Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg English Department
PSII: Romantic Poetry: Byron, Shelley, Keats
P.B. Shelley’s “England in 1819” and William Blake’s “London”
Political and social grievances have always been inspirational sources for literary work. The poems “England in 1819” by P.B. Shelley and “London” by William Blake are both concerned with the political and social impacts of the Industrial Revolution and the turbulent regency of King George III in England. Although the poems discuss a very similar issue, there are significant disparities with regards to their themes as well as their formal and rhetorical features.
P.B. Shelley’s sonnet “England in 1819” is metered in iambic pentameter but does not fit the rhyming pattern of a traditional Petrarchan sonnet. Moreover, there is no typical division between the first eight and the final six lines. The structure is disorganized and unsteady, exactly like the condition of England in 1819 seemed to be. The speaker describes the dreadful state of the nation and directs his critique towards the responsible - the ruling powers. The first six lines of “England in 1819” are concerned with the monarchy, representing the greatest source of all evil. The furious opening line provides an asyndetic listing of the negative qualities of the monarch, King George III1. He is “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying” (l.1). The harsh judgement is reinforced by the lack of conjunctions, demonstrating the innumerableness of the king’s bad characteristics, as well as by the repeated “d” sounds. Not only the king is condemned but also his successor, George IV, who acted as prince regent from the year 1811 onwards1. The princes are described as worthless and unwanted “dregs of their dull race” (l.2). Just like a river, they are unstoppably flowing through the public even though the people despise them. The speaker stays in the semantic field of dirt and depicts the princes as “mud”, originating “from a muddy spring” (l.4). This indicates that the royal bloodline is polluted and contaminated. The use of the oxymoron “muddy spring” emphasizes this sense as the line of succession should be as blameless and pure as a spring. The rulers of England seem to have no human emotions, being unable to see, feel or know their nation (l.4). Consequently, they are detached from human qualities and are figured as blood-sucking leeches, exploiting the people of England until those have lost all their strength. With this simile the ruthless exploitation on the part of the monarchy and the government is depicted. They will not stop until they are saturated with the life force of the people and will then fall off “blind in blood”(l.6) and without any added force. In the seventh verse, the speaker is alluding to the Peterloo massacre, when thousands of pro-reform protestors were violently suppressed by the government at St. Peter’s field near Manchester2. The army is needed but turns against its principles by repressing liberty and the English people, who are depicted as “prey” (l.8). The numerous unjust laws “tempt” the population to protests and revolts. In turn, these laws “slay” because the insurgents are punished for their actions (l.10). Expressions of death and murder, such as “dying” (l.1), “blood” (l.6), “starved and stabbed” (l.7) and “liberticide” (l.8), are clearly visible throughout the poem. Another corrupt institution of England is the church, which is portrayed as “Christless” and “Godless” (l.11) and not based on bible values anymore. Once again, Shelley listed the attributes asyndetically and uses a homoioteleuton to strengthen the church’s renunciation of religious principles. The metaphor of a sealed book additionally stresses the church’s abandonment of biblical values. The Senate is referred to with the “Time’s worst statute” (l.12), which again points towards all of the unjust and restrictive laws which had been passed. In the poem’s last two verses, there is a significant change in tone. The modal verb “may” (l.13) indicates the possibility of change. Out of all the injustices, which are imaged as graves, a “glorious phantom” (l.13), something new and better may arise. Unlike the vast number of negative adjectives which can be found throughout the poem, “glorious” hints at recovery and improvement. The phantom, which may illuminate the tempestuous day, darkened by the difficulties of the regime, may signify hope or a spirit of change and awakening, similar to the “Shape” in in P.B. Shelley’s poem “The Mask of Anarchy”.
With his poem, Shelley clearly demonstrates both his devotion to liberty and equality and his disdain towards tyranny and oppression. He clarifies his position with the use of strong imagery and metaphors of decay, death, murder and dirt. Although he has no faith left in the leading institutions of England, the poem ends in optimism and there seems to be a chance for improvement. Shelley wanted to galvanize the English people and encourage them to recognize and change the conditions. For this reason, he leaves a sense of positivity for the reader behind.
