Friday, 9 September 2011

William Blake's London”



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 black’ning 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

 

London is a poem by William Blake, published in Songs of Experience in 1794. It is one of the few poems in Songs of Experience which does not have a corresponding poem in Songs of Innocence.

                     Analysis

As with most of Blake's poetry, there are several critical interpretations of London. The most common interpretation, favored by critics such as Camille Paglia and E.P. Thompson, holds that London is primarily a social protest. A less frequently held view is that of Harold Bloom; that London primarily is Blake's response to the tradition of Biblical prophecy.
The use of the word 'Chartered' is ambiguous. It may express the political and economic control that Blake considered London to be enduring at the time of his writing. Blake's friend Thomas Paine had criticised the granting of Royal Charters to control trade as a form of class oppression. However, 'chartered' could also mean 'freighted', and may refer to the busy or overburdened streets and river, or to the licenced trade carried on within them.
In Thompson's view, Blake was an unorthodox Christian of the dissenting tradition, who felt that the state was abandoning those in need. He was heavily influenced by mystical groups.  The poem reflects Blake's extreme disillusionment with the suffering he saw in London.
The reference to a harlot blighting the 'marriage hearse' with 'plague' is usually understood to refer to the spread of venereal disease in the city, passed by a prostitute to a man and thence his bride, so that marriage can become a sentence of death.[7]
The poem was published during the upheavals of the French Revolution, and the city of London was suffering political and social unrest, due to the marked social and working inequalities of the time. An understandably nervous government had responded by introducing restrictions on the freedom of speech and the mobilisation of foreign mercenaries.
The City of London was a town that was shackled to landlords and owners that controlled and demeaned the majority of the lower and middle classesWithin the poem that bears the city's name, Blake describes 18th century London as a conurbation filled with people who understood, with depressing wisdom, both the hopelessness and misery of their situation

Context

The poet William Blake was a poet and artist who specialised in illuminated texts, often of a religious nature. He rejected established religion for various reasons. One of the main ones was the failure of the established Church to help children in London who were forced to work. Blake lived and worked in the capital, so was arguably well placed to write clearly about the conditions people who lived there faced.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience Published in 1794, this collection of poems, fully illustrated and originally hand-printed by Blake, aimed to show the "Two Contrary States of the Human Soul". The Songs of Innocence section contains poems which are positive in tone and celebrate love, childhood and nature. The Songs of Experience poems are obviously intended to provide a contrast, and illustrate the effects of modern life on people and nature. Dangerous industrial conditions, child labour, prostitution and poverty are just some of the topics Blake explores.
The French Revolution In 1789, the French people revolted against the monarchy and aristocracy, using violence and murder to overthrow those in power. Many saw the French Revolution as inspirational - a model for how ordinary, disadvantaged people could seize power. Blake alludes to the revolution in London, arguably suggesting that the experience of living there could encourage a revolution on the streets of the capital.

 

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 black’ning 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

Summary

The speaker wanders through the streets of London and comments on his observations. He sees despair in the faces of the people he meets and hears fear and repression in their voices. The woeful cry of the chimney-sweeper stands as a chastisement to the Church, and the blood of a soldier stains the outer walls of the monarch’s residence. The nighttime holds nothing more promising: the cursing of prostitutes corrupts the newborn infant and sullies the “Marriage hearse.”

Form

The poem has four quatrains, with alternate lines rhyming. Repetition is the most striking formal feature of the poem, and it serves to emphasize the prevalence of the horrors the speaker describes.

Commentary

The opening image of wandering, the focus on sound, and the images of stains in this poem’s first lines recall the Introduction to Songs of Innocence, but with a twist; we are now quite far from the piping, pastoral bard of the earlier poem: we are in the city. The poem’s title denotes a specific geographic space, not the archetypal locales in which many of the other Songs are set. Everything in this urban space—even the natural River Thames—submits to being “charter’d,” a term which combines mapping and legalism. Blake’s repetition of this word (which he then tops with two repetitions of “mark” in the next two lines) reinforces the sense of stricture the speaker feels upon entering the city. It is as if language itself, the poet’s medium, experiences a hemming-in, a restriction of resources. Blake’s repetition, thudding and oppressive, reflects the suffocating atmosphere of the city. But words also undergo transformation within this repetition: thus “mark,” between the third and fourth lines, changes from a verb to a pair of nouns—from an act of observation which leaves some room for imaginative elaboration, to an indelible imprint, branding the people’s bodies regardless of the speaker’s actions.
Ironically, the speaker’s “meeting” with these marks represents the experience closest to a human encounter that the poem will offer the speaker. All the speaker’s subjects—men, infants, chimney-sweeper, soldier, harlot—are known only through the traces they leave behind: the ubiquitous cries, the blood on the palace walls. Signs of human suffering abound, but a complete human form—the human form that Blake has used repeatedly in the Songs to personify and render natural phenomena—is lacking. In the third stanza the cry of the chimney-sweep and the sigh of the soldier metamorphose (almost mystically) into soot on church walls and blood on palace walls—but we never see the chimney-sweep or the soldier themselves. Likewise, institutions of power—the clergy, the government—are rendered by synecdoche, by mention of the places in which they reside. Indeed, it is crucial to Blake’s commentary that neither the city’s victims nor their oppressors ever appear in body: Blake does not simply blame a set of institutions or a system of enslavement for the city’s woes; rather, the victims help to make their own “mind-forg’d manacles,” more powerful than material chains could ever be.
The poem climaxes at the moment when the cycle of misery recommences, in the form of a new human being starting life: a baby is born into poverty, to a cursing, prostitute mother. Sexual and marital union—the place of possible regeneration and rebirth—are tainted by the blight of venereal disease. Thus Blake’s final image is the “Marriage hearse,” a vehicle in which love and desire combine with death and destruction.

 

No-one was immune. Blake's poem on England's capital city, written in 1792, is a devastating portrait of a society in which all souls and bodies were trapped, exploited and infected.

No comments:

Post a Comment