An Analysis of London by William Blake: II

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

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

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An Analysis of London by William Blake

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:

  1. Frederick the Great gobbles up bits of Europe to make Prussia into a great empire.
  2. 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.
  3. England take over much of India in various battles.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Iron bridges are built (1778), metal is smelted, factories are built, the textile industry is industrialised, steam engines are made (1778)
  7. 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.
  8. Mill towns and mining towns grew from villages that had had a tiny number of inhabitants.
  9. Child labour and slavery were the norm. If it wasn’t slaves in the colonies, it was children working in factories.
  10. There are several minor skirmishes with France and Spain as England take over more bits of the world, as you do. That includes Canada.
  11. 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.
  12. We “find” some new bits of the world including Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti.
  13. The American have a revolution and start a war against the English. (1775 – 1783)
  14. 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.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.