The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 456 words.)