Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Blake’s purpose in creating the Songs of Innocence and of Experience was to level criticism at late eighteenth century English society. In these poems, Blake contrasts the unfallen innocence of children with the sordid, repressed attitudes of the adult world—a world ruled by the church, the monarchy, and English common law. Blake viewed himself as a prophet whose task it was to shake people out of their complacent acceptance of their fallen circumstances. In “London,” he turns his attack on the capital city, thus pointing out that the very heart of the English Empire is diseased and corrupt. By choosing syphilis as the symbol for all that is wrong with England, Blake is able to condemn institutions and emotions that are sacred to most people: love and marriage. He seems more antagonistic toward the civil and religious laws that sexually repress people than he does toward the husband who cheats on his wife by visiting a prostitute. Nor does he condemn the prostitute for her behavior.

He sees the prostitutes as physically, emotionally, and morally imprisoned by a system that makes them depend on their wealthy customers for their income. He also makes it clear that such victimization works both ways: The venereal disease that the men pass on to and contract from these young women also poisons innocent wives at home and the unborn children of both wives and prostitutes.

The poem concludes with the “youthful Harlot’s curse”:...

(The entire section is 465 words.)