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Last Updated on October 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

“London” is part of Blake’s collection entitled Songs of Innocence and of Experience and is located in the second part, “Songs of Experience.” The fact that “London” is classified as a “song of experience” is significant: the nightmarish London Blake depicts in the poem is the reality he observes all around him. 

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As a liberal of his time—like Thomas Paine, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft—Blake was against the established order of Britain and the old European monarchical system. In “London,” Blake describes a depressed urban population plagued by “weakness” and “woe.” The backdrop of “London” is the early phase of the Industrial Revolution. In contrast to his contemporaries (such as William Wordsworth, whose poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” has a markedly different, and even idealized, view of the city), Blake portrays London as wrought with plagues—both literal and metaphorical. 

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Blake’s frequent use of repetition in this poem emphasizes the bleak atmosphere of the city. In the first two lines, he repeats the word “charter’d”: the narrator walks through “charter’d streets” and near the “charter’d Thames.” The repetition of this word creates an anxious mood from the first lines of the poem; the physical city of London has become increasingly controlled and constrained so that not even the river is free anymore.

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The people of London are constrained as well. Blake believes that they are imprisoned not only by poverty, disease, and harsh working conditions but also by “mind-forg’d manacles.” Institutions have imposed ideas upon Londoners that have bound them and infringed upon their freedom. For example, the government has sacrificed the lives of its soldiers, seemingly without remorse: the soldier’s “sighs” are evident in the blood that “runs . . . down Palace walls.” The church is also at fault, according to Blake, as he describes churches as “blackning,” referring to both the coal stains on the buildings of London due to the Industrial Revolution and the moral corruption he saw in the Church of England. In both of these institutions—the government and the church—Blake sees oppression; the people of London, in their allegiance to these institutions, have become their slaves. Through repetition of the word “every” in the second stanza, Blake makes it clear that the effects of this oppression reach each person in the city. Distress can be heard in “every cry of every man,” “every Infant’s cry,” “every voice,” and “every ban” (marriage proclamation). 

In the last line, Blake associates marriage with death through his oxymoronic image of a “Marriage-hearse.” Whether Blake makes this association because he views marriage as an oppressive institution of the church or because it could literally lead to death through venereal disease, Blake insists that the supposedly holy sacrament of marriage does not lead to blessing, but to doom. 

There are several lines of this poem that may be interpreted as references to the biblical book of Revelation, which details Christian beliefs about the end of the world. In the first stanza, Blake’s repetition of “mark” might remind Christian audiences of the “mark of the beast” in Revelation 13. Additionally, the narrator’s description of “the youthful Harlot” in the final stanza may be a reference to the harlot of Revelation 17. If these are interpreted as biblical allusions in this way, Blake’s observance of “woe” across London takes on a deeper meaning: Blake is not only acknowledging the suffering of the city but likening London’s situation to the end of the world.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

“London” is a sixteen-line poem composed of four stanzas of alternatively rhyming short lines. “London” is included in the “Songs of Experience” section of William Blake’s larger work, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) and contributes to Blake’s portrait of fallen human nature.

Blake focuses his attention on the condition of London, England, the capital not only of the country but also of “culture,” yet, as the four stanzas make abundantly clear, Blake does not share the opinion that this city sets a positive example. Each stanza of “London” points out ways in which the British monarchy and English laws cause human suffering.

The poem is written in the first person and reports the narrator’s observations as he walks through the streets of London. Stanza 1 opens near the River Thames, the heartline of the British Empire; it connects the capital city with the rest of the world. Here Blake observes that everything he sees is “charter’d”—owned by and bound to someone—including the river, which ironically should flow freely to the ocean. The narrator comments that everywhere he looks he sees unhappiness and people suffering.

The second stanza reports what the narrator hears as he walks these imprisoning avenues: human cries of anguish and fear. Not only does he find this suffering in individual misery, but Blake also says that the legal dictates he hears carry with them threats to human freedom. He concludes the second stanza by equating laws with “mind-forg’d manacles”—strictures that limit the human imagination, the human heart, and the human soul.

The third stanza maintains the focus on the sounds that Blake hears as he walks the London streets. He gives examples of persons who are enslaved by the British system of law, by economic boundaries, by the church, and by the monarchy. He says that each chimney sweep’s cry is an affront to the Church of England, the state religion. The irony is that the Christianity Blake criticizes is founded on the principle of doing good to others, in particular the less fortunate; Blake says that the sweep’s pitiful cry is a reminder to and a black smudge on the very institution that should be helping the child. Blake then lists a second victim of the British government and church: the “hapless Soldier” who fights to preserve the monarchy and whose death sigh bloodies the royal palace walls.

The final stanza of the poem is set in darkness—Blake is listening in the midnight streets to the cries of young prostitutes as they curse the men who victimize them, the wives who are equally victims, and the religion that forces people to think that they must marry and stay married no matter what. “London” ends on a pessimistic note in which Blake reviles the one sacrament that should offer hope to present and future generations: marriage. Instead of being predicated on love and mutual respect, Blake sees it as something that enslaves the body and soul in much the same way that stanzas 2 and 3 point out that English laws victimize the less fortunate.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

“London” is a deceptively “simple” poem, in part because the language is plain, the lines are short, and the imagery is seemingly everyday. Yet the impact of this poem depends on the multiple layers of meaning that Blake expects readers to see in his choice of words and in the associations that readers will make. Furthermore, “London” is included as a part of a larger work: Songs of Innocence and of Experience, a collection of poems that examine and criticize the fallen world.

Because “London” is a “Song of Experience,” it is set in contrast to the images that Blake presented in the first half of the work: “Songs of Innocence,” poems that showed children frolicking, nature in bloom, people happy and loving, a world before Adam and Eve fell—an event that, according to Blake, brought law, government, monarchy, religion, and other “evils” into the world. “London” represents the antithesis to the world Blake showed readers in “Songs of Innocence”; “London” shows readers an urban landscape consisting of buildings. Nowhere in the poem does Blake include a reference to the natural world except to the River Thames, which he characterizes as “charter’d”—owned and bound by British law. In this fallen world nothing is free, not even the minds and souls of the people. Throughout the poem, Blake makes use of layered meanings and references, as he does in the word “charter’d,” which not only means “given liberty,” but also refers to ownership and landholding.

Thus “London” depends for its impact on ironic contrasts. In the second stanza, Blake repeats this device by using the word “ban,” which not only refers to an announcement of marriage—what should be an occasion for joy—but also implies bonds and enslavement rather than liberty. So when Blake, in this stanza, describes the pitiful cries of people enslaved by law and custom, he implicitly heightens the impact of his criticism by contrasting the antithetical meanings of the word “ban”: political and legal prohibition and proclamation of a forthcoming marriage. Blake demands that readers make this type of connection; to miss these layers of meaning is to miss the harsh criticisms that Blake directs at the English monarchy, church, and legal system.

Finally, Blake uses appeals to the senses to heighten the poem’s impact. By having the narrator walk through this sordid scene and report what is heard and seen, Blake forces the reader into an immediate confrontation with the human suffering the poet sees all around him. The speaker hears children crying in the person of the chimney sweep and in the diseased prostitute’s blinded newborn; he hears despair in the dying sigh of the soldier; he sees death and suffering on every street.

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