William Blake analyzed the horrors and sorrows of his city as he meandered through the streets. He was surrounded by dejected Londoners and, what he considered, evidence that his government had too much power and too little interest in helping those they were supposed to serve.
To endure the 1800s in England was to know the most restrictive of worlds, where laws were broken only on penalty of death, and people followed a specific societal protocol. It is still universal and timeless, as every society has restrictions that it has placed on human lives.
The speaker of this poem makes it very clear that he believes the government to have too much control and society to be too stringent. The poem, ‘London’, has been highlighted as one of the Top 10 Poems by William Blake, ranked by Poem Analysis.
The speaker travels to the River Thames and looks around him. He takes note of the resigned faces of his fellow Londoners. The speaker also hears and feels the sorrow in the streets, this is the focus of the final three stanzas. There is a true pain in the hearts of men, women, and children. The most prominent of those suffering in London’s streets are the prostitutes.‘London’ ends with a fantastical image of a carriage that shuttles love and death together around the city.
In ‘London,’ Blake engages with themes of urban life, childhood, and corruption. The latter relates to both childhood and the broader nature of life in the city. It’s clear from the first lines of the poem that Blake has a widely negative view of what it’s like to live and work in London. He is surrounded by misery, mostly due to the way the adult world destroys the innocence of childhood. These children are in distress throughout their lives, forced to deal with the sins of their family members and the darkness of the urban streets. The speaker hears pain everywhere he goes in the city, something that he knows isn’t necessary. The world could be happier and freer but humanity’s darker side has made that impossible in the city.
Structure and Form
‘London’ by William Blake is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABAB throughout. The first stanza explores the sights around the city of London while the following three focus more on the sounds the speaker can hear. Close readers might notice that the third stanza of the poem is actually an acrostic, it spells out the word “HEAR” with each first letter of the first word in every line. Some of the lines of ‘London’ make use of a metrical pattern known as iambic tetrameter. this can be seen perfectly in the first three lines of the poem. But, that changes in line four when the speaker is confronted with the people. The normal walking rhythm of the first lines is interrupted, a way of referring back to the content in ‘London.’
In ‘London,’ William Blake makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to examples of caesura, metaphor, and enjambment. The first of these, enjambment, is a common formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the conclusion of a sentence or phrase. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza as well as line four of the second stanza and line one of the third stanza.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of lines, either due to a break in the meter or the use of punctuation. For example, line four of the first stanza. It reads: “Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Another good example is line three of the second stanza: “In every voice: in every ban.”
Metaphors are a kind of figurative language, one that is quite common in poetry and often helps to create great examples of imagery. There are numerous examples to be found, especially in stanzas two and three.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
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 the first stanza, the speaker provides the setting and tone. The setting can of course be derived from the title, but the first stanza also reveals that the speaker is walking down a street. He says that he “wander[s] down each chartered street”. The term “wander” gives some insight into the speaker as well. He appears to be not quite sure of himself, and a bit misguided, if not entirely lost. The use of the term “chartered” also suggests that the streets he walks are controlled and rigid. He is not walking in a free, open field, but a confined, rigid, mapped out area. The speaker will expound upon this idea later on in ‘London’. As he walks, he notices something about the faces of the people walking by. There seem to be the marks of weariness in them all. He describes their faces as having “weakness” and “woe”. This sets up the tone as melancholy. The gloom and the sadness seem to seep from the speaker’s voice as he describes the passersby.
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
While the first stanza sets up the tone of ‘London’, the second stanza gives some insight into the speaker’s melancholy feelings toward the people he watches pass him by. The speaker reveals that from the cry of the newborn infant, to the cry of the full-grown man, he hears the “mind forg’d manacles”. This gives insight into his despairing view of mankind. The “manacles” are shackles or some kind of chain that keeps a person imprisoned. The fact that these chains are “mind forg’d” reveals that they are metaphorical chains created by the people’s own ideas. The use of the word “ban” reveals that these manacles are placed there by society. A ban, of course, is a restriction given by law. The speaker’s use of words such as “Charterd” “ban” and “manacles” reveal his belief that society metaphorically imprisons people. Suddenly, it becomes apparent that the thoughts, pressures, and ideals of society are under scrutiny here.
