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.
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…
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.