These sixteen lines do far more than describe the city in which William Blake lived for most of his life. The poem is a devastating and concise political analysis, delivered with passionate anger, revealing the complex connections between patterns of ownership and the ruling ideology, the way all human relations are inescapably bound together within a single destructive society. Few later poets, except perhaps Brecht, have managed anything like it for condensed power.
1792, the year in which Blake wrote London, was a turbulent one. In Paris, revolutionary mobs invaded the Tuileries, suspending the rule of the king – Blake wore a bonnet rouge to align himself with the revolution across the Channel. To stop the spread of revolution to Britain, a Royal Proclamation outlawed seditious writings and troops were garrisoned round the capital, a necessary precaution given the fact that serious rioting had erupted in London only 12 years before, culminating in the burning of Newgate prison and the freeing of all the inmates. In November 1792, the Marseillaise was sung at a dinner of the Revolution Society. The same year saw the establishment of the radical London Corresponding Society.
The poem’s opening shows the narrator wandering the “charter’d” streets of London down to the “charter’d Thames”. The loaded word “charter’d” – changed from the first draft’s politically empty “dirty” – is used in a critical sense, and Blake’s contemporary readers would no doubt have picked up on it.
The use of this loaded word – repeated to sharpen the ironic point that the streets, the very river itself, are privately owned – suggests the oppressive nature of early capitalism, in which the Whig alliance of merchants, rising finance capitalists and some of the most powerful landed aristocrats who did not need to lean on the crown for power, were busy accumulating capital via taxation and the establishment of a national debt, thus transferring wealth from the majority to the minority.
Thomas Paine had stated in his best-selling Rights of Man the year before: “It is a perversion of terms to say, that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect, that of taking rights away.” Likewise, even Edmund Burke, generally a defender of the positive aspects of charters, had scrutinised the word critically in Chartered Rights (1784): “Magna Charta is a Charter to restrain power, and to destroy monopoly: the East India Charter is a Charter to establish monopoly, and to create power”.
As the narrator wanders, he marks, notices, the suffering population: “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”. The repetition of “marks” is emphatic; the Londoners are branded with visible signs of sickness and misery, from pockmarks to Gin Lane inebriation. There is a biblical sense at work here, as in the mark of the Beast from Revelations, or the mark of Cain, the murderous “builder of the first city”. The subtle shift from “mark” used as a verb in line 3 to a noun in line 4 binds the narrator to those he sees, showing he is not a disinterested observer but one of the sufferers himself.
In the second verse, this commonality of suffering is hammered home by the pounding rhythm, stressing the word “every”, five times:
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
No-one is immune. This is a picture of a whole society in chains, and the tightness of the poem’s structure – especially in the formal second verse – emphasises this feeling of entrapment. The move from visual to aural description makes turning away, escape, impossible – ears cannot be shut.
The cumulative effect of this verse enacts the narrator’s helplessness. The “I” figure doesn’t appear till the very end of the verse, as if he has been overwhelmed by the sounds of human torment. The sense of imprisonment is made absolutely plain in the phrase “mind-forg’d manacles” – literally, metal restraining cuffs, devised by the mind of man to subjugate people by physical force, such as the prisoners languishing in Newgate; but also, metaphorically, mental chains imprisoning through ideological acceptance of the status quo. After the dirge of passivity in: “In every cry of every Man / In every Infant’s cry of fear”, we are jolted by the phrase into a sudden moment of analysis, of understanding.
The tone of anger and condemnation rises, and in the third verse, the long list of accusatory examples has an unstoppable momentum. The verse begins, as if in mid-sentence:
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
From now on in this cinematic poem, we lose sight of the narrator altogether as he becomes subsumed within his furious indictment, leaving the general mise en scene to zoom in on three specific social types – the chimney sweep, the soldier and the harlot – all emblematic figures, a point made clear by the use of capitals, used also for the representative institutions.
The boy sweep was a well-known figure of pity in Blake’s time. In lines 9 and 10, the sweep blackens the church by literally making the churches sooty but also in the sense that the church’s reputation is increasingly tarnished by its whitewashing of the brutal, smoke-belching commercial system which exploits child-labour.
But the sweep was also a subversive figure, as Heather Glen points out; the seasonal nature of sweeps’ work and the fact that they roamed the streets drumming up trade meant they often turned to crime and begging. Sweeps were widely regarded as a lawless element. In 1771, for instance, during one of the Wilkes riots, a chimney sweep decapitated effegies of various bigwigs at a mock execution at Tower Hill. The word “appalls” here means 'indicts' rather than the modern usage of 'disgusts'. The church is not appalled in a compassionate way, but is fearful of the menace the sweeps represent.
The soldier whose sigh “Runs in blood down Palace walls” is a “hapless” victim, in spite of the fact that he is part of the armed state. A soldier’s lot in 1792 was terrible, with violent discipline and punishment. That summer, the Times reported great suffering among English soldiers who had been sent on manoeuvres. The soldier, sighing in death or fear, metaphorically stains the palace walls with his blood just as the sweep’s cry blackens the churches. Perhaps the soldier’s discontented “sigh” takes the tangible form of red-painted protest slogans on palace walls. The revolutionary phrase “No King!” and other seditious slogans had indeed been daubed on the wall of the Privy Garden.
The final verse, which Blake only added in a later revision, reveals how the system, constructed on the savage institutions of power – the law, church, monarchy and army – poisons personal relationships at the deepest level. This is the culmination of the narrator’s apocalyptic description:
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
It is no longer daytime, but midnight. The harlot is a young victim, like the boy sweep. She has been robbed of the chance to love her baby, because it is the result of commerce, not love, and because its existence only brings her increased penury. She passes her own misery onto her child, and that child, like her, will pass its misery onto further generations. She also passes on the pox to the bourgeois husbands who frequent her and then take their infection back to their wives. Her curse, like the sweep’s cry and the soldier’s sigh, has actual effects.
Like “mind-forg’d manacles”, “Marriage hearse” is a fantastically potent phrase, reverberating with meanings: the two words are linked oxymoronically, with the notion of joyous, fruitful marriage undermined by its grim apotheosis, death by venereal disease. The phrase also fillets bourgeois marriage in all its hypocrisy, the husband routinely unfaithful to his wife, and suggests the sterile death-in-life of the wedded state, which contemporary feminist Mary Wolstencraft called legalised prostitution. Marriage has become the funeral of love, the death of freedom.
By striking at the family, the poem attacks the reproductive system of society itself. The harlot’s curse does more than make the baby cry; it destroys bourgeois complacency. It’s a fitting end; the poem’s final line has the incantatory power of a curse itself, with the rhyme shutting the lid on the poem once the build-up of hard alliterative sounds (black’ning, blood, Blasts, blights and plagues) has reached its crescendo.
London begins with the economic system, couched in that abstract, legalistic word “charter’d”, protected by its “bans” (laws), and moves to its consequences – the selling of bodies and souls within a sealed system of commercial exploitation. Yet, though the poem describes claustrophobic trappedness, paradoxically it does not feel defeatist.
This is an anti-vision poem, but it implies that a vision is needed, and this lifts it out of despair. Its rising anger, reaching its height in the Shakespearean last line, is like a battle cry, or at least the precursor to one. It doesn’t just catalogue the woes, but by ordering the encounters, reveals their cause and their inter-connection. It shows the power of articulation both in the victims’ utterances – the sweep, soldier and harlot marking the city, by black’ning, splashing their blood, infecting it – and in the poem's own rhetorical eloquence.