“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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...
(The entire section is 1,560 words.)