WilliamBlake’s poems – London Poem
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‘London’ steadily builds up increasingly comprehensive answers to its initial problem of why every face shows, ‘marks of weakness and woe’. With its ‘midnight streets’, it is true; London is a forest of the night in which one may wander, lost.
The city wanderer arrives somewhere by the end: at a vision that traces unhappy people to the institions the oppress them and links all of them to ‘mind-forg’d manacles’.
This is a poem whose difficulties are due to compression rather than to radical uncertainty or ambiguity.
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.
A charter may grant liberties to certain people, but at the same time it denies them to others. Whole streets and the Thames itself are lined with commercial establishments-shops, wharves and warehouses-and the people are marked like branded slaves.
When we look ahead to the victims named in the poem-chimney Sweepers, soldier, harlot and wife-we see how ‘charter’d’ has prepared us to understand what they suffer in common. They are sold into slavery as chimney sweepers by their fathers, drafted into the army or navy for a few shillings, hired for e few hours as a harlot, or brought and sold on the London marriage market.
By repeating the word ‘every’ so insistently in the next stanza the speaker drives home the fact of misery’s total permeation of society.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear[.]
There seems no escape; the manacles are in every mind. Some readers have taken another step and included the speaker in this universal disaster. He admits to wandering and may therefore be lost, and that it really does contain tremendous truths about modern society. Indeed part of the bleak power of the poem depends precisely on the speaker’s solitariness: he alone sees things clearly. To take the poems vision as itself a mark of mental weakness may seem to make things even bleaker, and therefore truer. For if the speaker has got things wrong, then perhaps not every mind is manacled after all- and then why should his be? We may believe that Blake ought to have been more self-conscious and ironic about his visionary powers. But that belief gives us no right to assume that Blake undermines those powers when he displays them.
How do we fight an enemy who has outposts in our minds?
The first step, is to try to free our own minds and see things as they really are.
The second, is to bring what we see home to other minds in vivid language and image. Hence
How the Chimney- sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh,
Runs in blood down Palace walls[.]
This language has a biblical ring and the images are apocalyptic. What is appalling? What and what is blackening? What! ‘ Blackening might be intransitve, telling us that churches grow black, literally and figuratively, in the London air. Taken transitively, its object must be the chimney sweeper, whose task it sometimes is, of course, to remove the black from the churches own chimneys. By sanctioning the practice of sending little boys up chimneys the Church has not only failed in its duty to protect God’s children, but has blackened their minds with mysterious justifications of things as they are, making up a heaven of their misery. The blackened little boys that emerge from the chimneys become the sacrificial victims under the dismal shade of mystery.
As I stated earlier, ‘appals’ as an active verb had connotations lost in the more frequent modern use, in the passive voice. I am appalled usually means ‘I am shocked and indignant’, but the churches are hardly indignant here. To appal, as I have said, literally means to make pale or strike with pallor, to frighten so that the blood drains from the face. I think we are to imagine each church turning pale with guilt at the cry of the sweeper – ‘weep, weep’ – while turning black, with sin at having blessed his ‘duty’. In a less complex but equally intense parallel image, the palace turns red at the death-sigh of a soldiers no doubt conscripted while still a youth to fight in America. The blood flowing from his wound turns into a kind of handwriting on the palace walls, a sign of the sin committed by the man of blood inside.
Blake had first planned to end his poem with the third stanza, but, having wandered for another night, perhaps, through the woeful sounds of London, he returned to the poem to write an even more comprehensive epitome of what he heard.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse[.]
As the ‘curse’ is another in the series of cries, we might expect another couplet describing how this sound affects the structure that evokes it, and that, in part, is what we find. As the cry appals each church, and the sigh bloodies the palace, so the curse blights the institution of marriage, which Blake brilliantly embodies in a hearse that would seem to carry the newly-weds to their death.
It is not only the institution of marriage that is blighted, however, for this triplet also tells, in the bleakest line of the poem, how the harlot’s curse, ‘Blasts the new-born infants tear’. What does this mean? The blast could be the breath escaping the harlot when she curses the ‘Marriage hearse’. We might, imagine her screaming, ‘A plague on you!’ as a wedding party drives past, and blowing away the frightened tears from the cheeks of the baby she holds in her arms.
Or, since she does not want the baby, she might be cursing it for its cry of woe. But ‘blast’ as verb or noon also connotes disease or blight; since biblical times diseases were thought to be borne on the wind. It was known in Blake’s day that a form of gonorrhoea could infect babies at birth and cause blindness within weeks. So the harlot’s midnight business curses her baby, and not only hers but her client’s bride’s baby as well, for she transmits her plagues to all her customers and their families. The image of the infant blighted in it’s birth is, echoed in the poem’s final phrase, in which a wedding carriage is transformed into a funeral hearse (vehicle).