Last week, we looked at the context and form of London, which is in the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology in the “Power and Conflict” section. In this post, I’ll be exploring the language side of things and considering how this relates to the context, as well as how it is supported by the form of the poem itself.
If you remember, we start the poem with the visionary Blake wandering through London like some Old Testament fire-and-brimstone prophet looking for the innocent in the city to protect them from a bit of savage firey reckoning by God on account of all the sinning they’re doing.
The metre gives us a very grinding rhythm as we start:
“I wander thro’ each charter’d street”
So we’ve got a first-person narrative, maybe a persona, but in this case, I really feel like that’s Blake speaking. None of the distance of Ozymandias and the travellers and the far away lands. This is him telling us directly how it is. That’s made doubly effective by that present tense “wander” – this is the here and now. There’s a timelessness to that – it’s as if it’s continuously happening – but has a similar effect to the timelessness in Ozymandias. You get the distinct impression that the messages of the two poems are as timeless as society itself. But where Ozymandias seems to slip the bonds of time and remind us that this kind of pointless power-crazed behaviour won’t stand the test of time, London is very much about a specific London in time – the time of Blake. I think he would be disappointed if he came back today and realised it was still the same. That’s the whole point of visionary poetry. You’re supposed to say “Look at this misery!” and people are supposed to learn from it, not just carry on as they always did. So… first person, present tense… immediate, current. We’re living this wandering through Blake’s eyes. Interestingly, Ozymandias also has a wanderer narrator of sorts in the traveller. There’s a sense of Blake not belonging, not fitting in, a bit of an outcast.
That word “wander” is sharply contrasted by the “charter’d” so we’ll have a look at those words. “Wander” suggests a freedom, an aimlessness or carelessness. Then the word “charter’d” suggests its very opposite. First, it’s kind of a pun on “charted” which means mapped out. Second, a charter is a legal agreement that sets out who has what rights. Often it’s a Royal Charter which gives individuals certain rights and powers, like chartered surveyors and chartered accountants. A city also needs a charter if it wants to be a city instead of a town. A charter can also refer to hiring something, like a chartered plane or boat. It can also mean ‘restricted’ or ‘bound’ – in that the streets and the river Thames is restrained and bound. It’s both a literal chartering, that the river is bound in and restricted, and also a dig at the lack of rights that English citizens had. It’s a pun on how the Thames is mapped out and marked out, with no free bits anymore. Blake puts an additional emphasis on it by repeating it in line 1 and in line 2. It’s obviously a word that is important to him.
As Blake walks, all he sees around him is that the people are “marked”. This too is a great word to get your teeth into, as nobody can quite agree the sense in which it is being used. Is it a Biblical marking like that of Cain? Kind of ironic, since Cain was set to wander the earth following murdering his brother. Here it’s Blake who’s wandering. Plus, I never can think about Cain and Abel without wondering what the Dickens God was up to. Sure, he was angry. Cain had killed his favourite human. But why mark him and set him to wander? Nobody was allowed to touch Cain or hurt him. Why would you protect someone who’d killed your favourite human? Most people think it’s a reference to the Book of Ezekiel, where Ezekiel was asked by God to walk through the city and put a mark on all the people who were “weeping” and “sighing” over the terrible state of the city. Blake seems to do just that, though it’s not him doing the marking, the people are already “marked”.
This is a play on words as well. He says he “marks” (like ‘remarks’ or notices) in “every face” and then twists the word from a verb to a noun in the fourth line to mean that he sees the signs of people’s weakness and people’s sadness. When he looks around him, all he sees is suffering.
In stanza two, he builds up with another long sentence to say that a lot of these restrictions are things we do to ourselves. We’ve got a lot of repetition of “every” (just in case you hadn’t realised that he hears the suffering everywhere, just everywhere!) and we see him picking up from things he’s seen in stanza one into things he hears in stanza two. Blake still continues with his Biblical words from Ezekiel with all the wailing. It sounds like a living hell. He does the same thing he did with the word “charter” with the word “ban” which also has layers of meaning. He doesn’t like to let you off lightly, does he, Blake?
Let’s talk about the ban. A ban can mean a restriction or a command to refrain from doing something. If there’s a ban on something, it’s legally prohibited. You can’t do it. So in the “bans” Blake hears, he could mean all the things he hears that are prohibited that you’re not allowed to do. A “ban” is also a pun on the “banns” which churches announces that people are about to get married. A “bann” was just a proclamation.
