London is one of the grimmest of William Blake’s songs of experience (see Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Like “The Tyger” and the “experienced” version of “Holy Thursday,” this is one of the comparatively few songs that seem to be written in Blake’s own voice. The tone is one of reproach so severe that it defeats even sardonic irony. But it must be kept in mind that such reproach is partial—paradoxically, because it is so total as to affect the speaker himself and to jaundice his own view. Although he can see how terrible the world is, Blake is not exempt from the famous “mind-forg’d manacles” (l. 8) he sees binding everyone everywhere.
What are those manacles? They are, first of all, a metaphor for oppression that people could cast off if they wished to. The manacles do not have material reality, although they have material consequences. But because people’s minds, as well as their bodies, are enslaved, they are unlikely to cast the off the manacles. Their slavery and oppression goes deeper than material life can reach, although it is a consequence of the materialism and greed of the enslaving interests—the rich and the government. And everyone is enslaved: The speaker sees “marks of weakness, marks of woe” in “every face” he meets (ll. 3–4). The poem’s repetitive fury—chartered, mark, every, cry—seems to leave no out at all.
Indeed, the poem does not make room for the happiness of innocence that the Songs of Innocence have treated so touchingly. The infants in “London” cry with fear, and the chimney sweepers’ cry is one of pain, not simply (as in the “innocence” version of “The Chimney Sweeper”) meant as the announcement of their availability. The speaker of “London” may be correct in what he hears in these cries, but that is not the only thing to hear in them. Blake himself declares that poetic vision means seeing beyond the material world, the world of the senses, and not becoming enslaved to the oppression that it shows one everywhere. In his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he has the sublime Satanic figure who represents him ask: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” (plate 6). The speaker of “London,” then, while accurate, must also be regarded as partial, as himself unable to break his own mind-forged manacles.
There is reason for his despair, however. The London he describes is real, and the oppression and misery that it contains ubiquitous. The statesman Edmund Burke, who famously defended what he called “the chartered rights of Englishmen,” was violently opposed to the French Revolution (for which Blake had great hopes, as his 1791 prophetic poem The French Revolution attests). Against perfect liberty Burke set the materialistic rights of property, and it was these rights, enshrined in the charters—both the laws and the documents of ownership—that Blake saw as oppressive.
The defense of these charters required the courage and blood of soldiers (l. 11) who might otherwise find no way to survive. The churches of London, parts of the established Church of England, supported the government’s policies and did so at the expense of the poor; here Blake refers in shorthand to his Chimney Sweeper poems when he writes of how the sweeps’ cries appalled the churches that were blackening the children around them (who remove the black soot from the chimneys) with their indifference to the misery of the children and the poor (“London,” ll. 9–10). The children—perhaps like the nurse in the “experienced” version of “The Nurse’s Song,” or perhaps like her charges as she sees them—become harlots even in their youth (l. 14), not only unsympathetic to their own illegitimate children who interfere with the only way they can survive, but to all the infants of the city.
Their “curse” is an expression of bitterness, but also a physical state—both sexuality (menstruation, as Harold Bloom argues) and the woes that attend it within the vast hypocrisy of London as well as venereal disease: the plague with which they blight marriage. The “marriage hearse” of the poem’s last line interprets what should be a joyful occasion as a deadly one: The groom will transmit to his wife the venereal disease he has become infected with through his consorting with prostitutes, even as he abandons the prostitutes to their own fate. The newlywed couple are going to their graves or are going to procreate children who will repeat the dreadful experience of life in London. The poem’s vision of London is bitter and hopeless.
But what are we to make of the speaker? In many ways he is an aspect of Blake, in the mode of the biblical prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel whom he so much admired and who blasted the Israelites from the wilderness or the dungheap. Blake makes the connection explicit in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when he describes a fancy of dining with Isaiah and Ezekiel: “I then asked Ezekiel why he eat dung, & lay so long on his right & left side? he answer’d, ‘the desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite; this the North American tribes practise, & is he honest who resists his genius or conscience. only for the sake of present ease or gratification?’” The bitterness of tone in “London” is therefore not the last word. Its purpose is to demonstrate the baseness to which humanity has fallen, not in order to promote despair but to provoke change. Thus, Isaiah, the other prophetic denunciator of his people, whom Blake imagines dining with him and Ezekiel, asserts the power and truth of his chastising vision when Blake asks him how he dared to assert he spoke on behalf of God: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.”
The important thing to see here is that an assertion of the stark and oppressive limitations of the material world is not the last but the first step toward speaking with the voice of God about the infinite in everything. Those who would charter the city and the river are those who impose weakness and woe everywhere, and those who resist the determinate limitations of the material and financial world are those who can transcend human weakness for the transcendence offered to visionary power, hope, and love. Far from turning their backs on the world, Blake thinks such prophets, among whom he includes himself, will change it.
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———. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.
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