What is the context of the poem "London"?

The historical context of "London" is fraught with political difficulties and social change. The French Revolution had taken place just a handful of years prior, and this caused English lawmakers to create laws to prevent something similar there. Blake felt the church had grown corrupt, just as the government had, and that society was descending into a state of moral decay.

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William Blake published "London" in 1794 in his Songs of Experience. The French Revolution had taken place just five years earlier, and this caused lawmakers in England to pass new laws that would restrict individual liberties in an effort to avoid something similar happening there. Instead of a place of relative freedom, creativity, and beauty, Blake seems to feel that England—and London in particular—had turned into a place where people are so oppressed by so many forces that they cannot be anything but miserable.

In the poem, seemingly everything is "charter'd"—the streets and the Thames. So, it would seem, are Londoners' lives, so there is no possibility of freedom or hope or change. Hemmed in by barriers of all kinds, people are marked by their woe and reduced to weakness. They each figuratively wear the "mind-forg'd manacles" that symbolize their captivity and their powerlessness against those forces that control them.

The church is "blackning," implying how it has descended into a state of moral decay, perhaps reflected, in part, by the practice of allowing the children in its care to be exploited as chimney sweeps, who themselves are literally blackened by the soot of their trade. Then, the "hapless" and unfortunate soldiers have no say in what they must do, implying that they must carry out the unjust or violent demands of their government, symbolized by the "Palace."

Finally, not even new marriages or innocent babies can escape the corruption and hopelessness of London during this era, as the prostitutes' curses "blast" the infants and "blight" the "marriage hearse," a word very much associated with death. During this time in London, the city hosted a great number of prostitutes, and venereal diseases were often spread from them to their customers and even their customers' unborn children. This scene further emphasizes people's lack of personal freedoms, the moral corruption of the church and state, the feeling of being trapped in a terrible situation, the suffering of all, and the sense that death is the only escape.

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