London by William Blake

London is a poem composed by William Blake and published in Songs of Experience in 1794. It is one of the few poems in Songs of Experience that has no counterpart in Songs of Innocence.

Analysis of the Poem “London”

Historically, London was a place of honest work, where merchants and artisans could stand up as citizens and defend their rights against arbitrary rule. Citizens, on the other hand, may be corrupted by conflict profits. London, as an imperial centre and a centre of wartime harmony, had a sinister aspect for Blake. Despite the fact that London was not a factory town, he saw it as a symbol of the emerging Industrial Revolution’s contamination of English countryside and subjection of the ordinary people. The French and American revolutions had a great impact on him, and his condemnation of the new modernity was broad, encompassing imperialistic government, industry, and everyday social connections (W.W. Norton, 2005).

The poem, ‘London,’ as one of William Blake’s Songs of Experience, has a naturally depressing tone with its underlying theme involving the corruption, industry, and capitalism foisted upon London town in the 1790’s and the fury it provoked among society. Even Michael Ferber, the author of ‘London and Its Politics,’ quotes Arthur Miller as saying, ‘there is more comprehension of the character of a capitalist society in a poem like ‘I meander down each charter’d street’ than in the entire Socialist literature.’

Reflecting on this phrase, the usage of the word ‘charter’d’ appears significantly ambiguous at first look, as it depicts London’s chaotic streets as something virtually organised and devoid of chaos. This idea of organisation associated with the term extends back to the nineteenth-century Chartist Movement, which was controlled by its People’s Charter and structured revolutionary tactics. However, the term “charter’d” in this context is fraught with ambiguity. As Ferber puts it, “one man’s charter is another man’s manacle; charters are exclusive,” and this is a totally true observation; when one man is given rights, it is nearly likely that another’s will be taken away. In some ways, this sheds light on the nature of nineteenth-century English society. When the state thought it was ‘chartering’ the streets and providing stability, it was actually causing more turmoil and separating itself from the demands of people.

Similarly, the word ‘charter’d’ can have connotations of hiring and leasing, emphasising how the city claims to own its people and implying the unjust nature of capitalism in its early stages, with money taken from the majority, the working classes, and transferred to the minority of aristocracy through taxation. This lack of freedom and vital cash is primarily underscored by the word ‘wander,’ which highlights the concept of isolation, vulnerability, and, most notably, enslavement. In some ways, this emphasises the exploitation of labourers throughout the industrialisation period, which Ferber attributes to “the monopolistic and exploitative practises of England’s commercial empire.” In every way, the poem’s opening line encapsulates, more philosophically, Marx’s view on society that it mirrors its economic base; for example, if we are surrounded by a corrupted economic system, in this case dominated by capitalism, our workers will become alienated, and the aspect of equality throughout humanity will vanish.

READ ALSO:  Sonnet 19 Or When I Consider How my Light is Spent - Summary, Themes and Questions

Furthermore, the form of the opening stanza complements the undercurrents of despair and final unrest indicated. The phrases ‘wander,’ ‘charter’d,’ and’mark’ all add to the gloomy tone, with the long, drawn-out ‘A’ sound conjuring up a sense of lethargy, prompting the reader to almost envision the man’s ‘cry’ of despair. Furthermore, the repeated use of the word’mark’ is particularly unsettling because it emphasises how the victims are continually branded with physical marks of suffering and ‘woe.’ The way the word changes from verb to noun in line 4 emphasises how the narrator is not only an apathetic observer but also one of the suffering himself, immediately making the poem appear more personal.

As the poem moves into its second stanza, the sense of sorrow and hopelessness becomes even more pronounced. The immediate introduction to the repeated ‘every’ emphasises how no one is immune from such destruction and imprisonment; even the reader is caught up in the action with the constant references to sounds, making escape that much more difficult as we cannot close our ears to what is going on; the reader is forced to endure and participate in the action rather than passively observe it. It is especially dramatic to hear the words ‘in every ban,’ which might be referring to excommunication by the church, as it highlights how the church, a person’s sole sanctuary, is being withdrawn from them, producing an even greater sense of isolation among society. However, it is more likely to be interpreted as a metaphor for corruption and a critique of the institutionalised world, or more broadly, capitalism. According to Marxist philosopher Althusser, “the power of the state is also maintained more subtly, by seeming to secure the internal consent of the citizen using ideological structures such as churches.” As a result, the presence of this corrupt theological organisation might be regarded to be a tool restricting the thinking and acts of the people of London.

The idea of’mind-forged manacles’, on the other hand, may be the most powerful image of captivity. There is a distinct sense here that the people were constructing their own terror, their own mental chains, urged by the harsh capitalist power to frighten them into committing to intensive, hard labour in order for their industrial firms to thrive. Because such a line concludes with ‘I hear’ and the ‘I’ figure after no intervention from the narrator throughout the stanza, it emphasises the shock and overwhelmed reactions to such human suffering that people could not find the words to react to what was happening around them. Intrinsically, the quote could be seen as representing the typical Marxist view that the working classes could not rise up against the bourgeoisie in the corrupted capitalist world they were surrounded by, because they had them convinced that society could not be changed and that they were free, only imagining their own exploitation. This clearly validates Karl Marx’s well-known phrase, “No mind is free; they only perceive it to be.”

