its own. The visual cue here creates a gap – a pause and a passing of time – until ‘another’ passes on the next line. Humanity is not really apparent. feet ‘shuffle[ing]’ in a gentle onomatopoieia and the only possible company are the ‘tramps’ and the euphemistic ‘night-walkers’ – prostitutes plying their lonely trade.
The speaker’s sadness and loneliness is highlighted by the comparisons of the city with the moon. in this city, the night sky is ‘plum-coloured’ suggesting light pollution and recalling the colour of bruising, as though nature is damaged by this. The moon ‘cuts clear and round’ alliteratively suggesting a power to impose natural beauty onto the scene, yet Line 21 delivers the punch: ‘she cannot light the city’. The moon, generally a female entity in Literature seems to lack the power to impact the scene and, therefore, to revitalise the speaker.
In sadness the speaker tells of her love for the moon – she knows this body and suggests it is indestructible and a ready point of reference. In doing so she delivers her final line -‘this is an alien city’. The adjective tells us that she has no place here. The city, a manmade construct, has rendered nature impotent. This speaker rejects that image of life and, sadly, rejects the modern urban landscape
A London Thoroughfare. 2 A.M.
BY AMY LOWELL
They have watered the street,
It shines in the glare of lamps,
Cold, white lamps,
Like a slow-moving river,
Barred with silver and black.
Cabs go down it,
And then another.
Between them I hear the shuffling of feet.
Tramps doze on the window-ledges,
Night-walkers pass along the sidewalks.
The city is squalid and sinister,
With the silver-barred street in the midst,
A river leading nowhere.
Opposite my window,
The moon cuts,
Clear and round,
Through the plum-coloured night.
She cannot light the city;
It is too bright.
It has white lamps,
And glitters coldly.
I stand in the window and watch the moon.
She is thin and lustreless,
But I love her.
I know the moon,
And this is an alien city.