London – William Blake

AQA English Literature – Power & Conflict

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As you can see from this picture and the marks on it, there have been a number of poems already covered on this website, but this post aims to begin to address the rest, starting with ‘London’ by William Blake.

London – Wm. Blake

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.

If you have ever gone somewhere and seen the people and thought to yourself, oh these poor people, this is the kind of thing that Blake is referring to in this poem, which explains his visits to London when he was alive and his reaction to it. In terms of power and conflict, the conflict is in the relationship between those that have and those who do not. The power is exerted by those of wealth and position. That is the way it has always been and unless we do something better, it is the way it will stay too. So Blake’s poem is quite a polemic one in that it is trying to teach us something about life in London at that time.

He says that when he visited, he “wandered through each chartered street,” or through all those streets where surveyors ply their trade. The reference could be a link to the idea of chartered surveyors, or even accountants, with the truth more likely being the latter due to their dealing with money. The streets are “near where the chartered Thames does flow,” which again suggests some form of office near the river. Perhaps, it could even be the offices for the people who work the shipping ports, the clerks of the time who would make sure every packet and parcel was allocated for in their paperwork. ‘Chartered,” therefore could mean a lot of things, but when you link it with the “mark in every face” that he meets, this is showing you the rough end of the capitol.

When he meets these characters, all too like a character in a Dickens novel, he sees signs of “weakness, marks of woe” and that saddens him that we still treat people like this, so harshly at times. Due to this lifestyle, where there are rich offices and poor people working, we see the dichotomy of the rich and the poor living cheek by jowl with their neighbours, at the time and in that place, a dirty and grimy capitol. In everyone he meets, he hears an “infant’s cry of fear” which is indicative of the fear that such a place brings to the senses. Wherever he turns, he cannot get away from the rank poverty, the smell, the sense of loneliness and isolation in such a huge place as this. It is a sprawling metropolis before him rank with the stench of a hardened workforce.

The reference to the noise is an interesting one, for me, because it counterpoints the noise of the voice with the noise of the forges in the factories or even, the offices. But he hears “mind-forged manacles” that bind a man in service to his job each time he turns up for work. “Mind-forged” is very interesting indeed because of the juxtaposition of the two words together. A forge made in the mind is one possible meaning. But there might be others too and when he then hears “how the chimney-sweeper’s cry” can be heard atop the houses of London in some all too rather sad rendition of the Julie Andres classic film, Mary Poppins, we see the sadness that pervades and the conflict that such a poor life brings. But this is the serious end of the spectrum, not the humorous. Being a sweep is not a glamorous profession. Being a sweep in those days is something that does not lead to wealth and prosperity.

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Everywhere he goes, he sees things that diminish the joy of life in him, sights like a “blackening church” which appalls him to the core. I too loathe such things even now because it makes them not look cared for. But in Blake’s day, the sensation would be that there can be nothing worse than living in this place and seeing these sights and knowing that there is possibly not a lot you can do about it to rectify the situation. He hears a “hapless soldier’s sigh” in the distance as he sees and feels the sense of desperation and helplessness overwhelm him to the point where all he can see is what “runs in blood down palace walls.” It is, for him becoming a place he would sooner not be because there is no praise in this poem, yet.

As he travels through the streets of London, he is able to observe many different things, most notably that the lady of the street, or prostitute, shouts out her calls to lure men into bed with her. The “youthful harlots curse” that is mentioned is mentioned in the solace of the “midnight street” where she is able to also find out exactly what happens to that curse, as it is spread out over the confines of the street and anyone who walks into it is caught in its sway. It might be a harlot’s curse that is being thrown here, but is it, or could it be, that this metaphorical or even euphemistically held position in life allows him to see the harlot, hear her curse of someone who is not paying for her wares as well as making too much noise in the street.

The writer can hear the sound of a new born infant, but can also choose to ignore it and when you don’t, then you have to have a relationship with them in a positive and loving manner. The poem suggests that this does not happen in Pakistan or India where the world in blighted by lack of crops and the likes. Modernity, if you like, is the modern plague and causes pestilence wherever it exists and Blake is making reference to this in his poem. There is so much hate and greed in this world of ours and we need someone to sort this mess out. Anything that suffers with “blights” and has trouble with “plagues [of the] the marriage-hearse” is a troubled place indeed.

This is a poet who may like coming to London, but when he gets there, he sees other things that make him lose interest and turn off his affections for his capital city. London should be a blessing in disguise for him but it isn’t because he does not share such as this in his poems. What is evident is a cynicism and criticism of the place for being so dank and dirty. That is where the conflict appears in this poem, when and where it does so, but also, where the power is exerted over one person or another in life, where the poem shares the dichotomy between the two polar opposites in the life of the Londoner.

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