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.net.

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

 

Fighting a Poverty of the Imagination

To kick off our new Finding Blake website, project creator James Murray-White reflects on what inspired him to create the project and invite others to join him in celebrating the vision of William Blake, a uniquely British radical.

It is engrained in our culture to follow the head from school onwards. I live in Cambridge, where the push to be educated and use the power of a good education to rise up the ladder is in the air. It leaches from the fabric of the traditional university buildings and the new buildings of start-up companies and business centres, the sixth form and village colleges … and I don’t suggest that it’s wrong, just that it is not the only way. Head must follow heart.

A transformation of the inner life

Kathleen Raine, who did so much to promote Blake’s vision through her own life and writings, wrote in her 1970 biography of him: “Blake gradually renounced politics for something more radical: not religion, in the sense of a system of beliefs and observances, but a transformation of the inner life, a rebirth of ‘the true man’. Politics and religion alike came to seem to him an evasion of ‘the one thing needful’.”

William Blake (World of Art Library), by Kathleen Raine (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1970)

I spent a day recently with dear friends who have two wonderful kids. We were out in a nearby village, exploring a new forest school that has recently opened up. The kids who were also exploring were probably kids of academics or, like all of us in this area, affiliated with the University in some way (I make part of my living right now filming University lectures). But here was the opportunity to snuffle through leaves, to make willow sculptures, to climb trees, play on swings, to learn how to make and tend an open fire and to cook potatoes on it: an early chance to play and to create.

Maybe these children, the me’s and the you’s of tomorrow – who will live in a post-Brexit dawn, with different political realities, new leaders, and a capitalist system at breaking point – will learn enough at this forest school, running amongst the trees with curiosity and imagination, to create personal systems of belief, self-sufficiency, and resilience to create a better vision – “to build Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land”.

A vision that shatters

I heard a piece on Radio 4 about homelessness, and the speaker talked of the danger of becoming caught in ‘the poverty of the imagination’, and it struck me that that’s the reason I’m doing this project: using the new grave stone to highlight the immense power of the vision Blake developed and left to the world. It’s a vision that shatters mental slavery and poverty of the heart, can restore and develop vision and intuition, and engender feeling back in our world. Finding our way back to knowing: “and we are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”

A friend came by recently and talked of the unique mystical tradition that Blake developed and was part of, and how this is very different from the Eastern mysticism that many of us have sought out over the years, both in the East – in Tibet and, in my case, Mongolia – and through the influx of Tibetan and Thai monks and lamas settling in Europe. Blake’s visions were uniquely rooted within his London life and the three years he lived in Felpham in Sussex, and as far as I know the East was very far from his sphere of influence*. So it’s the unique Britishness of Blake that needs (again, in my view) to be savoured, explored deeply; and my job is to further pull out those shards of light and shining imagination, and bring them to a wider audience.


Notes

* If anyone knows of any research that brings east and west together within Blake’s work, please do let me know!

Poet Kathleen Raine‘s biography, William Blake was published in 1970 as part of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art Library series: ‘a classic study of William Blake, a man for whom the arts were not an end in themselves, but expressed his vision of the spiritual drama of the English national being. This volume presents a comprehensive view of Blake’s artistic achievements and a compelling and moving portrait of the life and thought of an extraordinary genius.’

Raine died in 2003, aged 95, and her obituary in the Guardian described her as “a poet who believed in the sacred nature of all life, all true art and wisdom, and her own calling. She knew as a small child that poetry was her vocation. William Blake was her master, and she shared his belief that ‘one power alone makes a poet – imagination, the divine vision’.”

The letter of William Blake to Revd John Trusler is quoted in an essay by Maria de Gonzales de Leon, A letter from the young William Blake in defence of imagination (12/5/17) on the website Faena Aleph; “In one of Blake’s most beautiful letters, the then 20-year-old poet – always uncomfortable with the social conventions of his era – assured his client that, despite having tried to follow the directions regarding the illustrations, his style was unique and unlike any other. The images he’d commanded had been dictated by ‘my Genius or Angel,’ one which he followed blindly. Blake’s final explanation is irrevocable: “I could not do otherwise; it was out of my power!”

The British Library commentary on the letter (the images shown here are taken from their online archive) says that: “In this letter Blake sets out how his mind worked. Particularly the statement ‘I see every thing I paint in this world’, refers to Blake’s eidetic vision – seeing as real and concrete the images which appeared to him as visions. But he describes these visions also as an act of will: people can see beauty either in a coin or in the sun, Nature as ‘all Ridicule and Deformity’ (and here he is referring to works by artists such as Gillray and Rowlandson – the ‘caricature prints’ that have ‘perverted’ Trusler’s eye), while Blake says ‘by these I shall not regulate my proportions’ … On the outside of the letter Dr Trusler has written ‘Blake dimmed by superstition’; while Blake clearly had a dim view of Trusler’s view of art, calling it ‘caricature’.”