‘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 Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear:
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls;
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
William Blake was born in London in 1757. He was a poet and painter, and is considered to be a major contributor to the Romantic movement. Romantics were interested in the power of nature, humanity and emotion; they were opposed to the industrialisation and scientific progress which were sweeping through Europe at the time. They were also concerned about the rights of the poor, feeling that they were often exploited by the Establishment.
Blake wrote and illustrated many poems, including ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, a collection which explored the ‘two contrary states of the human soul’. ‘London’ belongs to ‘Songs of Experience’.
Blake’s language throughout ‘London’ is bleak and negative, reflecting his attitude to the city. The poem has a polemic feel – it is attacking the nation’s capital and exposing its corruption and poverty.
Repetition is used frequently by Blake to hammer home his feelings. The repetition of ‘charter’d’ shows how he feels about the laws which have been imposed on London (to give something a charter is to impose legal restrictions and ownership upon it). There is a sense of irony here that the Thames, a natural body of water, has been made official and subjected to laws; this type of bureaucracy was something the Romantics disliked intensely.
Blake then goes on to repeat ‘marks’, playing with the meaning of the word. As a verb, he uses it to mean observe, but as a noun it is an impression or disfigurement. This conveys the impression that the oppression of the city has physically impacted on its inhabitants; their misery is etched into their faces.
The repetition of ‘every’ in the second and third stanza shows how widespread the city’s corruption has become, while the word ‘cry’ is also repeated across these quatrains, creating an auditory landscape for the reader. This word is accompanied by many other descriptions of the sounds that can be heard: ‘sigh’, ‘curse’ and ‘blasts’ all add to the negative impression of the city. The combined effect is that the city is a type of hell, filled with cries of misery.
Blake’s artistic side can be seen in the strong imagery within the poem. The alliterative ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ are a vivid metaphor for the hopelessness and feeling of captivity experienced by inhabitants who are too poor to escape, while the sinister sibilant ‘hapless Soldier’s sigh’ which ‘Runs in blood down palace walls’ is a disturbing metaphor. This reminds the reader of the French Revolution, so recent in Blake’s history, when ordinary people rose up against an oppressive state. Perhaps Blake is suggesting here that a similar event could happen in London if the inequality and misery continues.
But perhaps the most disturbing imagery is that of the ‘youthful Harlot’ in the final stanza. The young prostitute’s ‘curse’ only metaphorically ‘blasts’ her new-born child, but this is violent language which illustrates the harsh society in which she lives and the bleak future for children born into that way of life. The juxtaposition of ‘Marriage hearse’ shows that even apparently sacred and religious unions can be blighted by ‘plagues’ – in this case sexually transmitted diseases. Blake appears to be suggesting that this is a city where religion is no longer sacred – it has descended into hell.
‘London’: Form and Structure
‘London’ is divided into four stanzas (known as quatrains) with an ABAB rhyming scheme. This gives it a very simple rhythm, which reflects its place as a song in Blake’s collection.
The poem is structured so that the reader is touring the city with Blake, taking in the sights and sounds that he sees and hears as he wanders through the streets. In the first stanza he mentions that he is close to the Thames, and there is a sense that he is meandering with the river as he makes his observations.
In the first quatrain, Blake is concerned with what he can see, but in the second quatrain he starts to describe what he can hear, and it is the addition of this sensory element which gives the poem its impact as it progresses.
The poem builds to the third quatrain, where Blake makes clear his contempt for the various institutions of power which have combined to create this city of corruption: ‘Church, ‘Soldier’ and ‘Palace’ represent religion, the army and the monarchy, which have all oppressed the ‘Chimney-Sweeper’ – the common man.
The poem ends with the juxtaposition of the ‘Marriage hearse’, which is not only a comment on marriage but also a comment on the city itself. Blake’s choice of last word – a vehicle used for transporting the dead – summarises his views on the blighted city.
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