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Analysis: London, William Blake

Guniya is a final year undergraduate at the University of Delhi. She has a keen interest in writing and literature.

William Blake

William Blake

Where mercy, love, and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too.

— William Blake

Background to Blake and Romanticism

William Blake (1757-1827)

William Blake is one of the juggernauts of Romanticism. The hints of dissent present in his poetry are not just against norms of political, social and economic rationality but also religion.

Influenced heavily by the Bible as a child, Blake made it a point to criticise the restricting and forbidding nature of religion, especially the Old Testament and its God.

Two of his most famous collections, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) have poems that are counter-parts of each other. For example, The Garden of Love from Experience is relatable to The Echoing Green from Innocence. Songs of Experience are often considered ‘greater’ and profound than Songs of Innocence which is considered lighter and naive.

Romanticism

Inspired by the French and American revolution, Romanticism began as a revolt against the aristocratic social, political and economic norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and its obsession with Rationalism and Empiricism.

The Romantic Era opposed the scientific rationalisation of nature and legitimised individual imagination as a critical authority.

The poetry of this period is distinctive with the involvement of extensive pastoral imagery of the countryside, mountains, nature, etc. It’s a specific style of writing primarily concerned with constructing the subject through a merging of the internal structures of Memory with an external, revivified Nature.

Summary of "London"

In London, Blake gets political. The outbreak of the French Revolution focused his attention on the appalling evils of contemporary English society, above all the horror and mystery and defilement of childhood in the London streets.

Blake harshly critiques the corruption of the Church, Body and Love. He also critiques the monarch and the total lack of emotion and empathy in English society.

Through his words, Blake portrays his strong opinions filled with anger towards and disagreement with the system. He then is to be remembered not only as a great artist, perhaps in his dual achievement as poet and painter, but as a Visionary Man.

London, William Blake

London, William Blake

Illustration explanation

William Blake illustrated his poems and engaged with a countercultural disregard for convention in his writing.

The dreary, old background of the illustration features the two most vulnerable age groups of a population: children, and old people. A child is warming against the fire, with another child helping the old man present in the picture.

The smoke and dull colours in the illustration exhibit a sense of suffering that death.

the illustration compliments the text.

In this article you will find:

  • the whole poem
  • stanza-by-stanza analysis
  • line-by-line analysis
  • analysis of poetic devices
  • Themes

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

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Stanza 1: The poet walks around aimlessly through the streets of industrial London where trade and commerce, are found in every nook. And as he walks with a lack of purpose, he notices that each person's face has signs of weakness and woe - distress. The first stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem. While it is written in the romantic period, the poem does not feature any pastoral imagery or revivified nature

Stanza 2: The capitalisation of words like "Man" and "Infants" is imperative because this is not just a reference to one man or one infant, but all of humanity. Misery has overtaken everything, and everywhere the poet goes, he witnesses the consequences of the numerous political and religious restrictions. 18th century London, before and during the Romantic movement, was heavily industrial. Capitalism was new, and hence exploitation was not opposed. The government and the Church were figures of authority that imposed bans and societal restrictions on people.

Stanza 3: The poet puts forth the juxtaposition of the Church and Palace along with poor chimney sweepers and soldiers. The "blackened church", and the blood dripping down the palace walls represent the corruption of political and authoritative figures. The poem is set in industrial London which indicates that the black soot and smoke from all the factories have blackened the church, i.e, the evil of capitalism has tainted the holiest of all shrines - the Church. Similarly, the soldiers are helpless. They are poor, and the only reason they enlist in the army is to make sure that their families would be compensated even if they die.

Stanza 4: The "harlot" i.e, the prostitute sells her body and spreads STDs. But more than that, there are unwanted pregnancies and STDs like AIDS that get passed down to children by their mothers. The infant suffers because of the poor choices made by adults. Blake comments on the different levels of corruption. 1. Corruption of Church, 2. Corruption of Love, 3. Corruption of Body. Blake also critiques marriage in the stanza. Marriage, which is supposed to be sacred has been tainted as well; instead of a marriage coach, he refers to a marriage 'hearse' which is a vehicle for carrying coffins. The corruption of life and love by the English society is eventually leading to death.

Line-by-Line Analysis

LinesMeaning

I wander thro' each charter'd street, Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.

"wander" hints towards a passive act. The poet is not walking with a purpose. He is simply strolling around aimlessly. "charter'd" has economic, commerce and trade-related implication. A reference to the industrial revolution, perhaps.

And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Every single person that he meets or sees has been weakened by the stress of industrial life. Everyone is sad, everyone is suffering.

In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear,

Capitalisation represents all of humanity. Every member of humanity is suffering.

In every voice: in every ban, The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

"every ban" implies religious and political restrictions. Bans could also have two meanings, 1. literal meaning: legal prohibition by the government, 2. figurative meaning: societal restrictions. "mind forged manacles" means metaphorical shackles made by the mind. People are not physically enslaved, but emotionally and mentally, they are. On paper they are free, but in reality, they are not.

How the Chimney-sweepers cry Every blackning Church appalls,

"chimney sweepers": small children, mostly poor and orphaned, were appointed to clean chimneys. Cleaning a chimney was a hazardous job. Children could get lost, suffocate and die. "blackening church" horrifies the poet. The church acting the exact opposite of how it should be. Instead of being kind, and compassionate towards the poor, the corrupt church exploits them.

And the hapless Soldiers sigh Runs in blood down Palace walls

Critique of the monarch and the meaningless wars that exploited soldiers. The metaphorical blood runs down palace walls as soldiers shed literal blood on the battlefield.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear How the youthful Harlots curse

"midnight": dead of the night, heavy darkness and blackness. A repetition of the symbolism of the colour black. "Harlots curse": STDs.

Blasts the new-born Infants tear And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

"blights": disease, "hearse": a vehicle used for carrying coffins. Juxtaposition: Marriage and Death side by side.

Literary Devices

Anaphora: repetition of a word/ expression through a verse.

Example: “In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban.”

Metaphor: Implied comparison

Example: "The mind-forg’d manacles I hear" is a metaphor for hardships and stress

Enjambment: the continuation of a thought/expression in a verse without line break.

Example: “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.”

Themes

  • Effects of Industrialisation
  • Moral Corruption
  • Poverty
  • Exploitation of the masses
  • Universal suffering

Sources

  • William Blake: The Visionary Man, 1958
  • Living Literatures: An Anthology of Prose & Poetry, 2007
  • Analysis: Amoretti Lxxv, Edmund Spenser
    Spenser's Amoretti 75 is a must in any literature-based course. It has continuities and departures from the sonnet tradition, which gives it a voice and substance of its own. It is a love poem, untainted by courtly comparisons or power politics.

© 2021 Guniya Sharma

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