Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. II. Ben Jonson to Dryden
Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Extracts from Annus Mirabilis: The Fire of London
By John Dryden (1631–1700)
[From Annus Mirabilis, the Year of Wonders: 1666.]

SUCH was the rise of this prodigious fire,
  Which, in mean buildings first obscurely bred,
From thence did soon to open streets aspire,
  And straight to palaces and temples spread.
The diligence of trades, and noiseful gain,        5
  And luxury, more late, asleep were laid;
All was the Night’s, and in her silent reign
  No sound the rest of Nature did invade.
In this deep quiet, from what source unknown,
  Those seeds of fire their fatal birth disclose;        10
And first few scattering sparks about were blown,
  Big with the flames that to our ruin rose.
Then in some close-pent room it crept along,
  And, smouldering as it went, in silence fed;
Till the infant monster, with devouring strong,        15
  Walked boldly upright with exalted head.
Now, like some rich or mighty murderer,
  Too great for prison which he breaks with gold,
Who fresher for new mischiefs does appear,
  And dares the world to tax him with the old,        20
So scapes the insulting fire his narrow jail,
  And makes small outlets into open air;
There the fierce winds his tender force assail,
  And beat him downward to his first repair.
The winds, like crafty courtesans, withheld        25
  His flames from burning but to blow them more:
And, every fresh attempt, he is repelled
  With faint denials, weaker than before.
And now, no longer letted 1 of his prey,
  He leaps up at it with enraged desire,        30
O’erlooks the neighbours with a wide survey,
  And nods at every house his threatening fire.
The ghosts of traitors from the Bridge descend,
  With bold fanatic spectres to rejoice;
About the fire into a dance they bend,        35
  And sing their sabbath notes with feeble voice. 2
Our guardian angel saw them where they sate,
  Above the palace of our slumbering King;
He sighed, abandoning his charge to Fate,
  And drooping oft looked back upon the wing.        40
At length the crackling noise and dreadful blaze
  Called up some waking lover to the sight;
And long it was ere he the rest could raise,
  Whose heavy eyelids yet were full of night.
The next to danger, hot pursued by fate,        45
  Half-clothed, half-naked, hastily retire;
And frighted mothers strike their breasts too late
  For helpless infants left amidst the fire.
Their cries soon waken all the dwellers near;
  Now murmuring noises rise in every street;        50
The more remote run stumbling with their fear,
  And in the dark men justle as they meet.
So weary bees in little cells repose;
  But if night-robbers lift the well-stored hive,
An humming through their waxen city grows,        55
  And out upon each other’s wings they drive.
Now streets grow thronged and busy as by day;
  Some run for buckets to the hallowed quire;
Some cut the pipes, and some the engines play,
  And some more bold mount ladders to the fire.        60
In vain; for from the east a Belgian wind
  His hostile breath through the dry rafters sent;
The flames impelled soon left their foes behind,
  And forward with a wanton fury went.
A key 3 of fire ran all along the shore,        65
  And lightened all the river with a blaze;
The wakened tides began again to roar,
  And wondering fish in shining waters gaze.
Old Father Thames raised up his reverend head,
  But feared the fate of Simois 4 would return;        70
Deep in his ooze he sought his sedgy bed,
  And shrank his waters back into his urn.
The fire meantime walks in a broader gross; 5
  To either hand his wings he opens wide;
He wades the streets, and straight he reaches ’cross,        75
  And plays his longing flames on the other side.
At first they warm, then scorch, and then they take;
  Now with long necks from side to side they feed;
At length, grown strong, their mother-fire forsake,
  And a new colony of flames succeed.        80
To every nobler portion of the town
  The curling billows roll their restless tide;
In parties now they straggle up and down,
  As armies unopposed for prey divide.
One mighty squadron, with a sidewind sped,        85
  Through narrow lanes his cumbered fire does haste,
By powerful charms of gold and silver led
  The Lombard bankers and the Change to waste.
Another backward to the Tower would go,
  And slowly eats his way against the wind;        90
But the main body of the marching foe
  Against the imperial palace is designed.
Now day appears; and with the day the King,
  Whose early care had robbed him of his rest;
Far off the cracks of falling houses ring,        95
  And shrieks of subjects pierce his tender breast.
Near as he draws, thick harbingers of smoke
  With gloomy pillars cover all the place;
Whose little intervals of night are broke
  By sparks that drive against his sacred face.        100
More than his guards his sorrows made him known,
  And pious tears which down his cheeks did shower;
The wretched in his grief forgot their own;
  So much the pity of a king has power.
He wept the flames of what he loved so well,        105
  And what so well had merited his love;
For never prince in grace did more excel,
  Or royal city more in duty strove.
Note 1. hindered. [back]
Note 2. The heads of persons executed for treason were displayed on London Bridge. [back]
Note 3. Key = quay. [back]
Note 4. See Iliad, bk. xxi (of the Xanthos). [back]
Note 5. gross, bulk. [back]

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