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
In this stanza of ‘London’, the speaker digs even deeper into the reasons for his feelings toward humanity. He implies that the shackles worn by the people and inflicted by society have some disastrous results. He begins with the Chimney sweeper. The Chimney sweeper was one of the poorest of society. His life expectancy was threatened because of his line of work. He was consistently dirty and sick. Those of the lowest class were forced into this kind of work in order to provide for their families. Then, the speaker criticizes the church, calling it “blackning” and claiming that even the church “appalls” at the Chimney sweeper. Often, the chimney sweepers were just children. They were small enough to fit down the chimneys. These children were often orphaned children, and the church was responsible for them. This explains why the poet ties the chimney sweepers with the “blackning church”.
The speaker then turns his attentions to the “hapless soldier”. He has already criticized society, pointed out the misfortunes of the poor and the hypocrisy of the church, and now he will also criticize the government by suggesting that the soldiers are the poor victims of a corrupt government. He reveals his feelings toward war by describing the blood that runs down the palace walls. The palace, of course, is where royalty would have lived. Thus, the speaker accuses the higher up people in his society of spilling the blood of the soldiers in order to keep their comfort of living in a palace.
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
In the final stanza, the speaker reveals how the corruptness of society attacks innocence. He says that he hears the “youthful Harlot’s curse…”. The idea of a youthful harlot suggests the level of poverty and corruption, that a girl who was yet a youth would be involved in prostitution. Then, things become even more interesting, as the speaker reveals the object of the Harlot’s cursing. She curses at the tears of a newborn baby. This is the ultimate attack upon innocence. The speaker does not reveal whether the harlot is the mother of the baby or not, but he does imply that rather than comforting a crying infant, she curses it. This reveals the hardened heart of the harlot, which represents the hardened heart of society at large. While the innocent shed tears, the perverted attack them.
The last line of ‘London’reveals the speaker’s thoughts on marriage as well. The Harlot, apparently, has “blighted” the “marriage hearse”. She has deranged marriage by having sold her body before ever entering into the marriage union. Although the speaker believes that the Harlot has somehow damaged marriage, he also reveals his beliefs about marriage in the first place. The fact that he calls it a “marriage hearse” reveals that he views marriage as death. Overall, the poem has criticized society, the church, prostitution, and even marriage. The innocent baby shedding tears represent those who are innocent in the world. They are few and they are scoffed at. They are also infants and are not left to be innocent for long. Their innocence is “blasted” by the cry of the perverted.
Readers who enjoyed ‘London’ should also consider reading some other William Blake poems. These include ‘The Tyger,’ ‘A Poison Tree,’ and ‘The Sick Rose.’ The latter contains an extended metaphor in which the speaker compares a rose to a woman’s innocence or virginity. If the rose is sick, then it has lost its virginity. ‘A Poison Tree’ was included along with ‘The Tyger’ in Songs of Experience. It considers two different ways of confronting and dealing with anger. ‘The Tyger’ describes the cruelty of some of God’s creatures and wonders why God made them as he did.
William Blake Background
One biographer explains,
Blake was a nonconformist who associated with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day, such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.
These people, like Blake, believed in free thinking and were not the kind to conform to society’s standards. This poem particularly condemns the stringent rules of society. Blake experienced some of this first hand. At one point in his life, he was accused of speaking against the king (Bio.com). The penalty for this was severe, and Blake was distraught over the issue until he was finally acquitted. It is not surprising that he should revile such a strict government. The words of this poem condemn every kind of organized religion and government while it reveals the human heart’s longing for freedom.