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William Blake’s Poem London

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There can be little doubt that William Blake’s poem ‘London’ demonstrates the weakness and frailty of human nature, and the disregard the individual (or institution) has for his fellow man. Blake’s character wanders through the streets of London observing the actions occurring therein, revealing to us the dark disposition of humanity.

Each verse repeats and echoes this idea with symbology, rhythm, and illustration.

The opening stanza clearly shows mans pre-occupation with all things economic and fiscal:

‘I WANDER thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.’

Charter’d obviously referring to things of a business nature, and perhaps of the great charters that govern England and its land: ‘charter’d street’

Is a synonym for territory and/or property. The importance of this word is shown by the repetition through the first two lines. A charter governs those who have usually not had any say in its conception. It is made for the many, by the few. Although in ideal, a charter or treaty is supposed to provide rights and liberties- it usually achieves this by taking such things away from others.

In the era in which this poem was written the Thames was a great economic river, providing transport and commerce to London and surrounding areas. It is indeed, therefore, a chartered river. It is a body in which companies (possibly also chartered) battle for monopolies with each other, often morality being of little consequence in their dealings.

The next two lines are considerably slower in pace, using single syllable words to achieve this, perhaps denoting reflection on their topic of weakness and woe. To indicate that in ‘every face’ is reflected such images, that such is the case with the whole of humanity. None escapes from the human condition of anguish and suffering. Considering this concerning the first two lines, it implies that it is a self inflicted condition- a weakness in mankind’s lease or charter of life. The very hold of which is constantly stained- or marked by these exact sentiments.

The second stanza follows this up by stating it is a self-induced pathos in which we writhe:

‘In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.’

Man in this sense referring again to the generic term- emphasized with a capital letter. Infant also has a capital, perhaps implying that in this state man is but an infant- incapable of deep contemplation of the sorrow and suffering that plagues his every move. In addition, the cry of the infant is also the cry of the man, reiterating this sentiment. The rhythm of these lines is similar and machine-like in nature, ‘every’ being repeated several times- ‘cry’ also, but to a lesser extent. Man does not think about the processes happening under the surface, he carries on with his day to day activities without giving such items much (or any) thought. Thus, our minds form ‘manacles’, preventing our thoughts from viewing the outside world from the prison-cell that is our psyche. We end up seeing the world through a window, bared and locked into our train of thought.

The third stanza comments on the corrupted nature of institutions, and the effect this has on the populace:

‘How the chimney-sweeper’s cry

Every black’ning Church appalls;

And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.’

The industrial revolution that was beginning in Blake’s time would have seen many chimneystacks rising over London’s skyline. These were a potent symbol of the economic change that was occurring in the cities. The air became heavy and polluted with the smoke rising from these

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