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Eighteenth-Century Life 29.1 (2005) 82-108

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The Invention of the Wasteland:

Civic Narrative and Dryden's Annus Mirabilis

Princeton University

During 1665, the plague evacuated London's streets and public buildings. Then in September 1666, as citizens were returning to the capital and resuming normal life, the Great Fire razed central London in four days.1 The city was debilitated, its streets filled with blockages and displaced persons, its buildings in ruin, its crowds dispossessed: "The people who now walked about the ruines, appeared like men in some dismal desart, or rather in some great Citty, lay'd waste by an impetuous and cruel Enemy," John Evelyn wrote in his Diary.2 Evelyn was giving a term to the new geography of post-Fire London: wasteland. He was using it to describe a calamity of biblical dimensions, an imagined apocalypse that had suddenly become actual.3 The word took hold; wasteland, waste, and its affiliated terms (vast, devastation) became catch-cries in the Fire's aftermath. No doubt Evelyn used the word impulsively, as he recognized in the ruins of London the landscape of apocalypse. But by repeating so familiar a phrase from biblical accounts of urban desolation, Evelyn used what was to become one of the most resonant images in the history of secular writing about London. Something about the term wasteland described London with uncanny precision. As Evelyn pointed out in the same diary entry, the landscape was both "desert" and "city," filled with people, but giving out a deep sense of emptiness, of void. [End Page 82]

Descriptions of wasteland would become central to writing about the Fire. The image dominates sermons, poems, civic treatises, and official proclamations from the period, which frame their descriptions of the burned city in the language of the prophetic books of the Old Testament: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.4 Nathaniel Hardy described the "houses of God . . . burnt up, and laid waste in the City," in a sermon at St. Martin-in-the-Fields; William Sancroft, in a sermon preached before the king, spoke about "the earth wasted, and utterly spoiled, and turn'd upside down." As late as 1668, Thomas Jacombe, a nonconformist divine, pressed for the "reedification" of "waste and desolate Habitations."5 Samuel Rolls, an advocate of commercial growth through urban expansion, likewise wrote a treatise in 1668 urging "that the now wast, and desolated City of London should be reedified."6 As these quotations indicate, urban wasteland had been described hitherto as a biblical landscape, where desolation was often a sign of divine disapproval. In writing from the period, the wasting of London was attributed variously to religious and secular causes: the restoration of Charles II, increased religious toleration after 1660, liberty and license in the capital.7

This essay is about the significance of wasteland as a literary trope in the Restoration, when an image that had been primarily biblical and classical suddenly became actual.8 I will argue that biblical accounts of apocalypse and wasteland, which was both desolate and filled with matter, were reconfigured to describe the circumstances of commercial imperilment in which Londoners found themselves.9 In the central section of this essay I look closely at Annus Mirabilis (1667), where Dryden self-consciously imposes a narrative about economic loss and wasted commerce in London on the significance of waste as it appears in his biblical source material. The work done by this essay is stimulated by Cynthia Wall's observation that "narratives of the Fire and the rebuilding generally and conceptually grope for new ways to express loss, to define emptiness, to articulate need, to recover and define an old London in the process of defining and constructing a new one."10 While I am writing about a new way of imagining London, and describing the reconceptualization of space in London after the Fire, this is not an article about spatial theory.11 I am writing about the way that the wasteland created a post-Fire London that was at once biblical and secular, with the...


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