READ ALSO:  Composed upon Westminster Bridge, Sept. 3, 1802 - Questions and Answers

The tone of the poem grows in stanza 3 with the inclusion of additional severe examples of societal corruption. It begins as though in mid-sentence, emphasising to the reader that the list is never-ending, inspiring an even bleaker perspective of nineteenth-century England. The first phrase of the stanza introduces us to the ‘chimney-cry sweeper’s every blackening church appals,’ which can be taken literally in the sense that the sweeps caused the church to appear noticeably blackened, but it can also be seen more metaphorically in that the church’s reputation was being tarnished by their blatant lack of response to society’s corruption and subsequent interest in child labour. The word ‘appals’ emphasises this by referring to the cover that is placed over a coffin, leading the reader to believe that the church is functionally dead, burying its historic beliefs in order to appease the capitalist phenomena.

The line “the hapless soldier’s sigh runs in blood down palace walls” is equally effective. The deliberate use of sibilance creates an onomatopoeic hiss that evokes a particularly menacing atmosphere, emphasising the soldier’s ongoing helplessness, being driven into fight for a country they no longer appreciate and are valued by. The addition of ‘runs in blood down palace walls’ is a particularly powerful image because it shows how the soldiers’ blood symbolically marks the palace walls, and especially the walls of the ultimate power, making it clear to the entire society that death and suffering are ever present all around them.

The final stanza opens in ‘midnight streets,’ creating an unpleasant mood from the start, but it is the mention of ‘the youthful harlot’s curse blasts the new-born infant’s tear’ that stands out. The image of the harlot is viewed sympathetically once more because the word ‘youthful’ is placed before it; she is being pushed into such adult activities when she herself has not developed. As a result of her actions, she has cursed her child because she will never love it; it was created for profit rather than out of pure love. Essentially, this is a perversion of maternity and, more broadly, a metaphor for the ruling elite’s sexual exploitation of women. Blake’s phrasing could be insinuating the sexually transmitted infections common amongst prostitutes at the time, with the mention of her curse blasting the ‘new-born infants tear’ and their subsequent prominent guilt feelings towards a child who they knew would be infected with the same disease when born.

READ ALSO:  Summary of Ye Goatherd Gods

The line that concludes the poem is arguably the most significant,’marriage hearse.’ The word is an obvious oxymoron, expressing a jubilant and cheerful occasion on the one hand while conjuring up an unsettling image of death and sadness on the other. Essentially, this implies that marriage, in its most symbolic form, causes the death of love, whereby the normal bourgeois relationship is surrounded by deceit, with the husband regularly disowning his wife to follow his other ambitions.

Theme of London by William Blake

The poem, ‘London,’ being one of William Blake’s Songs of Experience, has a naturally dismal tone, with its underlying theme including the corruption, guilt, industry, and capitalism thrust upon London town in the 1790s and the rage it sparked among society. The church and the government, for example, should be guiltless of crime but, oddly, are guilty of robbing toddlers and newborns of their innocence. “London” is literally awash in death. “London: the Dead City.” could have been the title of the poem. Death is everywhere: hearses, bleeding palace walls, blights and plagues. All of this death, in this poem’s universe, is the result of war-mongering governments (“palace”) and corrupt organisations such as the church (“blackning church”), which tolerate child labour, prostitution, and war. Marriage, for example, which used to foster life and harmony, is now causing more mortality (“hearse”). Unfortunately, the picture is bleak—no end in sight for all this death, as evidenced by the poem’s excessively repetitive structure, word choice, and tone. This poem also deals with death. “London” is literally awash in death. “London: the Dead City.” could have been the title of the poem. Death is everywhere: hearses, bleeding palace walls, blights and plagues. All of this death, in this poem’s universe, is the result of war-mongering governments (“palace”) and corrupt organisations such as the church (“blackning church”), which tolerate child labour, prostitution, and war. Marriage, for example, which used to foster life and harmony, is now causing more mortality (“hearse”). Unfortunately, the picture is bleak—no end in sight for all this death, as evidenced by the poem’s excessively repetitive structure, word choice, and tone.
This poem is about actual types of confinement: chartering, a method of restricting, narrowing, and constraining what should be open (like rivers and streets). Then there is the chimney sweeper, who is essentially a slave worker, and the soldier (who has to do whatever the government tells him to do). On top of that, there are those pesky “mind-forg’d manacles,” the poem’s metaphor for all the ways humans conjure up (the “mind” part) to imprison people. This might be governments plotting wars, governments mismanaging geographical space (the Thames, the streets), or simply random people looking at things incorrectly.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

x