, Research Paper
Explication of William Blake’s “London”
William Blake’s poem “London” takes a complex look at life in London, England during the late seventeen hundreds into the early eighteen hundreds as he lived and experienced it. Blake’s use of ambiguous and double meaning words makes this poem both complex and interesting. Through the following explication I will unravel these complexities to show how this is an interesting poem.
To better understand this poem some history about London during the time the poem was written is helpful. London was the “. . . undisputed cultural, economic, religious, educational, and political center” of England in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. It was a city of “warehouses, docks, factories, prisons, palaces and slums, of beggars, laborers, shopkeepers, and bankers” (History). The industrial revolution was in full swing and the streets were filthy, the water and air were polluted, and there were rats everywhere. The famous “London fogs” were created from the burning of coal. The average Londoner lived until age 29, and as many as 1 in 8 drank themselves to death. While there were wealthy merchant and professional classes, the members of the poor grew and were crowded into filthy slums of the city (History). Keeping this history in mind lets take a look at the poem.
Repetition and rhyme are an integral part of Blake’s “London.” The first stanza of the poem shows this repetition and rhyme.
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. (1-4)
This repetition is a type of rhythm in the poem. According to John Nims and David Mason rhythm is “something that happens with such regularity that we can resonate with it, anticipate its return, and move our body in time with it” (Nims 205). Other rhyme techniques noticed are the rhyming end lines that follow an ABAB pattern. This rhyming helps the poem flow and move along.
The first use of repetition can be seen in the first two lines, with the word “chartered” (1-2). In this case the two words both have the same meaning but this is not always the case throughout the poem. Blake uses “chartered street” (1) and “chartered Thames” (2) to describe public places to which everyone has rights and privileges (chartered). Another meaning of “chartered” (1-2) that becomes more obvious as we read further into the poem is that of a chart or map. Webster’s dictionary says a chart is a sheet giving information, form this we can deduce that the Thames or streets have information to give (chart).
The last two lines of this first stanza have more repetition with the words mark and marks. The speaker “mark(ing)” (3) every face is noticing the features or characterizing the people he meets. The speaker than “marks” (4) or sees a visible clues. What the speaker sees is “weakness” and “woe” (4). Woe can possibly be seen visually as in sadness, sorrow, or grief on the peoples faces, but weakness is not really a visual sign. From Websters we find weakness means lacking in strength or vigor (weakness). We learn later in the poem that this weekness is not referring to physical strength but to mental strength.
After traveling about the public streets of London near the Thames river and characterizing the features of weakness, sorrow, and grief, in the people he passes the speaker delves deeper into the issues of these people in the second stanza. Rhyme and repetition continue as the speaker hears how men cry and Infants cry of fear. Blake’s uses of the word cry in the “cry of every Man” (5) can bee seen in two ways. The first meaning of cry is to call out or proclaim. In other words the men are calling out. Cry can also be seen in its obvious use as in sadness or weeping (cry).
The word “every” (5-7) is repeated throughout the second stanza. “Every” (5-7) is used to place an emphasis on the occurrence of the happenings in this stanza. The speaker sees in “every” “man,” “voice,” and “ban” “mind-forged manacles” (5-8). Manacles by definition are handcuffs, Blake uses the handcuffs to symbolize a restraint (Manacle). In the “cry of every man” (5) and in “every Infant’s cry of fear” (6) the speaker see restraints. He also sees restraint in bans. A ban is something that is prohibited which is similar to a restraint (Ban). A Banner though is a sign or advertisements seen in public places (Banner). These banners according to the poem contain some form of restraint. Everywhere in London the speaker sees restraints.
It is the chimney-sweepers who are crying in the third stanza. Homes were heated and Industry was fueled by coal in London during this time period. Because of the dirty nature of burning coal the air was heavily polluted resulting in the “London Fogs,” and chimneys were always in need of cleaning (History). Chimney-sweepers, who were usually young children, had the difficult, dirty, and hazardous job of crawling into and cleaning the creosol and residue filled chimneys of the city. The children fear the terrible life of being a chimney-sweeper, possibly a link to the “Infants cry of fear” (6) from the previous stanza, this is part of the information we get from the streets.
Coal dirt, residue, and creosol are part of what contributes to “Every blackening Church appals;” (10). The pollution from the coal is “blackening” (10) the exterior of the white church. The “blackening church” (10) has a much more powerful meaning to poem than just pollution though. It is a symbol for the restraint the speaker saw men cry for, children fear, and heard in the voices of the people of London. The church blackens its members (including the chimney-sweepers) by restraining and forcing them to follow, adhere, and comply to the churches beliefs and values. The church follows a uniform single style that is repetitious, dull and boring. Today as Americans we think of the church as a place of worship but also of guidance and help. Churches are powerful, public institutions and they have a duty to watch out for and protect members of its community. The London churches were not living up to this duty letting young children put their lives at risk cleaning chimneys.
The symbol of the “blacking church” (10) is further developed in the last lines of the stanza as the “hapless Soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls” (11-12). The soldier unfortunate because the church, which is part of the state and therefore the Palace, is not listening to his sighs dies at battle (appals). It is an unnecessary death we can see because the soldier sighs “Runs in blood down Palace walls.” The church has again failed its members and community.
In the last stanza the church is again to blame for societies problems. The speaker “hear(s)” (13) young prostitutes swearing late into the night. The Harlots are young women out late at night sleeping with men, getting diseases, having children, and then not providing a good life for the children. The “youthful Harlot’s curse” (14) is interesting because “curse” (14) means the Harlot is swearing, but it also could mean something bringing or causing harm (Curse). The “Harlots curse” we learn are the problems she brings to her child. The Harlot who most likely has syphilis a sexually transmitted disease passes it on to the child and “Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,” (15). Syphilis among many other symptoms can cause in infected infants “crying sounds” and tearing (Syphilis). It is the disease and bad life that the Harlot passes on to her child.
The Harlot’s problems are connected with the church in the last line of the poem. Her life “blights with plagues the Marriage hearse” (16). This line although difficult to interpret is crucial to the poem and packed with meaning. A Marriage symbolizes beginnings and Marriage happens at church. A hearse symbolizes endings as in death. The “Marriage hearse” (16) works for an analogy of the Marriage of a Harlot infected with syphilis. The Harlot infected with the disease then infects her husband and they will both eventually die from the disease, as there were no medicines for syphilis during the eighteen hundreds.
This poem uses rhyme and repetition throughout to tell a story about life and the effects of the church on lives of the people of London. The “blackening church” (10) blackens the people of London, but by doing that it also blackens itself. The church does not allow the people of London to grow, it instead restrains them. The church does not help, protect, or look out for the health and welfare of its community as we saw with the children chimney-sweepers and soldier whose sighs went unheard. It seems that repetition is not only a literary device in this poem but also one of its themes. The church restraining its people, not helping them (the chimney-sweepers, the Harlots) causes a vicious cycle of deleterious and repetitive effects. The city of London is stuck in a downward spiraling cycle because the church is restraining and weakening the minds of its people instead of aiding and helping them.
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