‘London’, written in 1794, is a poem from William Blake’s collection in Songs of Innocence and Experience: Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. Written during the French Revolution, Blake wrote ‘London’ in order to illustrate his views on the revolution by changing imagination into a political force.1 The poem concentrates on the persona of the poem walking through London and seeing all of the bad things about the city at that time; such as the disease, prostitution and child labor presented within the poem, whilst criticizing and blaming the government for this. As well as the different formal features of the poem, including rhythm and metre, stanza form and rhyme, this essay is going to focus on the various forms of imagery, metaphor and symbolism apparent within the poem.
The poem as a whole is mostly written in Iambic Tetrameter, although there are numerous occasions throughout the poem when this is broken. For example, line 4: ‘Marks of weakness, marks of woe’ contains an anapaest2. The mistakes present within the metre of the poem could symbolize the speaker of the poems personal views on what he is seeing around him. The city he is walking through is described as diseased and filled with sadness; this can correlate with the writing of the poem as these imperfect or incomplete lines could be seen as almost diseased and decaying themselves.3 The poem is made up of four quatrains that all move on to different subjects. Each stanza contains one similarity throughout, the descriptions of the bad things going on in the city as the persona walks through.
‘London’ begins with the persona of the poem telling a story. From the very first line, it is made clear that London in the 18th century is not a nice city; this is shown throughout as the poem as a whole is very pessimistic. The first two lines describes the streets, and even the River Thames, as “charter’d”, showing that they are confined, restricted and controlled by the government. This is unusual as London is such a large city and even the ever expanding and changing River Thames are looked at as controlled by the government.
In the first stanza, Blake also describes every face seen as being marked or tarnished in some way, as if the people he meets all have their problems written across their face. ‘And mark in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe.’ It is probable that the people that the persona is seeing aren’t actually physically marked but just by looking at them, he can tell that they are really not happy and do not have the best of lives. This backs up the idea that London was not a nice place during the 18th century.
In the second stanza, the repetition of ‘every’ and ‘cry’ shows the extent of just how wide-spread the pain and suffering in people’s lives are in London. By repeating ‘every’, Blake is using anaphora4 to almost exaggerate the lines and really get the point across that there is a lot of unhappiness within the society that he is describing. ‘In every voice: in every ban, the mind-forg’d manacles I hear.’ By using both ‘ban’ and ‘manacles’ in these two lines, Blake is reinforcing the thought that London as a city, and the people that live there, are very constricted and ruled over.
The chimney-sweepers discussed in the third stanza symbolises the exploitation of children at that time. Children were stopped from living a normal childhood and were made to work as chimney sweeps which was a very dangerous job. By then stating ‘Every blackning Church appals’, this shows that the church clearly know about the bad things that are going on. In this context, ‘black’ has several connotations; it may symbolise the shame that the church are faced with for permitting such things or it may be stating that they are ashamed and feel sorry for the children. Black also links with the chimney sweeping in general as both the word black and the job of chimney sweeping symbolise danger and death. This could