A Reading Of William Blake

’S “London” Essay, Research Paper

A Reading of William Blake’s “London”

William Blake channels his general dissatisfaction of the organization of society during the late eighteenth century in his lyrical poem entitled “London” (1794). Blake uses vividly expressive language through the spoken observations of a symbolic character he created to narrate and recite social and political problems afflicting this metropolis in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The poem’s rhythmically patterned linear style, which is very strictly structured, reinforces its central theme: that oppression will be revisited. Blake’s use of such elements of poetry as setting and situation, diction and tone, structure and form, symbols and images, sound and rhyme, and rhythm and meter to convey this strong message of political and social importance.

The title of the poem, coupled with the first stanza, establishes the setting in London (England) and describes the social environment that frames the characters (the city’s residents) and their surroundings. The title designates the exact location of the setting and immediately informs the reader that it takes place in London. Although the lyric is written in first-person singular, the speaker is not the poet. Blake sensibly creates a persona that expresses subjective thoughts and expressions to refer to the speaker’s personal experiences in order to emphasize penetrating resonance of the poem’s diction. “London” reflects the period in which it was written by depicting the very image of most of urban life during the period of Romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of the libertarian movements during this period were induced by the romantic philosophy, or the desire to be free of convention and tyranny, and the new emphasis on individual rights. As illustrated in Alexander Pope’s “From An Essay on Criticism,” eighteenth century literature was marked by critical and intellectual writers. Just as the insistence on rational, formal, and conventional subject matter that had typified neoclassicism was reversed, the authoritarian regimes that had encouraged and sustained neoclassicism in the arts were inevitably subjected to these popular revolutions. Effected by a century of wars and citizen revolutions, the

writers were stimulated by the creative activity of the French Revolution; thus literature often criticized the oppressive nature of government. Political and social causes became dominant themes in romantic poetry and prose throughout the Western world, producing many vital human documents that are still pertinent.

The first stanza of Blake’s poem is critical to its central meaning because the Romantic era was marked with the indictment of the metropolis; and consequently directly sketches the political and social picture in London as that of dark, squalid, authoritative, and tyrannical city. The repetition of the word “charter” (3, 4) illustrates the municipality’s strict control over its nation. The fact that the streets, which are artificial or man-made structures, as well as the river, a natural stream of water, are both defined by law emphasizes the state of affairs in the regulated city. Both the streets and the river follow a fixed direction in the landscape of the city, indicating the strict order of the urban center as mandated by its government. The visual images in this stanza allow the readers to experience the conditions of the city in our imaginations. Blake uses the sense of sight to describe the overwhelmingly oppressed and somber nature characterizing the people he meets. Repetition of the word “mark” in the third and fourth lines of the first stanza create a sense of rhythm and dissonance at the same time. The well-proportioned rhythm is systematic and regulated, just like the city. The varied meanings of the term promote the chaos and disharmony of the people observed by the narrator. The first occurrence, “marks in every face I meet,” (3) is used as a recognized standard of equality that typifies the society. This syntax immediately informs the readers that a distinctive attribute characterizes the entire society, and explains that the speaker formed a visible impression of the people. The uses of the term “marks” in the last line of this quatrain suggest a range of emotions felt by the population. “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” (4) gives us the impression that the people lack power and strength, and are likewise full of misery and misfortune. The somber character of the people thus lends to the wretched conditions of structures within the city as well. By the end of the poem, we see that the parallel structuring of the poem with the use of such repeating words is consistent with the poem’s unfolding plot, as the experience repeats itself much like the selected words do.

The compact structure of “London” suits the meanings and effects of the poem through the author’s creative use of rhyme, sound, rhythm, and meter. Each line ends with an exact end-rhyme that represents the experiences and feelings of the society. Blake focuses our attention on these words by placing them at the end of the lines, by shaping them into symbolic exact-rhyming words, and by accenting them. Blake’s choice of these particular words [such as: cry - sigh; and curse - hearse (9 - 16)], and the blending of their connotations, gives the setting and scene of “London” a dark and desolate mood that forms a major atmospheric effect to support the conditions of both the city and the poem.

