“London” is a poem by William Blake published in 1794 in his work “Songs of Experience”. The poet, engraver and craftsman was born in 1757 in London where he spent almost his entire life. He published his poems engraved in a script embellished with illustrations.1 Blake was known as a “non-confomirst” which refers to a religious group that had seperated from the Church of England and that was critical to the government.2 The poet and his work are part of the early Romantic period which is characterized by the rejection of the ideals, values and beliefs of classicism and neoclassicism such as restraint emotionality or objectivity. Instead a freer and more subjective expression of passion, pathos and personal feelings was pursued. Furthermore, Romantic thoughts proceeded social and political reactions against oppression and the stereotypes of Christian thinking.3
The lyrical I in “London” describes his or her impressions and his individual experience while walking through the streets of the city of London. The lyric person as a wanderer perceives on his journey many negative realities. Strong and dramatic expressions with destructive connotations were used by Blake to create a melancholic and sorrowful atmosphere of London's streets (marks of weakness and woe, cry, fear, ban, sigh, blood, blights and plagues). The capital city and its inhabitants were found in a terrible condition of child labor, war and prostitution.
The lyric person refers to himself in the first person singular. The repetition of the pronoun “I” shows a high degree of explicit subjectivity which is a criteria of the Romantic period. The poem's four stanzas, each consisting of four lines, offer four glimpses into London during the late 18th century. The poem's structure shows high regularity: the four quatrains, eight syllables per line, the cross rhyme scheme and the mostly iambic meter contribute to the poem's coherence.
Blake's poem reflects on the social, political and religious circumstances during the 18th century. “London” analyzes and points out cruelty and injustice occurring in the society and criticizes the church and the British monarchy. It articulates the social grievances of marginalized people such as prostitutes and chimney-sweepers who used to be children during that time. Focusing the socio-historical context, the French Revolution (1789-1799), the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and the Industrial Revolution (late 18th century) were periods and happenings all of which had changed people's life and society significantly. London became an emerging and dirty black city. The process of urbanization took place.
In the first stanza, the use of the word “charter'd” in relation to the river Thames provides ambiguity since the expression being “chartered” is not clearly determined. It could either refer to a written statement describing the particular rights someone should have given by the state or to the act of leasing or renting something. In conjunction with the river Thames, the meaning of “charter'd” alludes to the fact that in the early years of capitalism everything in the city is owned and controlled by commercial interests – London's streets and even the river Thames, an actual natural thing.
The parallelism (the use of parallel clause) in the first three lines of the second stanza and the repetition of the word “every” for five times in the stanza underline clearly the fact that the entire society and each individual person is affected. In the second stanza, the metaphorical expression “mind-forg'd manacles I hear” alludes to mental oppression and restraint. Blake illustrates the idea of a mentally imprisoned society by using an actual physical object (manacle) within a non-physical, psychological context (manacles of the mind). Further, a synaesthetic effect is used as another rhetorical figure to transform the abstract symbol of the “mind-forg'd manacles” to an auditive perceivable object – the manacles convert to something clearly noticeable and can be heard.
The poem's criticism and accusation come to a climax in the third stanza. The physical descriptions develop to a more social commentary. The „Chimney sweeper's cry“ complains and accuses the “black'ning Church” of not fulfilling it's assignment of protecting the weak. The color black shows a negative and darkening picture of religion and the church. It could also refer to the society's abandonment of religion. The “hapless soldier's sigh” which “runs in blood down palace walls” is another synaesthesia which converts an auditive stimulus to something visible, movable and more graspable. The “Soldier's sigh” refers to the war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and the colonies in North America and alludes to the violent riots during the French Revolution. The British soldiers who were partly pressed into service were returning weak, likely invalid and not given any support or respect by the state. The “Palace walls” symbolize the British monarchy for which the soldiers had to lose their blood. Neither the church nor the government shows any effort to alleviate the population's distress it has to cope with. Instead of providing solidarity, empathy or social justice to the suffering people serving the Empire, morality is ignored. Harmful consequences as prostitution and child labor can occur.
The initial letters of the third stanza form an acrostic4. By reading the initials vertically the word H.../E.../A.../R... appears and emphasizes the stanza's content and which can be read as a direct order addressed to the reader.
In the fourth stanza a caesura reinforces the poem's content. The lyrical addresser now points to the consequences which will affect the society's future. The "youthful harlot's curse" symbolizes how the youth's sinful failures damage the future generation, described as the "newborn infant's tear". The next generation is charged with the correction of the mistakes which the previous generation has made. Blake creates a paradox by using a rhetorical figure – the oxymoron "marriage hearse" confuses eternity and death.
Blake uses in “London” a variety of stylistic devices in paradigmatic and semantic contexts. Ambiguous utterances invite the reader to imply extra meaning into the content and open up the access to interpretation. The rhetorical figures, metaphors, synesthesia, imagery etc. all of which used, affiliate the poem's articulation as well as illustrate and enhance it's implicit statement.
“London” is a prime-example of a Romantic socio-critical poem. Blake reflects with his work on different levels of meaning in a subjective and expressional manner. “London” reveals the process of social change and the related negative consequences in society. The poem points out lack of freedom and inhumanity which is neglected by the British Empire and the church in the late 18th century. “London” shows solidarity with the people who are hit by the changes the hardest. Furthermore, the poem is a call for morality, empathy and social justice in order to protect the future generation.
1 cf. Kennedy, X.J., Gioia, Diana, Literature. An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama (7th ed. New York, NY : Longman, 1998) 1167
2 cf. Roberts, Jonathan, William Blake's Poetry. A Reader's Guide (London: Continuum, 2007) 4
3 cf. Wordsworth, Jonathan and Jessica, The New Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry (London: Penguin, 2001) xxviii
4 cf. Williams, Nicholas M., Palgrave Advances in William Blake Studies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) 91-92