September 1, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

Blake London.jpg
London[1]
By: William Blake (1794)

I wander[2] thro’ each charter’d[3] street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.[4]

In every cry of every Man, 5
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,[5]
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear:[6]

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry[7]
Every black’ning Church appalls,[8] 10
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh[9]
Runs in blood down Palace walls.[10]

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear[11]
How the youthful[12] Harlot’s curse[13]
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear,[14] 15
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.[15]

Notes & Commentary

  1. In “London,” Blake identifies and denounces the inequalities of his time that subjugate people in a social system of regimentation and imposed order (Tomlinson 1987, p. 55). It offers an entré into Blake’s system of thought, as it requires no background for interpretation (Thompson 1993, p. 174). He saw these as consequences of the Industrial Revolution that brought low-paying jobs, pollution, and misery: the “poor worked themselves to death in unsafe, unsanitary, and unhealthful conditions” and this had a profound affect on Blake (Bloom 2003, p. 41). Bloom offers this summary: “Family life in ‘London’ is difficult, work is hard, the streets are dirty, and the air is filthy. There is little comfort in religion or in patriarchy. For Blake’s speaker, the late 18th century is a terrible time in which to be living in London” (Bloom 2003, p. 43).
  2. The speaker searches for inspiration by wandering the streets of London, but all he sees is misery and dirt. He is both sympathetic to the sufferers and indignant to the institutions that cause that suffering.
  3. A charter is an exclusive legal document that grants rights or privileges to certain groups of people or individuals and limits the rights of others. Here, they are associated with cheating and inequality: of tyrannies derived from ideologies imposed upon the masses especially related to commerce (see Thompson 1993, pp. 175 ff. for an extended discussion).
  4. The speaker is observing, but he also feels implicated in the suffering, impotent to anything about it. Marks also suggests the mark of the Beast from Revelation, relating perhaps to the “buying and selling of human vales,” or perhaps to Ezekiel 9.4, “And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof”—literally marking the damned and the saved (Thompson 1993, pp. 180–181).
         Note the repetition of every and other key words throughout the poem: suffering and despair are everywhere, so everyone seems to be marked in Blake’s vision. Like drumbeats, these repeated words carry us through the poem as they do through the streets of eighteenth-century London with an increasing intensity of the senses: we see and hear and sense, and are consequently immersed deeper into the poem and become fellow suffers (Thompson 1993, pp. 188–190).
  5. A reference to charter’d in the first stanza—these bans usually limit and prohibit the actions of the lower classes—much like today. A ban may be defined as “political and legal prohibition, curse, public condemnation” as well as “marriage proclamation” (Greenblatt 2018, p. 60).
  6. While there are charter’d realities, most of the suffering is precipitated by the citizens’ own ideas which shackle them to a miserable existence. In other words, many of these charter’d bans or curses are not part of the natural world, but made up by man to limit freedom and joy (Tomlinson 1987, p. 55). The manacles are invisible to the forces that constructed them, but their consequences resonate throughout society and bind the oppressors and oppressed alike (Wolfson 2003, p. 81 and Thompson 1993, p. 184).
  7. Literally, Blake refers to the sweeps’ cry of services offered, or “calling the streets,” which they did while banging their brushes and sweeping tools from before dawn to midday, of “Sweep! Sweep!” (Greenblatt & 20218, p. 51 and Ackroyd 1995, pp. 123–124). Also, it is an apt symbol of misery for the chimney sweep: a dirty and unhealthy job where workers, most of which are children, inhale and wear the soot they remove from chimneys for part of the year, and who are dependent on charity for the other part (Bloom 2003, p. 42).
  8. Even the house of God is polluted and brings no solace. The literal pollution of the city has blackened the souls of its people. Blake’s view of organized religion was not very high (Bloom 2003, p. 43). This could also be a mark of complicity: the church knows the commercial causes of the people’s misery, but does nothing to alleviate them. See “The Chimney Sweeper,” lines 3–4, where the sweep’s mother and father have abandoned the child in order to maintain their fantasy of a heaven while neglecting the realities of London. Appalls is used as in “as puts to shame, puts in fear, challenges, indicts, in the same way as the dying sigh of the soldier indicts . . . the Palace (Thompson (1993, p. 185)).
  9. This could be, along with the blood on the castle walls, a reference to the American Revolution, that, along with the Industrial Revolution, is killing England’s citizens as they fight for an inequitable and tyrannical system.
  10. Not even the ruling monarchy seems to be able to help since they isolate themselves from the reality of daily life in the streets. The palace symbolizes tyranny, perhaps executing the soldier for an unknown offense.
  11. Even night cannot bring peace or disguise the misery.
  12. Like the chimney sweep, the harlot here is young, perhaps forced into this work because of dire economic conditions.
  13. Here, curse relates to charter’d and ban from earlier in the poem, as ban meant curse in Blake’s time (Tomlinson 1987, p. 55). Here, too, the harlot is cursed in her vocation, forced into selling sex because of a morality that tries to control desire. Also, the curse might be a venereal disease, perhaps echoed in the last two lines, particularly tear, plague, and hearse: the harlot having transmitted the disease to the family (Tomlinson 1987, p. 56).
  14. The suggestion here is beyond just a general unhappiness, as tear might be a consequence of the harlot’s curse or venereal disease (Greenblatt 2018, p. 60).
  15. Marriage, too, is unsatisfying, or perhaps an institution that is just as diseased as prostitution (Paulin 2007). Blake ends the poem with an image of death—perhaps the only escape from the misery.

Bibliography

  • Ackroyd, Peter (1995). Blake: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
  • Bloom, Harold (2003). William Blake. Bloom’s Major Poets. New York: Chelsea House.
  • Frye, Northrup (1947). Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Gardner, Stanley (1969). Blake. Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Makdisi, Saree (2003). "The Political Aesthetic of Blake's Images". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 110–132.
  • — (2015). Reading William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Paulin, Tom (March 3, 2007). "The Invisible Worm". Guardian. Retrieved 2021-09-04.
  • Thompson, E. P. (1993). Witness Against the Beast. New York: The New Press.
  • Tomlinson, Alan (1987). Song of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan Education.
  • Wolfson, Susan J. (2003). "Blake's Language in Poetic Form". In Eaves, Morris. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. pp. 63–83.

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