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London

Step into the streets of William Blake's 'London' (1794), where the mind-forged manacles of poverty and oppression bind the people, and the marks of weakness and woe are etched onto every face. In his poem 'London,' the romantic poet Blake reveals a city shrouded in despair, corruption, and hypocrisy. The ruling class turns a blind eye to the suffering of the poor. Explore the gritty reality of urban life in this powerful critique of social and political systems, and discover the transformative power of art in the face of oppression.

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Step into the streets of William Blake's 'London' (1794), where the mind-forged manacles of poverty and oppression bind the people, and the marks of weakness and woe are etched onto every face. In his poem 'London,' the romantic poet Blake reveals a city shrouded in despair, corruption, and hypocrisy. The ruling class turns a blind eye to the suffering of the poor. Explore the gritty reality of urban life in this powerful critique of social and political systems, and discover the transformative power of art in the face of oppression.

'London': at a glance

'London' Summary and Analysis
Date published1794 in the Songs of Experience Collection
AuthorWilliam Blake (1757-1827)
Form / StyleRhyme poetry
MeterIambic tetrameter
Rhyme SchemeAlternating rhymes (ABAB)
Literary and Poetic DevicesAlliteration, anaphora, allusion, metaphor, oxymoron, polyptoton, refrain, symbolism
ToneDesperate; claustrophobic; critical
Key themesRestrictions and freedom; innocence; death
AnalysisThe poem paints a picture of London as a claustrophobic city, in which the speaker is miserable. All the residents of London, men, women, children, cry out in misery. The poem is critical of the growing industry in London and sees it as a tool of enslavement.

'London': context

In short, 'London' highlights the suffering and misery of the poor and working-class people of London, as well as the corruption and hypocrisy of the ruling class and the Church of England.

'London': historical context

'London' is a famous poem written by William Blake. It belongs to the poetry collection Songs of Experience of the complete volume titled Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794). William Blake lived most of his life in London, and witnessed the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Born to a family of dissenters, while being deeply religious, Blake was critical of organised religion and the Church of England.

Additionally, Blake was also critical of the Industrial Revolution and firmly believed that it was a tool for enslaving people. The 'constructedness' of London as depicted in the poem expresses Blake's wariness and fear of the industry, and also highlights his criticism of it and of the failure of mankind to find a true connection with God through love, freedom, and a sense of community.

'London': literary context

The poems in the collection Songs of Experience contain overarching themes related to social oppression, loss of innocence, imposition of restrictions, death, etc. London, as a city, was swiftly progressing in the industry. Blake was critical of the industrial revolution, and expressed the transformation of the city as he experienced it in the poem, thereby justifying its place in the collection Songs of Experience.

London, Blakes Engraving, StudySmarterFig. 1 - William Blakes's engraving of the poem 'London' is one of many engravings throughout the Collection Songs of Experience.

'London': the poem

Below is the poem 'London' in full.

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

'London': summary

In summary, 'London' is a critical commentary on the city of London and its changing pace due to the Industrial Revolution. The speaker of the poem walks through the streets of London, and notes the melancholy and resignation he sees in the face of Londoners. The sense of hearing is extremely important in the poem, as the speaker hears the various sounds of the city and its residents, reflecting the oppression faced by both. Towards the end, the speaker mentions seeing the 'Marriage hearse' that bears disease, death, and love.

Pro Tip: A brief summary of the poem is a good way to begin an essay about a poem. Without going into too much detail, write 4-5 sentences that outline the basic meaning or purpose of the poem. The details and the complexities of the poem can be elaborated upon later in your essay.

'London': analysis

Here, we will take a look at some analysis of the form, meter, rhyme scheme, and devices of the poem 'London'.

'London': form and structure

The poem London written by William Blake consists of four quatrains with each quatrain forming a stanza. The stanzas consist of alternating rhymes and are written in the iambic tetrameter. The third stanza is acrostic, as the starting letter of the following 3 lines spells out the word 'hear,' which is an important sense for this poem that focuses on many sounds of London and its residents.

Pro Tip: When elaborating the form or structure of a poem, think of the following:1. What is the meter and the rhyme scheme of the poem? Is it consistent? If there is a change, is it gradual or sudden? How does this change affect the way the poem reads?

2. Read the poem in its entirety. Do you notice any repetitions? Is a pattern emerging?

3. How does the form affect the reading of the poem? Does it influence the main subject or theme of the poem?

'London': rhyme and meter

The poem consists of alternating rhymes. The rhyme scheme is ABAB. The speaker absorbs the sights and sounds of London, and the alternating rhyme gives it a song-like quality to which seemingly the speaker is tuned to as they walk about the streets of London.