However, by the end of the verse, things are beginning to shift and we come to understand something with the crucial phrase “mind-forged manacles.”
A manacle is a way of chaining a person up – the metal cuffs that are attached to people’s legs or arms (or necks) in slavery are manacles. Basically, it’s anything that restricts you, that inhibits you from moving, that keeps you restrained. But these manacles are “mind-forged”. Forging is of course the process of heating and hammering metals in order to weld them together. If the manacles are “mind-forg’d”, it means that we make them ourselves. These are our self-imposed limitations, the things that hold us back, the prison that we create in our own mind. In other words, Blake finds us entirely responsible for our own misery, pain and suffering. The idea of the forge in itself is interesting and it’s an idea Blake picks up on in perhaps his most famous poem, Tyger Tyger where he takes up this idea of the forge. It’s a very industrial image really (despite the fact that forges are a rural thing too for all the metal-y stuff you need making in the countryside), all these furnaces, smelting and manufacturing.
Either way, those mind-forg’d manacles are the restrictions that we place on ourselves that are so strong and so binding that they are like the manacles a slave might be forced to wear. We are basically slaves to ourselves, restricted by our own fears and doubts, according to Blake.
In stanza three, Blake starts to lay the blame beyond our own limitations and restrictions. First, he talks of the chimney-sweep, which was also a popular image he used in other poems. Like many jobs carried out by children in the early decades of the Victorian era, it required children to do it because the work needed a smaller body than an adult had. There’s an awful lot of information out there about chimney sweeps, but I think Blake found something deeply ironic about the blackened little faces of these innocent children that struck him more than any other child labourer. It’s not the children who work in mills, who lose limbs fixing machines that the owners are too money-grubbing to stop, it’s not the children in coal mines or the child weavers, it’s the chimney sweep. From just before the time of Shakespeare, it had been legal for churches to take on children and “apprentice” them out. If your parents were poor or dead, or they had too many children, the Church authorities could take you over and put you to work. The aim was to stop there being lots of beggar children on the streets, but it gave the Parishes (the area each individual church controlled) the right to put children to work if their parents couldn’t look after them. The churches in return required businesses to help out and take on a child as an apprentice. It didn’t matter if they were as young as seven, or even if the work was very tough. The chimney sweeps made the most of these young, malnourished children to send them up chimneys. Life expectancy was very poor.
It’s without doubt that Blake likes the chimney sweep image for its incongruous black-faced children who are so innocent beneath the dirt. That soot and dirt is very much representative of mankind’s ‘mark’ on children. In fact, it’s not mankind who are responsible but the parishes, the churches.
In line two of the third stanza, you’ve got a couple of words that work in different ways to mean different things. The first is “blackning”. The churches are literally responsible for blackening the children: it is the churches who pass them on to unscrupulous businesses who would send the children to sweep chimneys, thus “blackening” them. It is the churches who are doing the blackening. It works on a metaphorical level as well. Churches should be purifying people, cleansing them, not “blackning” them. It’s deeply ironic that what the church is supposed to do on a metaphorical level is the opposite of what happens to the children on a practical level. The churches themselves are “blackened” by soot from industry, hence they too are literally becoming black.
The word “appalls” works on just about a hundred levels. It means to horrify or to shock, like saying something is ‘appalling’. The churches should be, in a world where they function as they are intended, disgusted and shocked by child labour, not engaging in it themselves. But the churches are not “appalled” by the children in that way. The root of the word is a-pall or ‘to make pale’ – another reference to the ‘enlightening’ role that churches are supposed to undertake, even though the word has taken on another meaning these days (to turn someone pale with shock). But this word is also a pun on the word “appall” if you take it as “a pall”. A pall is the cover that they put on a coffin, making a link between what happens to the chimney sweeps and the church: the chimney sweeps die and the church is responsible. This theme is expanded upon in his other two poems about the church’s role in child labour (and therefore the high number of deaths as a result of this for innocent children).
On the surface, those two lines should mean that the church are horrified by child labour. The way Blake plays with words makes it clear that the church are responsible for the deaths of many children.
The church is not the only body that Blake sees as responsible for suffering around him: he also places the blame on the palace.
