London by William Blake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

Summary and Analysis

The poem about London on the literal level is easy to understand. It reflects the poet’s bitter experience of authority and his concern about the oppressive effect of authority in any form. In a simple structure of ab ab cd cd of four short lined stanzas the poem expresses social and economic protest. The poet expresses his disillusionment with reason which was given an important place in the Eighteenth century. According to Blake, Reason has forged its own tyrannies which are destructive. The poem is one of the songs of experience.

The first stanza brings the reader to the poet’s point of view, to see things the way he sees them. The important word in the first two lines is “charter’d” which sums up the way in which the city is subjected to a set of codes, rights and duties. The word denotes rights as ordained by either a king or any other authority of a town, city or a borough. However, in the sense in which Blake uses the word, it implies the arbitrary division of space, assigning artificial order to what is essentially free and open. Though rivers are free flowing, in London the Thames is as “charter’d” as any other part of a city. London as a place cannot allow the growth of innocence with its associated virtues. The next two lines reflect the effect of “charter’d” space. There is none who is happy or healthy. By using the word “every”, the poet stresses how destructive and widely prevalent is the obvious effect. The extent of misery which every one experiences is stressed through the assonance / repetitive sounds of the lines. “Mark”, “marks”, “weakness” and “woe” are used simply to construct one picture of London.

The second stanza evokes the sound of suffering sparing neither child nor man. In the first two lines, voice is equated with ‘cry’ which in the third line is restored to “voice”, because both voice and cry of every man convey another dreaded sound i.e. the sound of manacles or handcuffs locked over the minds of people of London. The last line of the stanza needs to be understood in the context of the value of Reason which, with its links to the control of mind becomes oppressive. Reason was given supremacy over emotions. Through his poems of Experience Blake works out the destructive effects of Reason reducing the mind to an imprisoned state. The gamut of life from child to man is affected gravely – the child crying from hunger and separation, whereas the man raising cries of anger and suffering. Institutions like the State operate through “manacles” which have been “forged” for the mind.

The third stanza forces attention on another institution of authority namely, the Church which is appallingly indifferent to the cries of misery of chimney sweepers, who are little children forced into the trade of sweeping and cleaning chimneys. It is an occupation which engages children because of their small size and through this poem, Blake clearly indicts and blames the church for allowing and accepting the use of children who are without exception from poverty stricken sections, forced into labour. The term blackening in the second line is used for the child’s experiences in his work as a chimney sweeper but the poet uses it more appropriately for the “sins” of the church which as a religious institution ignores social sins against these children. The stanza turns the attention of the reader to yet another occupation in which there is no choice but to submit to the dictates of Royal Authority. “The Palace Walls” are covered in the blood of those helpless and unhappy sliders who are forced to fight the wars of Kings, in this case, the revolutionary wars against France. Thus the soldiers are actually forced into fighting against their own interests.

The last stanza brings into focus the dead institution of marriage-an institution which has ironically, given rise to prostitution, driving men to seek carnal pleasure. Therefore, the infant, whether, the child of marriage or of the harlot, is “blasted” or made to wither as soon as it is born – what would be the quality of life that awaits him in a city like London, which depicts the unnatural world of Experience, in which love is diseased and the new born’s chance of growth is “plagued” from the day of birth. The idea that commercialism has infected every aspect of life is brought out starkly in the last stanza but begins on a note of deep regret which sums up the ultimate evils of the city. “But most…” The second line inverts the purity and freshness of youthful women to “youthful harlots whose angry “curse” is rightfully directed against the society which has made her what she has been reduced to, and taken away the life of her new born. Love and sexual satisfaction are divided in marriage because marriages are made for convenience and Blake points out that they can never flourish because they are without love and health.

The voice of the Bard / the poet arouses anger against London which has been used as an epitome for the biases of the Government and callousness of the church, the deterioration of faith and the reality of marriages. The streets were cluttered with the poor and the starving because the new commerce had taken away traditional forms of livelihood giving rise to child labour, prostitution, enforced recruitment whereas the buildings had become grimy and black with soot from factory smoke. In the poem the oppressed range from streets, rivers, faces of people, infants, harlots, while the oppressors are either not visible or take on the forms of ‘palace walls’, “blackened churches”, the marriage ceremony, leading the reader to the heart of evil, the ‘midnight streets’ aptly used as metaphor for the extent of degradation.

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