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London by William Blake

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Claire Merrick

on 8 April 2013

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Transcript of London by William Blake

London
by
William Blake William Blake (1757 - 1827) William Blake was born in 1757.
He spent his life largely in London 1757 He came from a poor family and did not go to school. He trained as an engraver (book illustrator) and eventually managed to open his own print shop. 1767 1803 Broadly speaking the collections look at human nature and society in optimistic and pessimistic terms, respectively - and Blake thinks that you need both sides to see the whole truth. He was a notorious for his 'creative' view of the world.
Ever heard of Urizen, Los, Oothoon, Enitharmon, Thel, or Beula; Orc, Rintrah, Bromian, or Leutha? Don’t worry; neither had anyone else until Blake made them up.
In 1803 his controversial ideas provked the government to put him on trial for high treason He developed his own artistic style and he wrote illustrated and printed his own books.
In these books he criticised religion, showed a passion for justice and put forward unusual ideas about the meaning of life. Many of Blake's best poems are found in two collections: 'Songs of Innocence' (1789) to which was added, in 1794, the 'Songs of Experience' (unlike the earlier work, never published on its own). The complete 1794 collection was called 'Songs of Innocence and Experience Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.' The Songs of Innocence section contains poems which are positive in tone and celebrate love, childhood and nature. The Songs of Experience poems are obviously intended to provide a contrast, and illustrate the effects of modern life on people and nature. Dangerous industrial conditions, child labour, prostitution and poverty are just some of the topics Blake explores. 1827 After his death in 1827, his revolutionary ideas inspired poets and artists.
He is now recognised as one of the most important English poets ever. I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every black’ning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse London The use of the word 'Chartered' is ambiguous. It may express the political and economic control that Blake considered London to be enduring at the time of his writing. Blake's friend Thomas Paine had criticised the granting of Royal Charters to control trade as a form of class oppression. However, 'chartered' could also mean 'freighted', and may refer to the busy or overburdened streets and river, or to the licenced trade carried on within them. The repetition of “marks” is emphatic; the Londoners are branded with visible signs of sickness and misery. Every is repeated because no one is immune: there is common suffering. The “I” figure doesn’t appear till the very end of the stanza, as if he has been overwhelmed by the sounds of human torment. Literally: metal restraining cuffs, devised by the mind of man to subjugate people by physical force, such as the prisoners languishing in Newgate;
but also,
figuratively, mental chains imprisoning through ideological acceptance of the status quo. The tone of anger and condemnation rises, and in the third stanza, the long list of accusatory examples has an unstoppable momentum. The stanza begins, as if in mid-sentence: The chimney sweep blackens the church by literally making the churches sooty but also in the sense that the church’s reputation is increasingly tarnished by its whitewashing of the brutal, smoke-belching commercial system which exploits child-labour. The word “appalls” here means 'indicts' rather than the modern usage of 'disgusts'. The church is not appalled in a compassionate way, but is fearful of the menace the sweeps represent. The soldier whose sigh “Runs in blood down Palace walls” is a “hapless” victim, in spite of the fact that he is part of the armed state. A soldier’s lot in 1792 was terrible, with violent discipline and punishment. The soldier, sighing in death or fear, metaphorically stains the palace walls with his blood just as the sweep’s cry blackens the churches. Perhaps the soldier’s discontented “sigh” takes the tangible form of red-painted protest slogans on palace walls. The revolutionary phrase “No King!” and other seditious slogans had indeed been daubed on the wall of the Privy Garden. The final stanza, which Blake only added in a later revision, reveals how the system, constructed on the savage institutions of power – the law, church, monarchy and army – poisons personal relationships at the deepest level. This is the culmination of the narrator’s apocalyptic description: It is no longer daytime, but midnight. The harlot is a young victim, like the boy sweep. She has been robbed of the chance to love her baby, because it is the result of commerce, not love, and because its existence only brings her increased poverty. She passes her own misery onto her child, and that child, like her, will pass its misery onto further generations. She also passes on the pox to the bourgeois husbands who frequent her and then take their infection back to their wives. Her curse, like the sweep’s cry and the soldier’s sigh, has actual effects. Like “mind-forg’d manacles”, “Marriage hearse” is a fantastically potent phrase, reverberating with meanings: the two words are linked oxymoronically, with the notion of joyous, fruitful marriage undermined by its grim apotheosis, death by venereal disease. The phrase also fillets bourgeois marriage in all its hypocrisy, the husband routinely unfaithful to his wife, and suggests the sterile death-in-life of the wedded state, which contemporary feminist Mary Wolstencraft called legalised prostitution. Marriage has become the funeral of love, the death of freedom. By striking at the family, the poem attacks the reproductive system of society itself. The harlot’s curse does more than make the baby cry; it destroys bourgeois complacency. It’s a fitting end; the poem’s final line has the incantatory power of a curse itself, with the rhyme shutting the lid on the poem once the build-up of hard alliterative sounds (black’ning, blood, Blasts, blights and plagues) has reached its crescendo. The
Historical Context
of the poem:
'London' Social and political unrest French Revolution The City of London Blake's poem The Modern Reader 1792, the year in which Blake wrote London, was a turbulent one; the city of London was suffering political and social unrest, due to the marked social and working inequalities of the time. An understandably nervous government had responded by introducing restrictions on the freedom of speech and the mobilisation of foreign mercenaries. In 1789, the French people revolted against the monarchy and aristocracy, using violence and murder to overthrow those in power. In Paris, revolutionary mobs invaded the Tuileries, suspending the rule of the king – Blake wore a bonnet rouge to align himself with the revolution across the Channel. Many saw the French Revolution as inspirational - a model for how ordinary, disadvantaged people could seize power. Blake alludes to the revolution in London, arguably suggesting that the experience of living there could encourage a revolution on the streets of the capital. The City of London was a town that was shackled to landlords and owners that controlled and demeaned the majority of the lower and middle classes. Within the poem that bears the city's name, Blake describes 18th century London as a conurbation (a large urban area created when neighbouring towns spread into and merge with each other) filled with people who understood, with depressing wisdom, both the hopelessness and misery of their situation. The sixteen lines of ‘London’ do far more than describe the city in which William Blake lived for most of his life. The poem is a devastating and concise political analysis, delivered with passionate anger, revealing the complex connections between patterns of ownership and the ruling ideology, the way all human relations are inescapably bound together within a single destructive society. Few later poets, have managed anything like it for condensed power. It is a poem which makes sense to the modern reader, as it exposes the gulf between those in power and the misery of poor people. The picture of the city as a place of nightmare is common in the 20th century, but is perhaps surprising to find in such an early text as this. I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every black’ning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse The speaker wanders through the streets of London and comments on his observations. He sees despair in the faces of the people he meets and hears fear and repression in their voices. The woeful cry of the chimney-sweeper stands as a chastisement to the Church, and the blood of a soldier stains the outer walls of the monarch’s residence. The nighttime holds nothing more promising: the cursing of prostitutes corrupts the newborn infant and sullies the “Marriage hearse.” Summary: The poem has four quatrains, with alternate lines rhyming. Repetition is the most striking formal feature of the poem, and it serves to emphasize the prevalence of the horrors the speaker describes.
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