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London: Power and Conflict Analysis

William Blake was a Romantic poet and painter who lived in London his whole life. Blake’s poetry was very political and often highlighted how British people were oppressed. He was scathing about many institutions, including the government, schools and the monarchy. Although Blake was religious, he was also very critical of the Church.

London was first published in 1794. The French Revolution had begun in 1789. Many Romantics were supporters of this and hoped that a similar overthrow of those in power would take place in Britain.

Poem

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.


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


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 Infant’s tear 
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

William Blake (1794)

Poem summary

The narrator walks through the city of London and critically observes his surroundings. He notes how the river and streets are all owned by powerful people. He also describes the misery of the citizens he sees around him. This despair is seen in children and adults alike. He shows the pain of chimney sweepers, soldiers and prostitutes. The narrator blames institutions like the Church and the monarchy for this.

Blake highlights the inequalities that exist in society. People in power become corrupted and don’t care about helping the poor.

Language

  • Blake uses repetition to demonstrate the widespread misery in the city. The narrator can “mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” The repetition of “marks” gives a sense that the citizens have been permanently branded with powerlessness.
  • He uses further repetition in the lines: “In every cry of every man/ In every infant’s cry of fear”. By repeating the word “every”, he reiterates how powerful institutions cause pain to everyone whose lives are ruled over by them.
  • Blake uses sound imagery to represent the misery in people’s lives in London. He shows the “cry” of children and adults, the “sigh” of soldiers and the “curse” (swearing) of young prostitutes.

Structure

The first two stanzas describe how the narrator sees and hears the misery of those around him. The third stanza shifts to blaming powerful institutions for this misery. In the fourth and final stanza, Blake focuses on the young people born into this awful situation.

Form

  • The poem has four quatrains (a stanza with four lines). It has a regular ABAB rhyme structure throughout. This perhaps reflects the relentless, unchanging sense of misery the narrator observes.
  • The third stanza is an acrostic poem. The first letters of each line spell out HEAR. This emphasises the sounds of misery that the narrator finds himself surrounded by.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
State powerBlake blames the power of institutions for the misery of citizens. He is scathing about the wealthy landowners who have “chartered” (taken legal ownership of) the streets and the river Thames. This leaves no public land for ordinary people.

He criticises the “blackning Church”. The Church was an extremely powerful institution when Blake wrote this poem. Many saw it as corrupt in the way that it made money, which it kept for those involved in the institution rather than sharing it with those who needed it.

Blake also takes aim at the monarchy. He talks of soldiers suffering while the monarchy is protected by “palace walls”. This could allude to the French Revolution. The Palace of Versailles was seen as a symbol of oppression and inequality, and its overthrow by the peasants symbolised a change in power.  
The powerlessness of individualsThe “marks” of weakness and woe indicate that the citizens are branded permanently with their misery. This is further emphasised by the mention of the “new-born infant’s tear”, showing that people in the city are born into a life of suffering.

He also presents the citizens as trapped by their thoughts and attitudes with their “mind-forged manacles”. Manacles are chains that are used to bind or imprison people. This shows that the people are so oppressed that they are made to think they cannot escape their grim existence. But, the events of the French Revolution demonstrated how seemingly powerless people can rise up against their oppressors.   
AngerThe poem’s tone is angry towards those institutions that have the power to make things better for people, but don’t. We hear this anger in the repetition of words, such as “every” and “chartered”.

This anger is also shown in the disturbing imagery of “plagues” (illnesses) that ruin lives. This could refer to literal diseases, but also the society’s metaphorical illnesses of greed, inequality and corruption.

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“In every cry of every Man”.This demonstrates the widespread misery in a society run by corrupt institutions like the Church and the monarchy.
“mind-forged manacles”.Citizens are made to feel they have no hope of escaping their oppression and so do nothing to fight it.
“Every blackning Church appals”.The word “blackning” gives a sense of the increasingly evil acts committed by the Church. It could also be an allusion to the Industrial Revolution; many buildings turned black during this time because of soot from the factories.