Blake’s Experience of “London”
By Laura M. N., 2001.
With the Enlightenment came forth a burst of new ideas and the Romantic movement in literature was born from this time. Freedom, equality and liberty became the motivation behind both the Revolutions in France and America, as well as the themes explored in poetry and prose. William Blake (1757-1827) set down his ideas in these themes in his contrasting poetical works “The Songs of Innocence” and the “Songs of Experience.” Providing a historical context to these works assists the modern reader in his/her analysis of this collection of poems. “The Songs of Innocence” appeared in 1789, the year that the French Revolution began. “The Songs of Experience” was published in 1793, after the Revolution. If the innocence of the language in “The Songs of Innocence” seems to reflect the purity of thought and singularity of vision before the Revolution, then “The Songs of Experience” would express the lessons learned after. This historical context can be seen withing Blake’s work in his use of language and imagery. Using several Romantic-era literary conventions such as personification, pastoral settings and unaldulterated language to express complex thought, Blake represents the innocence of children in “The Songs of Innocence.” With “The Songs of Experience,” however, Blake’s use of language changes, and the tone shifts to give the impression of the speaker/poet’s growth and maturation. This shift in tone is evident implicitly in the poem “London.”
In Blake’s “The Songs of Innocence,” he uses the Pastoral genre of poetry which uses Nature as a comfort. This can be seen in many poems in that collection such as “The Lamb” and “Laughing Song” and most profoundly in “The Echoing Green.” “The Songs of Experience” by contrast, does not use the Pastoral tradition, but purposely works against it to show the contrast most effectively. “London” highlights this technique well, showing that Nature has no part in the experience of London the city. The first stanza expresses not the freedom of “The skylark and thrush/The birds of the bush” (67) in “The Echoing Green” but the restriction of the “charted street,/Near where the charted Thames does flow” (124). This lack of freedom is evident in Blake’s repeated pointing to the “mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe” (124). The restrictions are internalized in the people of London, who live in the “charted” or inner city. The “marks of woe” point to the poorer population in London. There is no innocence here.
The lack of innocence is further explored in the second stanza of “London.” There are no “green woods” that “laugh with the voice of joy” (65) as in the “Laughing Song.” Instead, the speaker/poet hears “every cry of every man” (124) and “In every voice, in every ban/The mind-forged manacles I hear” (124). This stanza expresses the speaker/poet’s understanding of the oppression of these forgotten people of London. The “mind-forged manacles” are not literal bondage, but the bondage of the poor people that is forced upon them by the hierarchal social system in place in England at the time. It is only through experience, through knowledge that the “voice” of these oppressed poor will be understood and heard.
Blake, in the third stanza, highlights the hypocrisy between the powerful in society and this unheard population. The first institution offered for investigation is the church. The reader hears “the chimney-sweeper’s cry” (124) but the “black’ning church appalls” (124) and does nothing to stop the “cry” of the child labour anding “chimney sweeper.” This is an important and risque criticism of the church, which was a domineering, powerful institution at this time. Blake is mindful of this, and exemplifies the hypocrisiy in the implied power of the church, which has the power to stop child labour, but does not. The hypocrisy of the power structure in society is also expressed by the “hapless soldier’s cry” (124) whose “blood” runs “down palace walls” (124). The “hapless” soldier represents the fact that in times of war, the majority of conscripted soldiers came from the lower classess while the upper classes made up the majority of officers. Even in times of crisis, the class system was in effect. The “palace walls” are the symbols of the power structure of the ruling power, the King or Queen. It is this power which starts the wars to which soldiers pay for with their lives. The connection between those who have power and those who do not is shown in this stanza to be an untrustworthy yes symbiotic relationship. Those in power should be assisting the poor, lower classes and not using them to suit their needs. Blake’s social commentary is strongly apparent in this stanza.
The theme of hypocrisy is carried over into the last stanza of “London.” This institution that is examined is less grand on the social commentary than in the previous stanza but is closer to the nub of life on the streets of London. The speaker/poet remarks on this by stating that “most though midnight streets I hear” (124). The “most” implies that what follows are common occurrences within the inner city of London, and the poor, lower classes. The “youthful harlot’s curse” (124) remarks on the commonality of both the facts of being a young, poor woman and being a prostitute. The “curse/Blasts the new-born infant’s tear” (124) displays a common occurrence in the inner city London at that time, an unwanted baby by a single woman, prostitute or not. The “curse” also “blights with plagues the marriage hearse” in which we are given the institution of marriage to hold up to examination. The speaker/poet is remarking that married men would visit prostitutes, catch a sexually transmitted disease and take that home to their wives. This would be the “plague” that ended or killed the marriage, thus the “hearse.” Blake is unraveling the sanctity of marriage to show the ugly truth in existence in the society of this class in London.
“London” then in a social commentary of an unheard population in the inner city. Blake is giving this society a voice in this poem, therefore is using the Romantic convention of personification, not implicity, but indirectly. The rhyme scheme is also of use to notice. The rhythmical ‘a/b a/b’ pattern is contradictory to the meaning of the poem. Usually the ‘a/b a/b’ pattern lulls and sways a reader to complacency, yet Blake uses it in this social commentary poem. Perhaps he is doing this to express the general complacency of the English population towards the poor, lower classes. If you are reading Blake, you are probably not among that uneducated class. The repeating of the words in the poem is worth observing as well. Blake, in this poem and others, like to make his point with a hammer rather than a whisper, and the repeating of words has this effect. The first stanza stresses the words “chartered” and “marks” dentoting the fixed position of these people, the lack of freedom and liberty. The second stanza repeats “in every” three times to forcefully express that these pitiful cries are universal.
Blake has successfully suggested that one must look beyond the innocence of childhood, to mature and experience the world around you. “London” is a precise example of this.
Blake, William. Selected Poetry. Oxford University Press: New York, 1998.