In William Blake’s poem “London” from 1794, the speaker describes the inescapable misery and poverty of London. Just like in “England in 1819”, the powerful institutions of England are to charge. Whilst walking around London, the first-person narrator sees nothing but hardship and weakness. The ongoing industrialization, the ruthless striving after profit and the corrupt establishments lead to widespread distress and hopelessness. The first two stanzas are concerned with the suffering Londoners, who are trapped in the situation. The corruption of London does not even recoil from infants, who are, as well as grown men, crying in fear (ll.6f). In the third stanza, the central themes are the causes of suffering such as child-laboring, the corrupt church and monarchy and the weak and miserable army. The fourth and last stanza climaxes in the most corrupted side of London - prostitution.
Both “London” and “England in 1819” are characterized by their declarative and unadorned titles. The poems aim to realistically depict the condition of London and England at the respective times. Nothing is trivialized or concealed; the reader is confronted with the bare truth. Another similarity is that the structure of both poems mirrors their content. While the chaotic and unorganized atmosphere in “England in 1819” is reflected in the incongruity with the Petrarchan sonnet, the structure in “London” is just as rigid and inescapable as the conditions for its inhabitants seemed to be. The four stanzas are mostly metered in iambic tetrameter. This simple rhythmical pattern and the alternating rhyme scheme depict the entrapment and constraint in which the Londoners find themselves. This confinement is not just conveyed by the repetitive stanza structure and the repetitive rhyme scheme but also by the poem’s cyclical structure, ending with what it has begun.
Shelley and Blake both broach the issue of misused power and corruption by the ruling establishments of England and the resulting social ills. However, while “England in 1819” focuses on the political turbulences of King George Ill’s regency, “London” brings the control of the Industrial Revolution over the individual and the evils of urban life into focus. The process of chartering land which once was public property, labor exploitation and prostitution are thus far more prominent themes than in Shelley’s poem.
In “England in 1819” the Church is described as Christless and Godless, having lost all its religious principles. In “London”, the church appears blackened (l.10). The reason for that could be the massive pollution at that time. Metaphorically, the church is blackened because it has lost its innocent and pure character. It should provide comfort and relief for the people and was in charge for the chimney sweepers, which typically were children due to their smaller stature3, but is blackened by ruthlessness. It is just pretending to appall by “the chimney-sweeper’s cry” (l.9) and tries to turn pale to create the semblance of purity again. But in fact, the church is ignorant and sanctimonious, just as in “England in 1819”.
A clear difference between both poems can be observed in the depiction of the army. In “England in 1819”, it is portrayed as a threat to liberty and the people of England. In “London”, the soldiers are part of those who are suffering from the establishment. The onomatopoeic hapless sigh in verse eleven reveals their weakness and suppression. The army’s discontent may become blood, running “down palace walls” (l.12). This blood is either their own or results through the acts they are forced to carry out. This metaphor represents the difference between the monarchy, being safe inside the palace, and those who have to fight outside of its protective walls.
Shelley dedicates nearly half of his poem to the monarchy, pointing towards its evil and uselessness in a very direct and extended way. He explicitly addresses the King, his successors, the government, the army and religion. Blake on the other hand, makes use of metonymies and speaks through images to express his contempt against the ruling powers. He uses “church” for Christian religion, “soldiers” for the army and “palace” for the monarchy. He clearly avoids direct references to these institutions. Consequently, he expresses his disdain far more covert and implicit in comparison to Shelley. The sufferers, however, play a more important role in Blake’s “London”. He pays close attention to the youth of London, especially the children who are born into poverty, destined to work at young age and the young prostitutes. Both of them embody the juxtaposition of innocence and sordidness. Although both “England in 1819” and “London” are characterized by vivid language, Shelley and Blake adopt different perspectives. Blake focuses on the social effects of the corrupt actions of England’s leading institutions combined with the Industrial Revolution and Shelley is more concerned with those responsible for the misery.
1 Britannica, “George III
2 Carlile, “On Peterloo“: 57f
3 Zengin, “William Blakes ‘London’“: 128
- Quote paper
- Jasmin Haddad (Author), 2021, P.B. Shelley's "England in 1819" and William Blake's "London", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1014133