William Blake’s “London” is a poignant piece of poetry that illustrates in profound melancholy tones the loneliness and dejection felt by the city’s inhabitants. Because of Blake’s well-executed use of imagery and sound, he is able to portray such a heavy theme in four short quadrants without sacrificing depth or breadth. Furthermore, the use of the personal pronoun “I” to indicate the speaker achieves a higher level of emotional attachment and brings the poem closer to its intended audience as it provides intimacy and closer association with the poem’s theme.
The first stanza of the poem immediately lays forth the theme of desperation by using vivid images. In the first two lines, the speaker talks of wandering “through each chartered street / Near where the chartered Thames does flow (Blake, par.1).” The use of “chartered” convey the notion of freedom or liberty, as to become chartered means to be released from bondage. Hence, the city and its surrounding areas are supposed to be areas where people are free to live their lives. However, such is used ironically in the poem, as will be seen in the subsequent lines and stanzas. Despite the seeming freedom afforded by London, all the inhabitants seen by the speaker are marked by weakness and woe.
This irony is carried further in the second stanza, where both imagery and sound are combined: “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 (Blake, par. 2).” There is the ubiquitous sound, sounds not of cheer and gladness as is normally associated with “free” cities, but sounds of weariness, sadness, and despair. The last line gives another powerful image, that of the manacle. Manacles connote ties or binds imposed by an external power. However, according to the speaker, these manacles are “mind-forged,” meaning, they are self-imposed. Blake uses this seeming contradiction to evoke the notion of an all-encompassing sense of being tied down and oppressed. The people of London are then seen to be subjugated both by authorities and their own selves.
The third stanza of the poem gives form and face to the people crying and shouting in the second stanza. Here, there is already the chimney-sweeper and the soldier, images of the city’s dejected and oppressed. Furthermore, this stanza also gives the images of the oppressor. For the chimney-sweeper, the oppressor is the Church, while for the soldier, it is the “palace walls.” In both these cases, the oppressors are not actual people but institutions that govern London: the church is religion, while the palace walls are the royalty and government. These two, rather than help uplift the lives of their citizens, are the pioneers of oppression.
Finally, in the fourth stanza, Blake returns once again to his use of sounds combined with imagery: the “youthful harlot’s curse” that “blasts the new-born infant’s tear” and “blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.” Here, the images and sounds have turned violent; they are no longer poetically melancholy. “Harlot’s curse” refers to sexually-transmitted disease, as harlots or prostitutes are thought of as unclean and carrying diseases. Through this “curse,” she wreaks havoc on the next generation – the infants – and the foundations of society – families. This implies a never-ending cycle of oppression and infection, for the next generation and families are they themselves infected. The harlot in this case is London, as she has become an oppressive city despite her being chartered. The image of the marriage-hearse in the last line is a very powerful one, as it connotes how, through new beginnings, the seeds of death and destruction are already inherent in them because of the curse. The hearse, a symbol of death and dying, is juxtaposed strangely with a happy occasion, and this forebodes a bleak future and eventual destruction for the city.
“London” points finger to its eponymous city, blaming it for its own decline and destruction. Because of its oppressive nature that subjugates its own people rather than freeing them, it has already dug its own grave.
Blake, William. “London.” About: Quotations. Ed. Simran Khurana. 10 April 2007. <http://quotations.about.com/cs/poemlyrics/a/London.htm>