Don’t forget that England had been involved in a number of extensive military campaigns over the last twenty years, all at the command of the king and his parliament. King George III takes the blame very much here for the wars and bloodshed. If you subscribe to the theory that Ozymandias is about King George III (and I don’t, not particularly, as I think it’s about power in itself and it cheapens it to be about one king in specific other than Ozymandias himself) then you’ve got a cultural cross-reference point. What you definitely have in both poems, however, is a very nice critique of power. Both of those critiques use metaphor as the way to get their message home. I think they both do this because the images that they create are powerful in themselves and it leaves us with a little working out to do, rather than an out-and-out condemnation. Blake in particular uses images and metaphor often in his writing, not so much in my opinion to conceal or soften the truth (because the image of a soldier’s blood running down the walls of the palace is not a soft image, is it?) but for a number of other possible reasons.
So why use metaphors instead of direct language? The first is that metaphor is a very good way to communicate. If you’ve got an abstract concept like ‘child labour’, putting a face on it is a very successful technique to help make it real for people. Think how charity adverts work to take an abstract idea, like lack of water or the need for vaccinations, and put a face on it so we connect more. Child labour in itself is a hard thing to visualise, to understand. A chimney sweep child crying certainly isn’t. The political failings of an empire are hard to understand, so vast and complex are they. Stick a soldier and his blood on the palace walls and you’ve got a simple, clear idea that makes it all apparent in one very simple idea. It’s not soft, it’s not avoiding laying the blame, it’s not indirect criticism, it is a very neat, clear image that puts the blame for bloodshed and war squarely on the palace. If I want to take a complex or abstract idea and make it powerful and hard-hitting, metaphor can do that. Those images become very powerful when you use them as a motif or recurrent image in your writing, as Blake does with the chimney sweeps. For anyone who’s read anything of Blake, once you see the chimney sweep mentioned, you link in your mind to his two other sweep poems, the Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Innocence and the Chimney Sweeper in Songs of Experience.
As we move into stanza four, we continue Blake’s journey. He uses another metaphor in saying “the midnight streets” which is interesting. It could be midnight. He could be walking around at midnight. But it seems to be something he’s using metaphorically. Everything he sees is as metaphorically black as midnight, if he’s using black as a symbol of misery and pain. He’s building up to a crescendo. Yes, the restrictions we put on ourselves are bad, yes the church’s involvement in child labour is bad, yes the King and Government are causing needless deaths, but that’s not the worst of it.
The worst of it is the “youthful Harlots” – a harlot is a prostitute or a whore – not afraid of pointing out everything he sees wrong in society, is he? The prostitutes or the promiscuous women are causing all kinds of social damage according to Blake. They’re a “curse”. He could be suggesting that they are almost like witches, casting curses on new babies and marriages, turning things that should be joyful and hopeful into things that are cursed. Of course, he can just mean that these women have foul mouths and are always swearing, since a swear word is also a curse word. But it works on both levels, like much of the poem. The first ‘victim’ of their curse is new-born children. Ironic, since the new-born children of prostitutes or women who had no way to care for them would often end up in the care of the church, destined to become child labourers themselves. Other people have said that the babies are born with deformities as a result of sexually transmitted diseases. Either way, perhaps as a result of the women’s anger or desire for revenge, the babies are born into a world that they too weep for, a world that has no love for them.
The final line of the poem shows us the second consequence: these women also “plague” marriages. Well, that works on one level about disease. You pick up syphilis from a prostitute and you pass it on to your new wife, so your marriage is quite literally one plagued or diseased. But it also works on a metaphorical level: the marriages are spoilt by promiscuity. The sanctity of marriage is meaningless. He finishes with an odd coupling of words: “marriage hearse” since a hearse is the vehicle to take you to church when you are dead. This makes us reflect on the fact that the marriages themselves are doomed.
In all, Blake finds much wrong with society, with many helpless victims who are ‘marked’ by their suffering. He points the finger at us, how we hinder ourselves, how we ‘manacle’ ourselves and cause our own restrictions, but also he points it at the church, at the King and Government, at the prostitutes and promiscuous women. The poem itself is bound by the syllabic metre, by the rhyme scheme, by the stanza.
Here’s a really nice commentary on London which will give you some further ideas. I really like the idea of the poem being about freedom, and about the lack of it, as well as the poem being a warning
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