London

P. London I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

Summary

The speaker wanders through the streets of London seeing despair in the faces of the city’s people. The chimney-sweeper’s cry is an indictment of the church and the society as is the plight of the soldier and the prostitute. London is not only concerned with actual social realities, but also points beyond social evils to the workings of the human mind which give rise to them.

Speaker

The speaker remains somewhat outside at first , observing and commenting on what s/he sees rather than identifying with it. As the poem progresses, though, the speakers reactions becomes progressively more emotional and angry.

Language and tone

What is the dominant tone of the poem? How is this achieved?

How does the use of repetition convey the suffocating atmosphere of the city and the oppressive power of the economic, religious and political system?

  • Blake uses repetition to convey the speaker’s belief that everything is a possession of the ruling system and that no-one is free. Blake’s thudding repetition reflects the suffocating atmosphere of the city.
  • The repetition of ‘every’ in stanza two reinforces the universality of human misery. The speaker can see and hear nothing but the products of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’.

Note the movement in the poem towards more emotive diction. What is the effect of this?

  • ‘woe’ becomes ‘cry of fear’, a cry that ‘appalls’, ultimately the ‘curse’ that ‘blasts’ the weeping ‘Infant’

Comment on the way in which intangible things in the third stanza become tangible.

  • The soldier’s sigh becomes blood, the sweeper’s cry, a black stain.

Oppositions

  • The strong positive connotations of ‘youthful’ and ‘new-born’, with innocence, health and fresh hope, are overturned by ‘blights’, ‘plagues’ and the death symbolised by the ‘hearse’.
  • Sexual and marital union should be signs of life and hope. Here, they are tainted by the blight of venereal disease. Thus the closing image of the ‘Marriage hearse’ is one in which love and desire can produce only death and destruction. It would also tally with Blake’s belief that the institution of marriage killed free love.

Structure and Texture

The poem has four quatrains, with alternate lines rhyming. Repetition is the most striking formal feature of the poem, and it serves to emphasise the difficulty of escaping the all-encompassing effect of the ‘mind-forg’d manacles.

Blake frequently uses alliteration to link concepts:

  • The weak are in ‘woe’ / misery
  • The ‘mind’ is ‘manacled’
  • The sooty ‘Chimney’ is equated with the ‘black’ning Church’
  • The ‘Soldier’ is not proud but sighs

The strength of the speaker’s feeling is particularly conveyed by the plosive alliteration of:

  • Palace’ and ‘plagues’
  • Blood’, ‘blasts’, ‘blights’

When the regular iambic tetrameter changes to trochaic metre, as in l. 4, the third stanza and l.14-5, the lines gain in intensity and pace

Why do you think Blake has employed a metre that is often found in children’s verse? Do you think it is effective to write in a metre and rhythm that contradicts the content of the poem?

Imagery and symbolism

charterBlake paints a nightmare vision of social and urban decay, where anguished sounds reverberate, darkness prevails (‘black’ning Church’, ‘midnight streets’) and death stalks the streets (the ‘blood’ of the ‘hapless Soldier’, the ‘hearse’ that contains those stricken with ‘plagues’).

Charter’d – Blake uses the image of the charter to represent the absence of freedom for the common people of London. Even the river and the social life of the street has become confined to a charter. Royal charters were issued to towns and cities, ostensibly giving them freedom. However, they did not give freedom to the people but made them subjects of the wealthy or the aristocrat:

‘Every chartered town is an aristocratical monopoly in itself’
(Paine)

Mark – Blake uses biblical imagery when he refers to ‘Marks of weakness’. In the New Testament book of Revelation (Revelation 7:3-4), those who are saved for eternal life are marked with a seal on their foreheads. The damned bear ‘the mark of the beast’. Marks may also suggest the brand of a slave. The image suggests, therefore, how everyone’s fate is sealed and how they have become slaves on account of their ‘Mind-forg’d manacles’.

Manacles – ‘Forg’d’ suggests the power and strength of the human mind that can produce such strong shackles. These manacles are produced by the fallen human mind. They produce an oppressive system of religious and monarchical power which keeps the poor in poverty and destroys brotherhood. They produce an attitude to sexuality that makes it a thing of shame, to be repressed and controlled by marriage. They also render sexual relationships prone to possessiveness and jealousy, distorting and perverting them.

menaclesBlood down Palace walls – Blake was writing in a revolutionary era, where tales by émigrés of the Terror after the French Revolution were a very real reminder of death and suffering imposed by despotic leaders.

Themes

The effects of ‘fallenness’ on repression of sexuality and other emotions

  • Blake believed that inhibitions lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy. These institutions oppress the people and maintain repressive social hierarchies.

The vulnerability of innocence

  • Innocence is especially endangered when it is ignorant of the ‘woe’ in life and of the possibility of failure and betrayal. This poem links exposure of the social evil of the child chimney-sweep and adolescent prostitute with the theme of the exploitation and vulnerability of innocence. The innocence of the young bride is also devastated by the disease her promiscuous husband will infect her with.