What is the context of the poem "London"?

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The historical context of "London" is fraught with political difficulties and social change. The French Revolution had taken place just a handful of years prior, and this caused English lawmakers to create laws to prevent something similar there. Blake felt the church had grown corrupt, just as the government had, and that society was descending into a state of moral decay.

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William Blake published "London" in 1794 in his Songs of Experience . The French Revolution had taken place just five years earlier, and this caused lawmakers in England to pass new laws that would restrict individual liberties in an effort to avoid something similar happening there. Instead of...

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a place of relative freedom, creativity, and beauty, Blake seems to feel that England—and London in particular—had turned into a place where people are so oppressed by so many forces that they cannot be anything but miserable.

In the poem, seemingly everything is "charter'd"—the streets and the Thames. So, it would seem, are Londoners' lives, so there is no possibility of freedom or hope or change. Hemmed in by barriers of all kinds, people are marked by their woe and reduced to weakness. They each figuratively wear the "mind-forg'd manacles" that symbolize their captivity and their powerlessness against those forces that control them.

The church is "blackning," implying how it has descended into a state of moral decay, perhaps reflected, in part, by the practice of allowing the children in its care to be exploited as chimney sweeps, who themselves are literally blackened by the soot of their trade. Then, the "hapless" and unfortunate soldiers have no say in what they must do, implying that they must carry out the unjust or violent demands of their government, symbolized by the "Palace."

Finally, not even new marriages or innocent babies can escape the corruption and hopelessness of London during this era, as the prostitutes' curses "blast" the infants and "blight" the "marriage hearse," a word very much associated with death. During this time in London, the city hosted a great number of prostitutes, and venereal diseases were often spread from them to their customers and even their customers' unborn children. This scene further emphasizes people's lack of personal freedoms, the moral corruption of the church and state, the feeling of being trapped in a terrible situation, the suffering of all, and the sense that death is the only escape.

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What is the imagery in the poem "London"?

The imagery in "London" is largely visual or auditory. This means that it conveys sensory information that one can either imagine seeing or hearing, respectively.

In the second stanza, the speaker mentions "every cry of every Man" and "every Infants cry of fear," prompting the reader to imagine the sound of a cacophony of cries—of huge crowds of people, made up of the young and old, in which each person is crying aloud to him or herself in his or her pain and suffering.

Further, the speaker references the "mind-forg'd manacles" figuratively worn by each inhabitant of the city. The word manacles is so specific in itself that the reader immediately conjures the visual picture of the iron restraints used to shackle and control enslaved people or prisoners.

In the third stanza, the visual image of the "blackning Church" describes the way in which soot might build up on church walls. Figuratively, this conveys the corruption of the church during this era, the neglect of the church's principles by the people, or perhaps both. Next, the auditory image of the "Soldiers sigh" is immediately followed by the frightening visual image of "blood [running] down Palace walls."

In the fourth and final stanza, the speaker describes the sound of the "youthful Harlots curse," creating yet another auditory image. Finally, the "Marriage hearse" conjures a visual image of a black mourning vehicle meant to carry a dead body but that, in this case, doubles as a carriage to carry a newly-married couple—a foreboding and ominous image, to say the least.

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What picture of life in London is presented in the poem?

Blake's "London" present a bleak portrait of life in the capital city. The speaker notes marks of "weakness" and unhappiness in "every" face he sees as he walks the city's streets. His London is filled with the "cry" of suffering. The word cry, encompassing both the idea of tears and the utterance of lament, is repeated three times in these verses.

The speaker blames human institutions for the suffering he perceives all around him. The church and the aristocracy are to blame for the misery of London life. This social state is manmade, not innate or natural. Because society does not have to be this way, the poem implies, it could and should be changed.

The speaker especially points to the "cry" of the chimney sweepers, young boys from impoverished backgrounds who were kept underfed so they could slide down and clean narrow chimneys. In this case, the word cry is a pun referring both to the way the sweepers would cry or call out their availability to anyone who might hire them and to their crying because of the pain and sadness of their lives. The speaker also singles out the "harlots," or prostitutes, who come out at night and spread venereal diseases and blight through their work.

Overall, the poem presents London, a symbol of civilization and empire, as a place of misery.

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