London is one of Blake’s most studied poems, although it’s kind of a surprise to see it sitting within the group on ‘Power and Conflict’ for AQA’s GCSE English Literature poetry anthology, because it seems only loosely about power and has vague references (well, one or two) to conflict. If you want to look at power, this is more a poem about the inequality of power.
If Ozymandias is the big guy at the top of the tree, inspiring fear in all his enemies (and maybe his subjects too, who knows?) then London is what happens, in Blake’s view, when there are abuses of power. He’s not slow to place the blame wherever it falls as to what is wrong with society and why.
Now, this is a poem with A LOT of context. A LOT. Where Ozymandias is wonderful in its general application about every single one of us, London is very specific. I was thinking this morning though that Ozymandias contains another universal truth that I’d not considered before… you can TELL people what to think of you, but you can’t make them THINK it. You can say you are “King of Kings” and make as many statues as you like, but people are going to think what they’re going to think. You have no power at all over that.
Anyway, musings aside… Blake.
Blake is an oddbod who doesn’t really fit into a category. You have your Elizabethans, your Jacobeans, your Restoration, your Alexandrians, your Metaphysicals, your Romantics, your Victorians… and you have Blake, who defies a neat little box to put him in.
Born at the tail end of 1757, what was his world? Well, England was happily going about the world building an empire (read taking over countries by brute force) and losing other bits (read taxing America so much that they decide to start their own country) England is happily fighting in India, Frederick the Great is busy building his own Prussian empire (Prussia was what Germany was before it was Germany, along with bits of Denmark, Poland, Belgium, Russia and some other bits that now sit elsewhere on a map) and you’ve got the tail-end of people’s tolerance of power in France, what with the French Revolution and all.
Here’s fourteen events that happened in the first twenty-one years of Blake’s life:
- Frederick the Great gobbles up bits of Europe to make Prussia into a great empire.
- George III comes to the throne in the UK in 1760 and reigns until 1820, although the last ten years of his rule are taken over by his son, on account of George III losing his marbles.
- England take over much of India in various battles.
- A load of French philosophers start writing stuff about human beings, about thought, about free will and about morals, telling us that we’re the captains of our own ship and thus give wind to the “Enlightenment” giving poor people such fancy notions as freedom, equality, brotherhood (and sisterhood), criticising the church and the monarchy.
- England starts Canal Mania in 1761 and the whole Industrial Revolution starts a major shift from country to town in the 1760s, building up to the 1800s.
- Iron bridges are built (1778), metal is smelted, factories are built, the textile industry is industrialised, steam engines are made (1778)
- Agriculture is mechanised and fewer people are needed in the fields: life in England changed from a rural one to an urban one in 60 years.
- Mill towns and mining towns grew from villages that had had a tiny number of inhabitants.
- Child labour and slavery were the norm. If it wasn’t slaves in the colonies, it was children working in factories.
- There are several minor skirmishes with France and Spain as England take over more bits of the world, as you do. That includes Canada.
- John Wilkes writes critical stuff about George III in 1763 and is imprisoned for doing so, which then caused a riot. He’s let out and goes on to become Mayor of London.
- We “find” some new bits of the world including Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti.
- The American have a revolution and start a war against the English. (1775 – 1783)
- Louis XVI comes to the throne in France, along with his wife Marie Antoinette. They’ll both end up having their heads cut off and being part of the downfall of the French monarchy as well as being part of the reason behind the French Revolution.
So here is a guy born into a world of change, an England that is becoming an empire, losing in many places, gaining in others. His parents were Dissenters, which meant that they separated from the Church of England. Blake grows up in a world full of radical thinkers, pioneers of thought, people unafraid to speak up and ask for change. Blake was also an apprentice engraver, interested in art as much as he is in writing. Like Shelley, people found his views a little too militant, a little too strident. Unlike Shelley, he suffered as a consequence of this, often living in poverty.
Blake’s also a mystic: he has visions and sees things, including angels. As you do.
So how does this influence his poetry?
Firstly, Blake’s poetry is quite unique. He definitely bangs his own drums and doesn’t move in time to anyone else’s music. Secondly, it’s very visual. Thirdly, it’s about the change he sees in the world around him. Now in general, people don’t like change. Blake definitely didn’t. I guess to him it was like we were entering into some kind of global end of days with industrialisation, urbanisation and expansionism. He has no time for George III, no time for the monarchy and the aristocracy, no time for the church. All he sees in front of him in this poem is just what a world these three structures have created – not unlike the French by the way, who were so angered by the monarchy, the aristocracy and the church that they started a revolution and built guillotines.
The poem London was written in 1793 – 1794. This is the year that Louis XVI had his head chopped off, shortly followed by his wife Marie Antoinette, that France started a war with the English, the Dutch and then the Spanish, that George Washington conducts his first cabinet meetings as the first President of the Unites States of America and that France becomes ‘dechristian’ and separates completely from the church. It’s not hard to see that Blake would have been inspired by all these winds of change and find the old system to be repressive. However, as you’ll see in the poem, he finds other things to blame as well.
The poem itself is part of a series called “Songs of Experience” which was published in 1794, following a series called “Songs of Innocence”. In both, he particularly criticises religion and society. His purpose in them was to show “the two contrary states of the human soul”. Mostly, he focuses on children and their experience of the world at the hands of society. He’s keen on metaphor and images, as well as allegories, so you will find deeper meaning in the poems, though London for the main part needs no interpretation to understand what he means.
