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.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Reflections on ‘London’”

  1. I also think that Blake vividly expresses the sense of misery through this poem. As I first came across this poem, it made me think about the time when I walked spacing out after experiencing horrible things. But I think that this poem is actually a political poem in that it mentions several social issues. Though Blake might have tried to simply allude to immoral actions that seemed normal at the time, revising the poem now, I think it has enough elements to be a political poem – maybe it is just the matter of at which time period our perspective is.

  2. It was interesting that you encountered this poem by someone quoting it to you.
    For the river, I interpreted it as people were even trying to utilize the “Thames” for their profit, which shows the greediness of human nature. This shows how Blake has a negative perspective on human nature. However, he believes in the innocence of a child and that human being becomes harder like “forged Iron.” Blake believed that if a child’s freedom was taken away from them, they would not adopt fully to the adult world. This is later conveyed in the poem as it quotes “How the Chimney-sweepers cry Every blackning Church appalls”. Chimney-sweepers are usually children at age of 9~16, because they size of the chimney is so narrow that only small children can go into it. But children being manipulated as chimney sweepers and being “manacled” to the society is conveyed in a very gloomy manner. Moreover, such society in this case the city London is depicted as a grotesque place where even the churches are corrupted. This shows how Blake thought of the community he was living in, and the reason they needed a change like the neighbouring country France, which was in the French Revolution.

  3. I liked how at the end of the article, the writer focused on some of the negative parts of the industrial revolution that was happening in Victorian London. Whilst some only talk about the massive improvement in the industries and culture, it was good to see someone acknowledging the abuse and disgust.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.