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How the Great Fire of London spawned a great literature of loss – and renewal

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Pepys and Evelyn were the most famous chroniclers of the fire, but it also inspired a few amateurs and hacks...

One of the more surprising consequences of the fire that destroyed London 350 years ago this week was the way it spawned an entire literature of loss. While the most famous accounts of the Great Fire, by diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, didn’t see the light of day until the 19th century, broadside ballads with titles such as “The Londoners’ Lamentation” and “London Mourning in Ashes” began to appear on the blackened streets within weeks.

Some were eloquent in their simplicity: “Old London that, / Hath stood in State, / above six hundred years, / In six days space / Woe and alas! / is burn’d and drown’d in tears.” But there were also heroic couplets and Pindaric odes and Latin verses. There were outrageously mannered compositions – “And still the surly flame doth fiercer hiss / By an Antiperistasis” – and conceits of metaphysical weirdness. The makeshift camps outside the City walls were so full of sleeping refugees that the area was “the Counterfeit of the Great Bed of Ware”.

Related: John Mullan's 10 of the best: conflagrations

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