London By William Blake Summary and Analysis

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

Analysis of the poem

London is a poem by William Blake, published in Songs of Experience in 1794. It is one of the few poems in Songs of Experience that does not have a corresponding poem in Songs of Innocence. Blake lived in London so writes of it as a resident rather than a visitor. The poems reference the “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. The “Songs of Innocence” section contains poems which reference love, childhood and nature. Critics have suggested that the poems illustrate the effects of modernity on people and nature, through the discussion of dangerous industrial conditions, child labour, prostitution and poverty.

This poem is taken from “songs of experience”. It reveals the poet’s feelings towards the society he lived in. England in 1800s became very oppressive influenced by the French Revolution. It started to impose laws which restrict the freedom of individuals.“At first, Blake loved London, he wrote that“golden London and her silver Thames, throng’d with shining spires and corded ships”(Poetical Sketches), but after French Revolution, the British government began to oppress the civil democratic activities. Then London was quite different from before: everything was covered with darkness, terrors and miseries.” (Zhan,2013). Thus he shows a negative picture of London and he offers a social criticism of 18th century England.

In the first stanza the speaker takes a walk along a street which is “chartered” meaning highly controlled, even the river Thames is controlled. This shows how restrictive the government is because the government does not only control people but also streets and rivers. He observes the faces of the passer-by and notices that nobody is happy. This is because people do not have individual freedom.

In the second stanza the poet talks about the idea of how the worry of man continues. He talks about ‘Mind forged menacles’ which means that not only government controls people but also people are controlled by their own ideas and attitudes. This shows how an individual loses freedom by conforming to the society.

In the third stanza he talks about chimney sweepers, church and soldiers. He criticizes the society for creating poverty which resultsin poor children becoming chimney sweeper. The church which is supposed to take care of the orphans does not care about them, so they have no option but to become chimney sweepers. Thus he levels criticism against church for not doing their duty properly by exposing their hypocrisy. Similarly he criticizes the ruling class for staying in their palaces comfortably letting soldiers suffer and die. Soldiers are the victims of corrupted government.

In the last stanza he criticizes the society which paved way for the emergence of prostitution due to poverty. ”harlot” means a prostitute. She curses the baby when it cries rather than comforting it. Harlot is cursing the baby, perhaps her own baby, born as a result of prostitution. This shows the hardened heart of the harlot which represents the hardened heart of the society at large.

The last line offers a criticism on marriage. He sees marriage as death because many people go into prostitution due to poverty, so they have damaged the marriage by selling her body before entering into marriage union.In addition “harlot is the truth behind respectable ideas of marriage. New birth is not a happy event but only to continue the cycle of misery, and the wedding carriage is seen as a hearse, leading to a kind of death.

The word “plagues” here suggests the sexually transmitted diseases, which the “youthful harlot” would contract, and pass on to others, giving her cursing words real destructive power” (Zhan, 2013)

Thus he offers a criticism of the society, the church, war, prostitution, poverty and marriage. The poem is representative of English economic problems of the time and the root causes of all these problems are poverty and corruption in the society.

Themes

  • Lack of freedom
  • Sources for the lack of freedom
  • Downfall of London.

Literary techniques

  • Structure-four quatrains with alternate lines rhyming. ABABCDCD
  • Alliteration-“weakness, marks of woe”
  • Oxymoron-Marriage hearse
  • Repetition-
    • “chartered”-shows the inability to escape and reflects the suffocating atmosphere ofthe London city.
    • “cry”-shows the suffering of both adults and childrenin London.