“That comes with night; the deep solemnity
Of nature's intermediate hours of rest,
hen the great tide of human life stands still;
The business of the day to come, unborn,
Of that gone by, locked up, as in the grave;
The blended calmness of the heavens and earth,
Moonlight and stars, and empty streets, and sounds
Unfrequent as in deserts; at late hours
Of winter evenings, when unwholesome rains
Are falling hard, with people yet astir,
The feeble salutation from the voice
Of some unhappy woman, now and then
Heard as we pass, when no one looks about,
Nothing is listened to.”
nothing is listened to (or, On Testing Wordsworth’s Claims)
Twilight in London comes with ink-stained secrecy, a ghost town filled with will-o’-the-wisp stars. Ghosts wander freely, whispers floating along the empty streets and embankments and gutters and gardens; they go unheard. The Thames laps at the riverbanks with quiet insistence, the clouds hang heavy and foreboding, and London’s January is desert and deserted. Wordsworth reminds us that in the stillness of winter’s evening fog, nothing is listened to.
But tonight we cannot sleep, so we sit at the windows and between the twelve strokes of midnight we wade into the great tides and late hours and listen at the nothing shores.
The sounds are familiar at first: the low rumble of the Underground as it closes for the night. The onomatopoetic doors of omnibuses. The sharp rattle of rain against windowpanes, the squeal of tires against asphalt, the whistling wind winding its way between buildings. We hear darkness blur across the city as the skyscrapers dim and Shaftesbury’s stage lights shut and last calls spill from pubs along Kingsway. Nightlights turn on, bedroom doors close, and the ends of bedtime stories twine through the hearts of children. Matchstick girls and lost boys line the streets and we linger on their whispers for the briefest of moments before we move on in guilty haste. The bells— ever present— ring in accusatory harmony. We listen on; the night grows darker and the city settles into rest.
The next sounds come in a rush— a riotous tumble spinning into the velvet-dark with a particular peculiar kind of romance. They are the forgotten sounds: clicking hooves on cobblestones, the hiss of oil in streetlamps, the grassy hush of street sweepers. Hairpins scratch lovelorn poetry onto windowsills, artists mutter to their muses, and the shadow of old fires crackle in the silent streets. Weathered bricks groan with remembered plagues and death knells, the bells tolling mournfully as we listen on. Empty theatres fill with bawdy laughter, shouts, pennies rattling, and the crack of fists against jaws. Prayers creak their way through churches and chapels. In a confessional, we linger to listen to the hushed cadence of past voices repeating “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name” until it thunders to the rafters. It grows late enough to be early, and we listen for the last nothings of night.
London slips into morning with a languid grey yawn, as the sun peeks over the horizon and the streets come alive in a sudden flurry. The skies are blue today. Underneath our listening window, a bustle of uniformed children and suit-clad men and women fill the floors of an omnibus. The city is awake, and in the light of morning, the whispered nothings of the winter night fade behind us. The sunshine— so rare in London— gilds the streets, covering the shadows we’d listened to under moonlight and stars. The great tide of human life once more bustles through the streets and the unwholesome rains have turned to fading fogs. Further across London, mist hangs in delicate sheets over the Thames— champagne-gold and shadow-thin, torn by dawn’s brazen sunlight. Already, as if the mist carries waters from the Lethe, we are beginning to forget the secrets that London told us in the late winter hours.
Nothing is listened to.