Is there imagery in "London" by William Blake?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There very definitely is imagery in "London" and I will briefly identify some of the most notable features for you. This poem presents us with the poet walking through the London streets near the River Thames. As he walks, he hears children and chimney sweeps crying, he sees blackened churches and hears whores cursing marriage. Everywhere there is evidence of suffering and unhappiness, creating a grim, dark and black mood.

However, one of the major pieces of imagery that is contained in this poem is "The mind-forged manacles" that the poet hears as he walks around. This is a very vibrant piece of imagery because it suggests that Blake feels the poverty and desperate situations that the people he sees are in are a result of other people's ideologies and thoughts. To a certain extent we are all the subjects of "manacles" forged by other minds or ideologies. Yet equally some have argued that this image refers to the manacles that we forge ourselves--perhaps Blake is pointing towards the way that we appear willingly to succumb to the restraints placed upon us and to become victims of our own exploitation.

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear 

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls, 
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls 
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear 
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse 
 
 
There is a great deal of imagery in "London," but it is of a very unusual kind. The images are best described as "surrealistic." They call to mind the paintings of Salvador Dali, especially the blood running down Palace walls. Blake makes the London of his day seem like a hell on earth. Another painter they call to mind is Hieronymus Bosch. Blake was a painter himself, and he produced fantastic works drawn from an imagination akin to that of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. Yet another artist who comes to mind is William Hogarth, a contemporary of Blake, best known for his etchings and engravings depicting life among the lower classes in London in the 18th century.
 
Some of the images in the poem are the following:
 
"Marks of weakness, marks of woe." Perhaps only Blake could perceive these marks in every single face he saw in a crowded metropolis like London. We can still see such marks in some people's faces in any big American city, but not in every face.
 
"The mind-forged manacles I hear." He could see the manacles in people's voices. He sees what he hears. That is, his auditory sense is somehow connected to his visual sense. It was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the writers who helped inspire the French Revolution, who wrote the famous words, "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains." How does everyone come to wear chains? It must be because they are captives of their own minds. 
 
"How the Chimney-sweepers cry / Every blackning Church appalls." Here again what he hears becomes something he sees. What he sees is all the churches, which are getting increasingly blacker from the soot produced by coal smoke of homes and factories, looking frightened, appalled, backing away in horror from the spectacle of the little children who earn their livings by climbing in and out of dirty chimneys, getting blacker and blacker themselves, and dying at an early age of lung disease. The blackening churches seem like living beings. Their windows are like wide-open eyes staring in horror at the scene Blake is painting with words. These churches are ineffectual in changing the miserable lives of the Londoners, who are addicted to beer and gin as anesthetics and soporifics. 
 
"How the youthful Harlots curse / Blasts the newborn Infants tear / And blights with plagues the marriage Hearse." And again the real curses he hears make him see the infant's tears already contaminated with syphilis germs and the bride and groom going off to make more infants who will likewise be infected because the groom has been consorting with diseased young prostitutes and will pass his disease on to his wife and her babies.
 
 
 
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