The poet also enriches the meanings of the poem with his use of sound quality. The arrangement of the syllables according to whether they are stressed or unstressed represent the tightly organized and controlled nature of the metropolis. The assonance helps to provide rhythmic structure and supports the relations between the words and their harsh effects. For example, the words “cry” and “sigh” in the third stanza suggest emotions and feelings of pain, misery, and the shedding of tears through these spoken sounds of distress. The use of these end-rhyming words also reflects onomatopoeia in the way in which the vowel sounds echo and indicate their meanings, thus suggesting the morbid sense of the subject. The sound of the word “cry” has a lot of power and significance in this poem. Not only does it suggest the emotions and moods felt by society, but it also alerts the reader to pay close attention to the way the poem sounds. The reoccurrence of the word “cry”–adjoined with Blake’s use of other gloomy words such as “fear” (6), “appalls” (10), “sigh” (11), and “tear” (15)–pushes forward to form the reader’s recognition that the sound strongly echoes the theme in nearly every line of the poem.

The poem’s predominant meter is trochaic tetrameter, which also reinforces its meaning and tone. Each line contains three stressed and unstressed syllables that form a regular, predictable rhythm throughout the first three quatrains. The last stanza, an iambic tetrameter, breaks this regular pattern. This quatrain, though similar in structure and rhyme, shifts the poem from a falling to a rising meter, which adds to the poem’s dramatic ending by echoing the citizens’ inability to defy the government’s regular and standard arrangement. The prevailing groupings of intervals between varied stresses in the poem are end-stopped lines. However, Blake added some run-on, or enjambed, lines to give variation to the sounds and to counterpoint the poem’s metric pattern against its syntactic units. These enjambed lines (3, 9, 11,

13, 14) create tension and complex interplay in the poem’s sounds, which in turn reflects the intricate relationship between society and politics in London during this time.

Blake’s use of language, figures of speech, symbols, and images work together to illustrate a significant portrayal of the dark image of London life by the speaker. The “black’ning Church” (10) is an ambiguous phrase that plays an essential role in furthering the central theme: the reflexive and reoccurring

nature of institutional oppression. The denotative and connotative language in the third stanza is consistent with and intensifies the poem’s sense. As an intransitive verb, “blackening” may describe the act of covering the Church and the Sweeper with soot. On the other hand, the “black’ning Church” implies the gloomy emotions and attitudes that are interwoven in the poem’s language. In this sense, the Church is perhaps blackening the minds of the sweepers, menacling them to keep them bonded to her mystery and tyranny. The verb “appalls” (10), which is used to describe the action of the church, is a pun that achieves a very serious effect by virtue of the fact that the sweeper’s cry should horrify the church instead of taunt his misery.

The meter changes in the last stanza of the poem to represent the immorality of the city it depicts. The image of the “Harlot” (14), or prostitute, is firmly directed away from what is right or good, as she passes corruption and disease to the newborn child (15); and then likewise to infect the Marriage institution (and, by association, the Church), ensuring an endless cycle of strict censorship and oppression. William Blake does not offer a certain resolution in the poem’s d?nouement, or outcome, for this poisonous atmosphere that hangs over the squalid city. Moreover, the Harlot, Infant, and Church all appear equally restrained from freedom by an eternal and needlessly repetitive chain, or manacle, that ruins their hopes of survival. I am of the opinion however, that the poem’s finale, with its emphasis on reoccurrence, suggests that the liability for London’s miserable and filthy nature rests with somber repetition itself.

William Blake’s use of the elements of poetry balances the sense and sounds of his poem. I found the closely structured organization of the poem to be very useful in understanding its meaning through its form. The persona which Blake created provided me with a lively depiction of the narrator’s experience, which is much more than I could have ever visualized. At first I was pretty disappointed in the conclusion of Blake’s poem; however, after rereading it over and over again, I realized that it is obligatory in order to restate, once again, the central theme of “London.” Consequently, I can not think of a more suitable way to depict the terrible effects that an authoritative government has on a society!


Blake, William. “London.” The Compact Bedford

Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael

Meyer. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s,

2000. 609.


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