This poem is one of the "Songs of Experience" written by William Blake that contrasts with his "Songs of Innocence." While Songs of Innocence took an optimistic and positive view of life and society, Songs of Experience looked at the darker side. The poem provides commentary on the "weakness" and "woe" in the city of London during Blake's lifetime. Infants, men, chimney sweeps, soldiers, and mothers are all slaves to misery: their "mind-forg'd manacles" can be heard in the crying of all these wretched people living in London.
The poem is structured like many of Blake's poems. It has four stanzas, and each stanza consists of four lines of iambic tetrameter. That means there are eight syllables in each line in an alternating unstressed/stressed pattern. The rhyme scheme is consistent throughout with the first line of each stanza rhyming with the third and the second rhyming with the fourth. The steady rhythm, meter, and rhyme reinforce the ongoing cycle of woe that engulfs street after street in the city.
Imagery means wording that appeals to the five senses. References to the infant's cry, the chimney sweeper's cry, and the soldier's sigh bring certain sounds to life as we read the poem. When the narrator mentions "marks of weakness, marks of woe" on the faces of the people he meets, and when he speaks of "midnight streets," we get a picture in our minds of how these things look. He is wandering through each street and walking near the River Thames--we can picture that, as well.
Four of the things described as physical objects are not really physical. The poet uses figurative language to draw a comparison between an abstract idea and a real thing. The "mind-forged manacles" are the painful thoughts in the minds of the miserable Londoners. That the chimney-sweeper's cry appalls "every blackning Church" means that churches, which should be buildings of righteousness and hope, take on a spiritual blackness because of the poverty and sadness of those poor children who work in the neighborhood cleaning chimneys. We can picture the unfortunate soldier's sigh as it "runs in blood down Palace walls," although that doesn't literally happen. It means that the soldier is serving the King to the point where he is sacrificing his life for him. Finally, in the last stanza, marriage is depicted as a "hearse," meaning either a funeral bier or a coach that bears away the dead because men have been unfaithful to their wives.
Blake's use of language and linguistic devices adds power to the poem. In lines three and four, the word "mark" or "marks" is repeated three times. This reinforces the idea of blots or stains on humanity's soul. These lines also contain alliteration with the repetition of the initial /m/ sound in "mark," "meet," and "marks." Alliteration is a pleasing sound device that makes the poetry more cohesive and lyrical. In stanza two the word "every" is repeated five times. This emphasizes how pervasive the sorrows are.
The poem is designed to make the reader feel deep sadness and despair over the plight of those living in London. When someone cries, we automatically want to comfort them, and when someone sighs, our hearts go out to them. So using the word "cry" three times and "sigh" makes us very sympathetic to the infants, men, chimney-sweeps, and soldiers. We are also saddened at the description of the faces bearing "marks of weakness, marks of woe."
The last stanza, however, calls up the greatest emotional effect. We know Blake meant that it should, for he says in line 13, "but most," emphasizing what follows. This situation is the hardest to understand, but what it describes is a baby who has been born blind. The cause of the blindness is a disease that the parents had that resulted from the baby's father being unfaithful to the baby's mother and having slept with a "harlot" or prostitute. Thus, the "youthful Harlot's curse," that is, the disease, has brought blindness on the innocent baby. It is possible the mother did not know she and her husband were infected, but the birth of the blind child would make it impossible for the father to deny his marital unfaithfulness. Thus the relationship between the man and woman will be a "hearse," a lifeless marriage in which the child's handicap is a constant reminder of the great wrong the man perpetrated not only on his wife and child, but also on the Harlot, who herself was "youthful," probably a teenage girl who had turned to prostitution to escape from poverty. This last stanza sums up the ultimate misery where even the love and integrity of the family unit has failed.