London: Poem by William Blake - Summary and Analysis

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I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appalls,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

Summary and Analysis


      In 'London' Blake decries the three great evils of society - callousness of society as exemplified by the chimney sweeper's miserable life, the adversity of war as expressed in the case of the soldier, and lust represented in the malpractice of harlotry that looms large as a threat to the purity of marriage and the happiness of the offspring. Blake is not the only poet who laments the collapse of humanity in London. Later Wordsworth in his London 1802 wishes Milton were living in that period to redeem England from the deterioration it has undergone. In this century, T.S. Eliot has portrayed the cultural collapse of London as well as the whole world in his The Waste Land. In 'London' Blake attacks the hollowness of society and the helplessness of the Church.

Blake is not the only poet who laments the collapse of humanity in London. Later Wordsworth in his London 1802 wishes Milton were living in that period to redeem England from the deterioration it has undergone. In this century, T.S. Eliot has portrayed the cultural collapse of London


      The speaker in the poem 'London' paces through the streets of London and along the streets which stand by River Thames which flows freely. He notices the faces of his fellowmen that pass by him and finds their countenance discoloured by feebleness. He finds in the cries of children and men the replica of men's own sinful deeds. He also notices that men are fettered by the chains they have forged for themselves: it is they who have invented the society which now oppresses them. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has escaped the curse man has brought upon himself.

      The poet hears the cries of The Chimney Sweepers which appal the helpless Church. The sighs of the dying soldier whose blood drips down the palace walls audible to the poet. At midnight the curses of the young harlots are heard in the streets and this plagues and spoils the holy tie between the wife and husband in their marital life. It becomes also a curse for the young child that is born either from the marriage or from the adultery.

      In the background we see the shadow of Urizen. His sign is the 'manacles'. Man invented this god in whose name Church and State practise their tyranny and abuses, bringing misery to all.

The Church, Society and Man:

      Many of the poems of Blake are static when each of them is taken as an entity in itself. Whether in "Infant Sorrow or The School Boy' or 'The Garden of Love'. The poet deals with a state of things. In 'Infant Sorrow', for example, the boy is born, as he says, into a dangerous world and it describes its struggle to escape. Therein ends the poem. In 'A Little boy Lost' the boy gives words to his reasonable thoughts and so is burned as a heretic. In 'The Garden of Love' the poet gives us a picture of the Chapel, Garden and tombstones and we derive the symbolic meaning. But in his 'London', though we may take the poem as an isolated specimen, we can sense a progression in terms of both thought and feeling. It moves from the chartered streets to the Thames that flows according to its own 'sweet will' and thereon to the midnight streets. Blake has already given us the critical birth of a 'Londoner' in 'Infant Sorrow'. There the boy is born into a dangerous world and struggles in vain to escape from this world. But eventually, he has come to his full size in this poem where the vices of society welcome him.

      The poet notices woe and weariness in the faces of the Londoners instead of pleasure and joy. More than an isolated case of London, the poem reveals the reality of society as a whole. The serious and outraged tone of the poem culminates in the exposition of a truth, that harlotry changes the married life into a death carriage. Posterity is cursed by the hereditary sin of adultery and loveless marital relationship. The posterity of London as is shown in Blake's London' hails from or descends from loveless married life and they will become the fallen progeny carrying the sinful burden of their predecessors adulterous and sinful life.

The Mind-forged Manacles:

      In an analysis of the poem. Wolf Mankowitz says: "In this country (England) Blake's 'London' is certainly the principal city. There each street is chartered. clearly defined and, like the chartered Thames limited and confined by its definition. Every face in this London is chartered, marked by the same lack of scope and the same misery and woe because of it." But this chartered quality is not only due to 'social conditions' but, as Blake says,

"In every cry of every Man

In every Infant's cry of fear

In every voice. in every ban

The mind-forged manacles I hear."

      Mind-forg'd is the important phrase here. The Earth is chained as much by its own psychological predisposition as by social injustice. The interdependent misery of the inhabitants of this London is most forcefully expressed in the poem's concluding stanza. It is important that the 'harlot' is youthful for it suggests that the new-born infant is itself not so far from the condition of the whore. Her curse is not only what she shouts against society, but the disease she is certain to succumb to. And this disease is not referred to show how dreadful the fate of the harlot is, but because it is effective and destructively so towards the new-born infant's generation 'it is blasted' and the marriages too are infected. Not only symbolically is the marriage car a hearse. The misery of these Londoners is not simply displeasure or discomfort. It is death following disease, disease which cannot be cured because it is neither acknowledged socially nor understood to be fundamental to society's disabilities. The mind-forged manacles are the more effective for not being recognised.

London: a Criticism of Society:

      Blake's tragic appreciation of the restrictions which imprison and kill the living spirit was no purely personal thing. It was his criticism of society and the whole trend of contemporary civilisation. His compassionate heart was outraged and wounded by the sufferings which society inflicts on its humbler members and by the waste of human material which seems indispensable to the efficient operation of rules and laws. In 'London' he gives his own view of that 'chartered liberty' on which his countrymen prided themselves and exposes the indisputable ugly facts.

      The child Chimney Sweeper, the soldier, the harlot are Blake's types of the oppressed-characteristic victims of a system based not on brotherhood but on fear. Each in his own way shows up the shams on which society thrives. The Chimney Sweeper's condemned life is supported by the churches, the soldier's death is demanded by the court; and the harlot's calling is forced on her by the marriage laws. The contrasts between the truth and pretence, between natural happiness and unnatural repression are stressed by Blake in these three examples, and through them we see the anguish in which he faced the social questions of his time," as C.M. Bowra observes.

      Rather than a poem of protest 'London' is also a picture of a mental state of the inhabitants of London. The woe and weariness of the dwellers of London strike the note of pessimism. The London society is corrupt. It is the corruption of civilization by the power of Reason whose self-imposed manacles have restricted every spontaneous joy. The street cries of puny chimney sweepers loudly accuse the Church and the death sighs of the soldier stain the State. Love itself the fundamental human virtue - is negated and this negation degenerates the holy marriage bed, the very institution basic to Society-into a blighted hearse.

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