William Blake is a prolific poet whose works can be read on many different levels. His Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are fine examples of this. Blake’s “London” is a masterpiece in that it presents a view that can be read on religious, political and social levels through its masterful use of syntax and diction.
Clearly, the title of the poem “London” sets the reader up to view the city through the eyes of the speaker. Andrew Moore notes that modern readers can identify more with the poem than perhaps readers in Blake’s time because our association with the dirt and poverty of urban areas as nightmarish is more rooted in modern reality than those of the earlier era. He comments that “it exposes the gulf between those in power and the misery of poor people” (Moore). Thus, Blake’s poem can be red on a social level.
Certain images in the poem aid in the social commentary that Blake is elucidating. First, the “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” draw the reader into the sadness and oppression of the London streets. The repetition of the cries of various voices in the streets, the “cry of every man,” “the infant’s cry,” “the chimney-sweeper’s cry,” and the cry of the harlot and her newborn, give a continuous sound to the hopelessness. Moore again comments that this last cry is the most damning, in that the harlot’s cry is a “curse” on the traditional, societal values of marriage and family.
He says the cry of the child-prostitute is the truth behind respectable ideas of marriage. New birth is no happy event but continues the cycle of misery, and the wedding carriage is seen as a hearse, leading to a kind of death (of innocence? of happiness?). The word ‘plagues’ here suggests the sexually transmitted diseases which the "youthful harlot" would contract and pass on to others (men married for convenience but with no desire for their wives), giving her cursing words real destructive power (Moore).
Sadly, as Blake is clearly noting, the prostitute has become what she is because of her eternally dismal situation and is thus a symbol of a declining social morality (Rix 28). Thus, the sounds from the streets illuminate significant societal weaknesses and woes, as Blake promises in line four. As Lambert pens, “The harlot--a perverse mother figure--passes down to her child a legacy of corruption and contagion, one that likewise infects the marriage institution (and, by association, the Church), ensuring for posterity an endless cycle of excoriation and oppression” (141). There seems to be no room for redemption or reversal of this horrendous trend.
The visual image of the manacles is also significant. He notes that the “mind-forged manacles” act as iron restraints on the common man. A forge is a fire which creates the manacles, just as the mind which descends into hopelessness creates the same restraints for an impoverished and oppressed citizen. Of course, manacles are used on prisoners, insinuating that society’s inequalities can create prisoners of its citizens. Moore notes that this image is even an allusion to Rousseau, who notes that “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” in which “they [the manacles] come from the ideas and outlook imposed on us by external authority” (Moore).
However, these weaknesses and woes do not stop at the societal level. They continue to traverse the mere society of common inpiduals to the upper realm of the political elite. First, Blake’s first two lines illustrate a concept of British political mandates that few modern readers may understand. The lines, “I wandered through each chartered street / Near where the chartered Thames does flow,” reveals a concept of rule which involved the ownership of public passages, like the street and the river. Moore says, “it is a matter of fact that charters were granted to powerful people to control the streets of London and even the river.
It is absurd that the streets are "chartered" (not free to ordinary people) but blatantly so in the case of the mighty river, which cannot really be controlled by the passing of a law.” However, “every face” that the speaker meets seems to echo this absurdity. War is definitely an issue which is politically volatile. In 1793, Londoners did feel the threatening tug of impending war and a growing antiwar movement was rising. Rix calls Blake’s view to be nearly prophetic;
“In fact, Blake was nearly right in his prognosis, as the discontent with the government’s recruiting tactics flared up in the violent anticrime riots of September 1794” (29). In “London,” “the hapless soldier's sigh / Runs in blood down palace-walls,” indicating an anti-war stance with the archetypal image of blood. In a similar poem also by Blake, “The French Revolution,” a nearly identical image is presented as blood runs down the pillars of French castles (Rix 29). Clearly Blake was opposed to the impending upheaval that would cause additional pain on London society.
Another political issue, which derives arguably from a social issue, is one that Blake illuminates in other poems. That is the concept of child labor and the lack of legislation barring this type of abuse and torture. The chimney sweeper, for which Black appeared to have a very soft heart, is the central image for this line of political comment. Of course, the use of children to work until their deaths in the sooty chimneys of London is an embarrassing and despicable era of the past. Because readers of Blake will recognize this subject as the title of other poems, this image can actually stand alone. However, it does correlate in this poem with the image of the blackened church.
This image links the sooty chimney-sweeper with the hapless soldier. Black, being an image of wide interpretation can be both a literal visual image and a figurative image of evil and chaos. Line 10s “blackening church” is seen as a most “cunningly ambiguous” description which has spawned much debate. Lambert cites Walter S. Minot, for example, who takes the stance which “designates blackening an intransitive verb that describes ‘. . . the blackening of the church by soot’” (141). Additionally, he cites Michael Ferber who views the Church as an agent which is blackening [v.t.] the minds of the sweepers, manacling them to keep them in thrall to her mystery and tyranny” (Lambert 141). Finally, Lambert himself concludes that the blackening is “the smoke of London commerce . . . [which] . . . blackens the church's once white limestone after which Albion was named” (141).
According to these three interpretations, this black color represents the economic and religious presence of the Church. It is presented as a mysterious and tyrannical force which keeps people in line out of fear. Similarly, it is treated as vice of the Church, with its focus on obtaining wealth, or perhaps conversely, as the draw of more economic gain for factories, (represented by the soot), has dulled society’s feelings of obligation and affection for the Church and for religion and morality as a whole. Possible Blake’s view embodies all three of these.
Lambert concludes that this metaphor is indeed “…a double entendre, but that as such it also plays an integral role in furthering one of the poem's major themes: the reflexive and cyclical nature of institutional oppression” (141). Indeed, economic, social, political and religious influences have contributed to the downtrodden state of those that Blake’s speaker sees on his wanderings through London.
If this oppression is Blake’s theme, then what might the poem be saying about the outlook for these inpiduals? It seems that some critics feel that one of Blake’s points seems to be revealed, again, through sound. Graves notes that in many anthologies, the editors point out that the poem seems to imbed, acrostically, the word ‘hear’. While this may just be a type of game, by the poet, its thematic connection may be that speaking out and getting others to listen may be the answer for the oppressed who seem to only hobble along accepting their lot. Other examiners have observed that this echo resounds through several syntactical and rhetorical techniques in the poem.
Graves explains this concept in the following:
The echoic repetition hear/HEAR/hear epitomizes a key rhetorical technique in the poem, which gains much of its force from linked echoic forms including syntactic parallels, reiterated diction, and witty phonic doublets. For example, the verses repeat five other substantive words besides HEAR: charter’d; cry (thrice); mark/Marks; street/streets; and Infants...The end rhymes, too, are inevitably phonic echoes. Notably, hear cooperates in two pairs of rhymes— hear/fear and hear/tear.Assonance and alliteration predictably create other kinds of echoism, as do three other features: (a) syntactic parallelism (see, for example, lines 5–7, 10). (Graves 132-133).
This interpretation makes sense as each of these repeated words and phrases has to do with a sound, the sounds of voices of the people. Graves use of the word echo is appropriate, as the sounds of grief do seem to reverberate off the walls of the city buildings.
London is not an easy poem to read. While one might be put off by its initial sense of simplicity. However, it can be interpreted on many levels. These are social, political and even religious. While Blake does not supply any overt recommendations for the oppressed, he does seem to make a point with his syntax – that speaking out, whether it be through poetry, essay, oration or any other medium, is perhaps the only way to change one’s situation.
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