Discuss why "London" is a Romantic poem.

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Rebecca Hope eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Romanticism, a literary movement that flourished in England from 1785 to 1830, had five primary characteristics. Romantic writers celebrated nature, imagination, the common man and childhood, the individual, and strong emotions. William Blake's poem "London," published in 1794, clearly displays the final three of those characteristics.

The poem clearly focuses on the common man, especially the lower-class residents of London. Blake mentions the chimney sweeper, the soldier, and the harlot. Infants and children are treated sympathetically in the poem as it refers to "every Infant's cry of fear" and "the new-born Infant's tear."

The Romantic era was one in which freedom and individual rights were gaining ascendancy. The American Revolution had just occurred, and the French Revolution was brewing and then in full swing. Readers can pick up on this interest in human rights in this poem. The poem mourns the appalling conditions that London's citizens endure—the "marks of weakness, marks of woe" on every face. These ills are attributed to "mind-forged manacles." People are imprisoned in their own wretched lifestyles. The poem doesn't seek to place blame, but it raises awareness of the misery of the human condition and implies that Londoners deserve better.

Strong emotions are obvious in the poem as well. Men cry, churches are appalled, soldiers sigh "in blood," and the "Harlot's curse blasts the new-born Infant's ear and blights with plagues the Marriage hearse." The intensity of negative emotions permeates the poem and leaves the reader with a heavy heart.

Because of its focus on the common man and children, individual human rights, and emotions, "London" is easily recognized as a Romantic poem.

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Our first impression of the poem “London” is that it is not “Romantic”—that is, not pastoral, not in tune with Nature, not spiritual.  While these terms certainly apply to the Romantic poetry definition laid out by Wordsworth and Coleridge in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”, Romanticism was also a response to, and criticism of, the urban, mechanized, inhuman Age of Reason, in which technological progress was valued over any collateral human damage, and this is Blake’s concern here. The “charter’d streets” and especially “the charter’d Thames” are criticisms of how a city re-forms a natural landscape, claiming its ownership, to conform to man-made desires.  (Wordsworth, too, lamented the city life, citing his experience with a blind beggar in London, staring out from sightless eyes “as though admonished from another world.”)  Every image Blake conjures up is the Romanticist’s criticism of the over-civilized life—“mind-forged manacles”, the blood on the palace walls, etc.  As Wordsworth says, “the world is too much with us”, nowhere more concentrated than in Blake’s London, a large city devoid of contact with the Romanticist’s view of Nature.

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