OK, let’s start with the basics. London is a 16-line polemic poem – that’s a poem which is strongly critical of something. In this case, the clue’s in the title. The poem’s organised into stanzas of four lines each and has a simple ABAB rhyme scheme, and a regular structure.
This makes it quite easy to read – it’s a poem that’s accessible, and that’s important cos it ties into the message of Blake’s poem. But more on that later – first of all, let’s look at the context of this poem.
Way back at the turn of the eighteenth century, Great Britain was gripped by the Industrial Revolution. This was an exciting time, and processes that had always been done by hand could now be done by machine. Businessmen started cashing in on this mass production, and factories sprang up – particularly in London.
Powered by steam and water, these were dirty, noisy places. William Blake, a printer, artist and poet was pretty appalled by this sudden explosion of industry. He was part of the Romantic Movement – not the lovey-dovey sort of Romantic, but the sort which celebrated the beauty of nature and emotions.
Blake was also what we might call “a bit kooky”. He saw angels and demons, and often had visions. All this is important, cos it helps us to understand some of the really dark imagery in his poem.
1:16-2:43- What’s it all about?
In the poem, the speaker is wandering through London’s streets, near the Thames. He passes people on his travels, and they’re all looking pretty miserable – they have “marks of weakness, marks of woe” on their faces. According to Blake they’re trapped by “mind-forg’d manacles” (notice the alliteration!).
So what does that mean? Well, a forge is a dark, dirty place with a roaring fire – a bit like hell – only this hell is in people’s minds. They are trapped by their own thoughts. So, the imprisonment that Blake sees is not just a physical one – he’s saying that people are mentally trapped, too
He’s not finished yet, though. He goes on to describe “the Chimney-sweeper’s cry” and the “Soldier’s sigh” – he’s moved from visual imagery to auditory description. We’re getting the sights and sounds of Industrial Revolution London.
Also in this stanza, he throws in a reference to the “blackening Church” – this could be interpreted as a reference to the soot and smog generated by the factories, but there’s also a suggestion of the church itself, as an institution, being blackened or corrupt.
Finally, in the last stanza, Blake describes a young prostitute and talks about her “curse”. Today, we’d call this a sexually transmitted infection. He’s moved from the mental anguish to the physical – “new-born infant”s are being blinded by the disease, and marriage is now associated with a “hearse” – a vehicle used for carrying a coffin. Everything has been corrupted by the changes in London. It’s a final, damning image of the city.
So, let’s look at analysing the poem in a bit more depth.
2:44-4:19 – Dig Deep
One of the key things that springs out from this poem is that Blake is not averse to a bit of repetition. Remember what we said at the beginning, about the poem’s rhyme scheme and structure making it accessible? Well, this is part of the same idea:
Blake wants his message to be clear and understood by many – including those who might not have the formal education that money could buy. His poems are often very simple, like this – they’re poems for the people. This poem was published in a volume called Songs of Experience, and it was accompanied by amazing illustrations, done by Blake himself.
So what points is the repetition making? Well, he repeats “chartered” which means “subject to laws”. He’s hammering home the point that the city has been tied up in red tape – it’s full of petty bureaucracy. He then repeats the word “mark”, first as a verb meaning “notice”, but then as the noun meaning “signs or blemishes”. He’s screaming to us: Notice the damage! Look at what has happened to our city!
The repetition of “every” tells us that this corruption has spread to every person and place in the city, while the repetition of ”cry” reminds us of the fear and pain people are living in. Let’s be honest, London is sounding like a pretty hellish place to live.
There’s lots of really dark imagery in this poem. Look at the people who are conjured up – a sighing soldier, a terrified baby, a chimney-sweeper, a young prostitute… all are suffering, and all are representations of this city.
They’re often described with brutal or horrific language – just look at the metaphor describing the soldier’s sigh running “in blood”. Or in the final stanza, what about the curse which “blights with plagues” – two emotive words associated with disease and suffering.
4:20-5:03 – The Wrap-Up
Right, so we’ve looked at the poem in some detail. Let’s recap on the key points we’ve identified:
- London is a 16-line polemic poem in four stanzas with a simple rhyming scheme.
- It’s written by William Blake, a Romantic poet who believed in the beauty of nature and emotions.
- It’s about how the industrial revolution has corrupted and ruined London.
- People are enslaved mentally. They’re also broken physically, crying out in fear and pain, and blighted by disease.
- Blake uses dark imagery to convey his points – he creates gruesome visual and auditory descriptions to illustrate the horror of the setting.