William Blake’s 1792 ballad “London” documents a traverse through the streets of late 18th-century London. 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 first stanza establishes the setting, form, and tone of the poem. The speaker, who remains anonymous, wanders the streets of London, a city marred by privatization. The “charter’d streets” and “charter’d Thames” are references to the practice of chartering: the sale of private spaces to aristocrats. In the third and fourth lines, Blake wrests a double meaning from the word “mark”; the speaker “marks,” or sees, the “Marks of weakness, Marks of woe” in the faces of passersby. A third meaning of “mark”—to imprint—may suggest that the speaker is projecting some of his own weakness and woe onto others.
- In the second stanza, the speaker’s focus shifts from vision to hearing. The stanza hinges on anaphora, opening the first three lines with the phrase “In every.” The speaker describes the cacophonous chorus of the city, listing its constituents: “every Man,” “every Infant’s cry of fear,” “every voice,” and “every ban.” The common bond across this dreadful chorus is “the mind-forg’d manacles.” This alliterative phrase suggests an interior dimension to London’s political woes. The speaker witnesses a population that is psychologically suppressed. Blake draws a double meaning from “ban,” which refers to both legal dictates and marriage annunciations, suggesting the sinister character of both.
- The third stanza offers two additional sights that exemplify London’s disorder. The first sight is the “Chimney-sweeper,” whose “cry / Every black’ning Church appalls.” This is a reference to London’s population of child chimney sweepers, whose work exposed them to grave danger. Blake involves the “Church” in this miserable trade, using the metaphor of soot to suggest the church’s “black’ning” morality. The chimney sweepers’ work figuratively “appalls” the church by offending the ecclesiastical sensibility but also by literally appalling (making pale) the sooty churches. In Blake’s double meaning of “appall,” one can see the two-faced hypocrisy of the church. The “hapless Soldier’s sigh” that “Runs in blood down palace walls” points to the bloodiness of the recent French Revolution and Britain’s anxious military upscaling in response.
- The fourth stanza approaches the problem of prostitution and disease. The word “most” at the start of the stanza conveys the gravity of the ensuing situation. The speaker hears “the youthful Harlot’s curse” that “blasts the new-born infant’s tear” and “blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” As in the poem’s other stanzas, Blake uses the voice as a metaphor to convey broader phenomena. In this case—another double meaning—the “Harlot’s curse” stands as both a vocal invective and also a spell of misfortune. The misfortune is venereal disease, which spreads from London’s harlots to the plagued couple to the new-born infant. The thick consonance of the phrase “blights with plague” drives home the misery of the scene, as does the haunting paradox of the “Marriage hearse.”
“London” is a record of deep discontent that operates on two levels. Blake conveys a dismay with the particular time and place in which...
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