A Timeless Facade: William Blake’s “London”

By Steven Mulero

The poem “London” (1794) was written by William Blake (1757-1827). Blake was a late-seventeenth century poet and painter who although was virtually unknown during his lifetime his works were “discovered” in later years and is now known as an influential figure in both poetry and visual arts. The poem is about a man walking through the streets of London that are normally seldomly ventured. The themes of the poem are death and despair. When I read this poem, I can really see it resonating with people and culture of our current age. The idea of mental shackles, hiding away the “darkness” be it life’s struggles or emotional struggles and only showing “light” and try to paint to prettiest picture, are still very present in society today.

Image visualizing what I picture the narrator could have been seeing

Original poem by Blake:

  “London”

1 I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

2 Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

3 And mark in every face I meet

4 Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

5 In every cry of every Man,

6 In every Infant’s cry of fear,

7 In every voice, in every ban,

8 The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

9 How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry

10 Every black’ning church appalls;

11 And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

12 Runs in blood down Palace walls.

13 But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

14 How the youthful Harlot’s curse

15 Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,

16 And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

Translation of the words:   

The London I see

1 I walk through each paved street

2 along the paved Thames river

3 What I see in all the people I meet

4 Is weakness and sadness I hear it

5 In every gripe of every man,

6 In the cries of scared children,

7 In all the voices and curses

8 The mental shackles I hear

9 How the orphans cry

10 The corrupted church outrage

11 And the miserable soldier’s heavy exhales

12 Streams down the palace walls

13 But what I hear most in the night streets is

14 The young prostitute’s temptations

15 Makes infants cry

16 And destroys marriages.

In the first two lines of the poem the narrator repeats the word “charter’d,” in my interpretation I used the word paved as in “man-made” but there is more to it than that. A street in a sense is a small (or large) fragment of a larger system of roads. A river in a similar sense is parts of a larger system of rivers, Besides the obvious that one is solid ground and the other is water there is another difference that stands out, that is that a river only flows one direction. The way I saw, this idea of a flow that is one way and does not change connects to lines four – eight. Primarily seven and eight where he says “7 In every voice, in every ban,” “8 The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.” This talks about the idea of the people on the streets having the mindset of their desperate situation cannot change or they cannot advance out of it. Connecting this idea with the words “man-made,” “system” and “set flow” led me to believe he is actually referring to the “social class system” that was in place. Although this may seem farfetched, it may be clearer once I explain who the narrator could be.

“London in Miniature” map

 

The poem seems straightforward at a glance that being, the narrator walking through streets and alleys of London describing the people he sees. At a closer look, it can be noted that he was not describing their appearance per se, more so their emotion and inter thoughts. This led me to the perception that narrator was not just some random person just strolling through the city. He had a sense for the atmosphere different from that of a tourist or visitor. From the information, the poem gives in the first line “I wander thro’ each charter’d street,” coupled with line two “Near where the charter’d Thames does flow” it can be implied that the narrator is very familiar with the city of London (the image above displays a map of London). Combining that information with that of the fact that the author was born in London and lived a substantial portion of his life in London, I concluded that the narrator could be Blake himself.

Establishing that the narrator is Blake can help shed light on the irony used in the poem, primarily in the title “London.” The irony is rooted from the contrast in the image of London that Blake (narrator, a longtime resident) sees, to that of a general non-native (tourist, visitor, etc.) of the city. Blake’s view of the city is a lot darker; examples of this are line ten through twelve “10 Every black’ning church appalls,” “11 And the hapless Soldier’s sigh,” “12 Runs in blood down Palace walls.” In these lines, he refers to the “black’ning church” which I suspect he is referring to the organization of the Church of England and not just one specific church.  There is information to back this: Blake was “Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England, indeed, to almost all forms of organized religion” (“William Blake”). When he mentions “hapless Soldier’s sigh” and “Palace walls,” he is most likely a reference to Buckingham Palace as a symbol of war. This image of the landmarks is not one a tourist of the city would see. A person visiting would most likely see the intricate structures that are the churches, and the sight of the statue like soldiers guarding the grand palace. The juxtaposition of these two images creates a sense of irony.

From the irony perceived by the title to idea of the class system. The overall feel of the poem I felt was more so, angry than sad. That being said I think the target audience Blake may have been targeting was the people in charge as he mentions the palace and church. I think the meaning of this poem was in a sense a protest to the upper echelons of a hierarchical system to make them see what the “lower class” was experiencing by giving them his image of London.

 

Work Cited

“William Blake.” Wikipedia.  Accessed April 22, 2017.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Blake

Submitted for ENG 102 Literature and Composition, Fall 2017.  Assignment: Poetry Analysis
Instructor: Daniela Ragusa