Atlantic Unbound | January 21, 2004
William Blake, “London”

Read aloud by David Barber, Philip Levine, and Alicia Ostriker

Introduction by Alicia Ostriker
  Blake image
Click the image to see a larger version of Blake's engraving of "London."

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M y romance with William Blake (1757-1827) began when I was an undergraduate, and was primarily a response to his audacity. Any child could see that Blake was audacious about sex, society, politics, religion, and literature. "Exuberance is Beauty," he said. Nobody else had said that to me. Not even Shakespeare, not even Whitman, though the exuberance that produced their extraordinary human breadth was certainly also a source of their beauty. My background as a red-diaper baby, long a lover of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, made me ripe for Blake's political satire. Among the songs of the labor movement I learned from my parents were the antiwar anthem "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier," and Joe Hill's anticlerical song with its rousing chorus:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die (it's a lie!)

Where Woody wittily sang "Some people rob you with a gun, some with a fountain pen," Blake sang even more sharply, "How the Chimney-sweepers cry / Every blackning Church appalls, / And the hapless Soldiers sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls." By the time I completed a dissertation on Blake and became an English teacher, my students were subject to the draft; one or two were Vietnam veterans, blasted and wasted souls, their hapless sighs running in blood down university walls. Surging around us were the consequences of the sexual revolution, rock and roll, the fumes of marijuana, the vertigo of acid, Black Power and black despair, the deaths of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. We recalled Woodstock, we entered Watergate. To all the radical impulses of those years Blake was amazingly relevant. For a brief period he was spokespoet to a generation. "If the doors of perception were cleansed," he claimed, thus providing the name adopted by one of the sixties' best bands, "everything would apear to man as it is, infinite." Needless to say this event has not yet transpired, which is one reason his poem "London" remains so poignant.

An engraver by trade, Blake as a young man belonged to a circle of revolutionary thinkers that included Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. He composed "London" during the early years of the French Revolution amid accelerating anti-Jacobin repression and war fever in England, as part of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, a small volume illustrated with his own compelling designs and self-published in 1794. But it is no ordinary protest 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 Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

The poetic strategy at work here is typical of Blake's Songs. Strong tetrameter beat, uncomplicated syntax, mostly Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, heavy repetitions and alliterations, all prompt us to hear the verse as simple and accessible, like a march, a Protestant hymn, or even a nursery rhyme. From the outset, of course, the tension in "London" strains against its prosody. It is the object of the poem to heighten that tension. In the opening quatrain, if "I wander" implies aimless freedom, the scene as a whole depicts constriction. "Thro'" makes the streets tunnel-like, and the repeated "charter'd" is sardonic. (A notebook draft of the poem has "dirty street" and "dirty Thames," a relatively unsubtle indictment of the city's poor sanitation and sewage.) English corporations and municipalities received their rights and privileges from royal charters, the origin of which went back to the Magna Carta. The idea of individual chartered streets and even more, the peculiar notion of a chartered river—a river whose flowing is legally sanctioned by the Crown?—hints that the vaunted freedom of which Englishmen liked to boast is a sham. The verb "mark" (the first draft has merely "see") alliterates with "meet," then burns as a repeated noun: "marks of weakness, marks of woe." To mark something is to focus on it intensely, and the intensity carries over to what is seen "in" (not merely "on") the faces, implying that weakness and woe irrevocably go together.

In the poem's second stanza comes the brutally insistent "every," and the shift from seeing misery to hearing it. But what is "every ban?" "Ban" as prohibition might refer to a 1792 royal proclamation banning "wicked and seditious writings" such as Paine's Rights of Man; in its eighteenth-century meaning of a summons to arms it might hint at troops marshalled to march through London and engage in military maneuvers preparatory to war with France; as a term used to mean a formal ecclesiastical denunciation it hints at religious oppression; and as we soon will realize, it is a pun on marriage banns. Here again the most powerful impact of the stanza is saved for its last line. The stunning metaphor of the heavily stressed "mind-forg'd manacles," with its double sense of "forg'd" simultaneously connoting iron chains created by a blacksmith and something false or fraudulent, anticipates Freud. That the mind, which for Enlightenment thinkers represented the power of Reason and Virtue over Passion, is actually an instrument of self-enslavement, is Blake's painful insight. This is heavy metal indeed.

It gets heavier. Stanza three is Blake's white-hot indictment of a Church and State that produce and enforce weakness and woe. The army of juvenile chimney sweeps in Blake's London were orphaned or deposited in poorhouses by impoverished families, could be sent to work before the age of eight, could be compelled to climb up ignited chimneys, could die in droves and be easily replaced. Their wails "appall" a religious establishment that professes to be shocked by a condition it actually supports—and a "pall" is also a white funeral shroud cast over a soot-covered, hypocrisy-steeped pretense of Christian charity. The "Soldiers sigh" that "runs in blood down Palace walls," accuses the monarchy of murder. The cries and sighs of exploited underclasses are as vividly real for Blake as granite and marble. "For," as he declares in another poem, "A tear is an intellectual thing / And a sigh is the Sword of an Angel King."

In an early version, "London" ended there. A fourth stanza drives deeper. "Midnight streets" darken an already bleak vision. The "youthful Harlots curse"—London naturally hosted swarms of prostitutes—is what the harlot spits out at the passerby. It is also what afflicts her and enables her to afflict an entire society: she transmits diseases that infect wives and children; gonorrhea causes blindness in newborn infants, hence the blasted tears. Yet as a physical, spiritual, and sociological reality, the "curse" of prostitution is for Blake intimately enmeshed in the institution of marriage. Church and State converge in the moralizing and legalizing murder of love, making it a contract, killing it with strictures on sin and chastity, teaching good women to reject the sexual pleasures that bad women are then required to supply. As every mind is manacled, every marriage is dead on arrival.

In its progress from surface stigmata ("marks" of suffering) to internal causes ("mind-forg'd manacles") and finally to a perception of how tightly economic, social, and sexual oppression are linked, "London" reads in a crescendo of volume, intensity, and sonorousness, growing more damning at each stage and culminating in the closing quatrain with the explosive consonant clusters of "blasts / blights / plagues" and, to cap "Harlots curse," the bitterly outflung hiss of "Marriage hearse." And there the poem disconcertingly ends—or does not end, for the poet, with his idiosyncratic style of punctuation, has omitted the period.

Idiosyncratic as well, as all Blakeans have observed, is the poem's engraving, which like many of his designs for his own poems, is arresting yet mysterious. An old man and child are often figures for the oppressor and oppressed in Blake's gallery of images, but if the child is leading the feeble father, and has succeeded in lighting a fire that might be a symbol of revolution, the illustration may intend to hint at a hope that is not present in the text. In our own time, as we continue to rattle our own mind-forged manacles, apparently unable to heal the diseases of poverty, war, and prostitution of many sorts, Blake's fierce vision asks us to keep looking, to see and hear our realities, and not to turn away.
Click on the names below to hear these readers recite
"London" (in RealAudio):

audioear pictureDavid Barber audioear picturePhilip Levine audioear pictureAlicia Ostriker