What else you need to know about Blake and about this poem is that Blake LOVED the Bible and the Bible stories, as well as the rather Biblically-minded poet John Milton. I mean he read those books and ate up every word. He consumed them. In this poem, there are two things you need to know: the story of Cain and Abel, and the book of Ezekiel. Or, a small part of it.
So… Cain and Abel in a nutshell. The sons of Adam and Eve, the first beings on the planet. Cain is a farmer and Abel is a shepherd. God loves Abel and his brother Cain kills him in a fit of jealousy. When God says “Where’s Abel?” we have the first Biblical backchat, when Cain asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
That question has been the centre of politics and relationships ever since. Are we responsible for each other? Of course, Cain was being sarcastic. He’d killed his brother and was trying to make out that he didn’t know where he was, when he knew exactly where Abel was. But many, many philosophers and thinkers have dealt with this question ever since.
So Blake is a man who feels we have a responsibility to our fellow man.
By the way, Cain was punished by being “marked” by God (nobody knows what that means) and sent to wander on the planet as an outcast. Kind of interesting that it is Blake who begins London by wandering, but there you go. We’ll look more at how this religious story impacts on the language in the next post.
Key themes in Cain and Abel: responsibility, brotherhood, guilt and innocence, bloodshed and murder.
Then we have Ezekiel. You may not know or care about Ezekiel, except for the fact it makes up a very bloody scene in Pulp Fiction. Here it is without the sweary mo-foing and the shooting, but you can find that on Youtube if you want to feel Ezekiel in all his splendour.
Blake very much identified with Ezekiel, not least in the fact that he too thought he was a prophet, put on earth to hold a mirror up to society and point out its flaws. Ezekiel believed he had to criticise what was going on in Jerusalem. Don’t forget, by the way, that William Blake wrote the epic Jerusalem about England. Of course, when he looked around and saw famine, plague, pestilence and disease, as you would in a newly-industrialised city that couldn’t cope with an influx of people, it’s no wonder he felt it was the end of days.
The bit that we might be interested in, the same as Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, is Ezekiel 25: 17
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.
Doesn’t quite come to life in the same way as it does when Samuel L. Jackson reads it, does it?
Still… it’s clear to see that Ezekiel felt surrounded by the tyranny of evil men, that he had a job to do in order to help ‘shepherd the weak’ through the valley of the darkness. That, in lots of ways, is what this poem is about.
But we should also look at Ezekiel 9:4 as the inspiration for the poem.
And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.
Basically, God says: “Go and mark out all the people who are innocent and pure so that they can be saved when I burn down the place”. And that’s what Blake’s little wander through London seems to be. You should be able to see Blake using the words of this verse with the sighing and the crying.
So, that’s a few words on the context of the poem that you might find helpful. Of course, it’s timely to remind you that you are not writing a history essay, but you do need to use some of this information to understand where Blake’s coming from.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s think about the form of the poem. Oh how important this form is.
Though to understand it, you do need to know the form of nursery rhymes and hymns. A lot, but by no means all, have similar structures, no doubt in part to help us remember them.
A lot of the nursery rhymes and hymns have structures that we have come to recognise as “poems”. They are often written in alternate rhyme. Many nursery rhymes have a four-line verse and rhyme ABAB or ABCB, but you’ll find ones with 8 syllables and 10 syllables or that rhyme AABB, like Humpty Dumpty. The most important thing of note is that, visually, London has a kind of similarity to those.
It has four verses, made up of four lines. Each line has 7 or 8 syllables. The first verse has three lines of eight syllables and one of seven. Verse two has four lines of eight syllables. Verse three is composed of four lines of seven syllables and the final verse has the opening and concluding line with eight syllables and the middle two lines sandwiched in between with seven. The rhyme scheme follows an alternate pattern in each verse, with two rhymes in an ABAB pattern.
As you can see, it’s fairly consistent and fairly regular, and it’s marked with a strong rhythm, particularly in certain sections. For example, the first line reads:
i WANder THROUGH each CHARTered STREET
near WHERE the CHARTered THAMES does FLOW
and MARK in EVery FACE i MEET
MARKS of WEAKness, MARKS of WOE.
So each line has four stressed syllables and a strong pattern, not unlike a nursery rhyme.
Now for the effect… What effect does this give the words?
The first is a heavy regularity. A grinding regularity if you will. Such a strong rhythm can make something feel jaunty, but in this case, it does not. It doesn’t feel jaunty at all. It feels like a grinding monotony. He might very well be wandering, but it certainly makes everything else sound like it’s on a heavy treadmill or something.
These stresses work with the repetition in the second verse.
in EVery CRY of EVery MAN
in EVery INfants CRY of FEAR
in EVery VOICE: in EVery BAN
the MIND-FORGED MANacles i HEAR
You can see how the strong rhythm works with the repetition sometimes (on those oppressive EVERYs and CRYs!) to emphasise even further some of those words. When you pair that strong rhythm up with those repeated words, it’s like a drum beat, a metronome or a solemn church bell. For me, that rhythm seems very restrictive. If you think about it, people who wrote sonnets used the sonnet form to pin down and marshall all those crazy chaotic thoughts about things. Here, Blake could be using that strong rhythm to contain the words, just as the streets ‘contain’ the people and imprison them. The poem is about a lack of freedom, about restriction, about those ‘manacles’ that bind us and chain us, like slaves, and that’s what this rhythm and these lines seem to do for me. They really marshall it and restrict it.
In the next post, we’ll look at the voice, language and imagery in the poem and explore those in a little more depth.
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