London Study Guide
Introduction to London
William Blake’s 1794 ballad “London” documents a traverse through the streets of London near the turn of the nineteenth century. The speaker encounters a series of sights that fill him with disgust and despair, emotions he sees reflected in the faces he encounters with their “marks of weakness, marks of woe.” The London of Blake’s “London” is a city of desperate cries, “mind-forg’d manacles,” revolutionary agitation, and “Harlot’s curse[s].” These visions are told in four stanzas of concise, rhymed tetrameter. From this poetic form, Blake forges a tone that is at once song-like and severe.
The poem appeared in his 1794 volume, Songs of Experience, which was a companion to his 1789 volume, Songs of Innocence. The later volume’s lyrics have a somewhat more somber and stern cast than those in the earlier volume, as befits the thematic contrast between the two.
A Brief Biography of William Blake
William Blake (1757–1827) was largely rejected by eighteenth-century society, but he is now heralded for his imaginative and innovative contributions to English literature. Blake’s work doesn’t fall neatly into one category, but much of it centers on thematic dichotomies such as heaven and hell, innocence and experience, spirit and reason, and the classic struggle of good and evil. Those are familiar enough topics, certainly addressed by writers before him, but Blake tackled them with his own blend of imagination, mysticism, and passion. “I must create my own system,” he insisted, “or be enslav’d by another man’s. I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.” And create he did. Blake wrote poetry, mythology, satires, political pieces, and prophetic works that openly defied the conventions of his time, including his famous Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.