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Reflections on ‘London’

In the first of our series of posts by Finding Blake's contributing writers, artists and scholars, poet Clare Crossman reflects on William Blake's poem London, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

I did not know this poem until I was in my forties, when a close friend quoted the first verse to me one winter morning.

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.

Immediately the first two lines link us to a song of the everyman who walks Thameside. We wish the river to run softly, but these lines run counter to the wish. When I got home I looked the rest up, and found the second verse:

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

My friend had quoted the poem because I was going through a miserable time and had been telling her about it. In some detail! So exact and precise, and ordinary in its address; I felt as if Blake was in the room talking to me. He too had walked that morning in a place where everything was restricted and miserable. He understood.

The familiar made strange

150 years later the poet W.H. Auden said that poetry could be ‘memorable speech’. Certainly ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe’ fits this criterion. The repetition, the soft alliteration are like a sigh or a man holding back tears. Within the phrase lies the heaviness of water and a relinquishing; the speaker is burdened, tired. And again in ‘mind-forged manacles’: imagine a forge in your head with a blacksmith hammering your beliefs into place. You are made to believe certain things you may not agree with. In that image is a scorch of the familiar made strange, which is unforgettable.

‘London’ Artist: William Blake
Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

There is no relenting in tone during the last two verses:

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

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

In precis, church-goers don’t mind children as young as six being sent up chimneys because they are small enough; those who go to fight for their country are murdered in God’s name; babies will grow into harlots whose swearing ignores and coarsens the sorrow of their children. And so, if this is what happens to infants then marriage is dead. All Innocence is lost. The sorrow for Blake is the fact that society is this way is an appalling travesty of the way it should be and leaves him – and us – with a hard knot of pain.

Mourning a lost power

Exam notes will say what a political poem this is. And Blake knew radicals like Tom Paine. But for me the poem’s wonder is in plain, precise and vivid diction. It is deeply personal, deeply felt, and moves from despair to anger and sorrow, in a simplicity and directness that mourns the fact that we have lost the power to transform anything; and that we are walking away from the mysterious and joyful, and we have DONE IT TO OURSELVES.

Even the young and beautiful are of necessity corrupted, but oh how things could be different if we could be more open and generous.

Found in Songs of Experience, critics note that this poem is one that has no ‘companion’ poem in Songs of Innocence. But in the illustration which Blake gave it (in the collection of the Fitzwilliam), the poem is illustrated with a small child trying to accompany a very old sagacious man through the street, below which someone else is perhaps tending the holy fire that will bring a longed for transformation into connection, openness and peace.

Blake wrote at a time of great turmoil in Britain and abroad. In France there was revolution and in early Victorian London there was poverty on the street and in the houses, children were abused and malnourished, many girls worked as prostitutes, while those with power and the wealth in society were disdainful and hypocritical. Seem familiar in 2018? I hope there’s a Blake in Hackney, or Middlesbrough, Kettering, Preston, Gateshead, Hartlepool, Redcar, Sunderland, Drigg, Workington, Aberystwyth, Hamilton…


Notes

Clare Crossman is a poet and writer. She is based in Cambridge, has lived in Cumbria and is originally from Kent. In the past few years, Clare has become very interested in writing about the natural world in Cambridgeshire, due to her interest in climate change and involvement in conserving a small woodland. This has produced a sequence of poems about a local chalk stream. You can find her work at clarecrossman.info

You can find many of William Blake’s poems, including ‘London’, at Poetry Foundation.

You can also explore more of Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with summaries, analysis and images of the original illustrations, at the Tate’s pages.

 

 

Testament on Blake

To launch our new page of Finding Blake films - part of A Blakean Archive - and as the first of a series of mini-posts on the growing library of films we're producing for the project, here is a short clip of Testament talking to James Murray-White in London, the city that was home to Blake for almost all his life.

In September 2017, I interviewed and filmed rapper and beatboxer Testament in London on his passion for Blake.

Filmed in an alleyway off Leicester Square with the sights, sounds and smells of central London in our faces, Testament’s passion for Blake and the inspiration he has gained from studying him shines through. 

Testament talks Blake from Finding Blake on Vimeo.

Testament’s solo show on Blake, Blake Remixed, has been an inspiration for our Finding Blake Project, and we hope to collaborate with him in the future.

Notes

We’ve included Testament’s Blake Remixed project in our More Resources page, where we will also be adding more projects that discuss or respond to William Blake. If you know of projects, organisations and other resources we should add there, do use the Contact page to let us know. And don’t forget the collection of individual music, films, books and other materials that you can explore in A Blakean Archive

 

The Fool Called Blake

For the launch of Finding Blake on a day which is coincidentally both Easter Sunday and April Fool's Day, artist Linda Richardson considers the need for William Blake today - the "strange, startling and deeply unsettling" figure who "saw the human inclination we have to limit our lives" and urges us to wake up.

You must have seen those poor fools who fall from life’s ragbag and haunt the streets of our cities wearing billboards screaming, “The end is nigh!” They are the stone in the shoe, the black seed between the teeth, the puzzle, the snag, the indiscretion in our orderly lives. But of course we don’t have orderly lives so when we come to town it is usually to buy something that will make our own ragbag lives more….(name your own desire here). The last thing we want is some fool telling us our lives are going to end before we have got it all nailed down and tidied up.

The fool for the day

Enter the enigmatic William Blake who may be England’s greatest artist, poet and prophet but who was considered by many of his contemporaries as just one of those poor, ragbag fools. He was described as superstitious, deluded and insane. And he was, and still is strange, startling and deeply unsettling because he lived in a world of vision and spirit which he declared to be the only reality that was eternal. He said, “Nature has no Outline, But Imagination has. Nature has no Tune, but Imagination has. Nature has no Supernatural, and dissolves; Imagination is Eternity.

When we considered which day to launch the Finding Blake Website, April 1st was suggested. I thought April Fool’s Day was a terrible idea and then immediately realised that it would be the perfect day and very Blakean. There can be no greater fool, it would seem, than one who would burn most of his work, declaring, “I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory. I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy.” 

Just read that to a contestant on The Apprentice, or Dragon’s Den. If you are weighing and judging William Blake with the checks and balances of a modern mind you will certainly think he is a fool.  And on the day I am writing this I heard at the early church service: 

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)

The roads of genius

In another seemingly foolish declaration, he said, “Improvement makes straight, straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.

Blake, it would seem, was a great non-dual thinker too, dissolving that ever repeated argument, ‘if God is so good how come he let’s bad things happen?’ Blake would say, “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.

Perhaps Blake saw the human inclination we have to limit our lives, striving to straighten them out, to make them in an image of something glamorous, or successful. The villains are jailed, the heroes are splendid, and it all ends happily, but in our hearts we don’t believe a word of it because it is not our experience. In reality, life is unpredictable at best, and we rarely skip round the bends in the roads of our lives, we often stagger and occasionally crawl. But without this struggle we are nothing at all.

The doors of perception

Now surely it is time to move from the surface of life and find the inner, spiritual life that Blake contended was the only reality. Now is the time to leave the story of more possessions, more fame, more success and begin that inward journey described by Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it was, infinite.”

These days we see that Blake’s influence and genius extends to contemporary poets and filmmakers, to writers like Rossetti, Kerouac, Salman Rushdie, Philip Pullman, and musicians including Patti Smith, Joan Baez, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and many more. Some would even make a case for calling him the most important poet and artist of all time. His great impact was in making a powerful concoction of ideological words and images and pouring it over the establishment.

Whilst being rooted in Christianity, Blake followed in the tradition of Jesus and was sharply critical of the established church, stating, “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priests lays his curse on the fairest joys.” It was Blake who invented the term, ‘the dark satanic mills’: words he used to define the three headed monster of State, Church and Industry, who were crushing and grinding the human spirit into a misery of squalid transactionalism.

This seeming ‘fool’ illustrated in words and images the slavery into which he saw the human being falling. Even more today than ever before is mankind creating his own oppression, utterly submissive because we will not wake up. Brexit is a clear demonstration of how easily we can be manipulated and how we will walk into one disaster after another, grovelling for leadership and desperate for meaning we are unable find within ourselves. Perhaps more than ever we need more fools like William Blake. Perhaps more than ever we need to wake up and listen to him.


Notes

Linda Richardson is an artist. Based in Cambridge, England, she makes work that engages the imagination and intuition and tries to make a creative space for the viewer to connect their inner nature with their outer nature to form ideas that are not rooted in convention, reason or rationality. However neither are they pure fantasy that provides and escape from humdrum life. Linda wants instead to awaken the senses to the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live, to activate the attention to the mystery of the human experience.

From the Head to the Heart – Acrylic on Paper – 36 x 46cm
Image: Linda Richardson © 2018
lindarichardson.net

You can find more of Linda’s work at lindarichardson.net