The meter of the poem is the iambic tetrameter, with some catalexis.

Those are three big words that we can break down.

The iamb is a foot that contains two syllables, with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. It is the most commonly used foot in poetry. Examples of iamb are: destroy, belong, relay.

The tetrameter bit simply means that the iamb is repeated four times in a line.

A catalectic is a line that is incomplete, which means the final part of the foot with a stressed or unstressed syllable is missing.

In the following line from the poem, we can examine some of the above-mentioned features. Note that the initial unstressed syllable for the first iambic foot is missing, making the line catalectic:

How / the youth/ful Har/lots curse

'London': literary and poetic devices

The main literary and poetic devices to memorise are allusion, alliteration, anaphora, metaphor, oxymoron, and symbolism.

Alliteration

Alliteration refers to the repetition of certain sounds and stressed syllables, mostly used to add emphasis and also a sonic pleasure when the poem is read out loud.

As an exercise, identify the lines that employ alliteration in the poem, for example: 'weakness' and 'woe' repeat the 'w' sound.

Allusion

In a poem, allusion is a reference to a historical event or idea, a popular myth, a religious tenet or code, a cultural issue, etc. For example, 'Her desperation for "Likes" on Instagram is her Achilles' Heel' - here, the 'Achilles Heel' is a reference to Greek mythology and the Trojan War wherein the hero Achilles was shot by an arrow to his heel, which caused his death. The use of 'Achilles' Heel' is an allusion to one's weakness or cause for downfall.

In the poem London, the poet alludes to the Royal Charters that controlled trade and were oppressive to those of lower classes and status. This is done by his repetitive use of the word 'chartered.' He also alludes to the corruption of the Church besides stating that it is polluted by labelling it as 'blackened.'

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of phrases to add emphasis and enhance the rhythm of a poem.

Instances of anaphora can be found in lines 5-8 in the poem London. The use of 'in every' elevates the desperation and misery of the Londoners and how everyone is affected by it.

Metaphor

A metaphor is a figure of speech wherein an idea or an object is substituted for another to hint at a connection between the two. The metaphor adds a layer of meaning to the text.

While we will discuss the symbol of London in greater detail below, in this section, London, or perhaps the 'idea' of London is substituted for industry and progress or even poverty and destitution. Having lived nearly all of his life in London, William Blake loved the city. But with drastic changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution, Blake could no longer recognise the city he loved.

There is a constructedness about London, with its 'mind-forg'd manacles' and its chartered streets. Each part through which the speaker walks has its marks of poverty, misery, and darkness. As an exercise, identify phrases in the poem that express the character of London as a place of misery, confinement, and oppression.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a figure of speech that places two contradictory notions together. For example: 'The apple crumble was awfully good.' The use of 'awfully good' here is an oxymoron.

The oxymoron found in the poem 'London' is 'marriage hearse.' While marriage is a happy occasion and a symbol of love and unity, a hearse is a symbol of grief, separation and death. The union of these two words, however, carries a different meaning.

The marriage hearse, here, seemingly signifies the death of love and union and the sense of community in industrial London. Additionally, the growing presence of 'harlots' in the city could also lead to the termination of marriages or diseases spreading, thereby signifying prostitution as leading to the marital funeral.

Polyptoton

A polyptoton is the use of words belonging to the same 'root' word but carrying a slightly different meaning. For example, the words 'passion', 'passing', and 'passive' have the same root word but different meanings.

In the poem 'London', a polyptoton can be found in lines 3 and 4, where the words 'mark' and 'marks' stem from the same root word but slightly differ in meaning.

Refrain

Refrain refers to the words, lines, or phrases repeated within a poem

In the poem, certain lines or words are repeated - this is usually done to add emphasis or underline certain meanings in the poem. For example, what does the repetition of the word 'charter'd' or 'every' do for the poem?

Symbolism

The main symbol in 'London' is the titular city of London, which stands for the growing industry and parallels the increasing sense of misery and corruption. The urbanisation of the city has rippling effects on the residents of the city, which the speaker notes as they walk through the streets of London.

London, London Bridge Symbolism, StudySmarterFig. 2 - London city is portrayed as corrupt and miserable due to the effects of industrialisation.

'London': themes

The main themes of the poem 'London' are freedom and restriction, corruption, poverty, decay, and loss of innocence.

  1. Freedom and Restriction: The increasing urbanisation and industrialisation of London is leading to the exploitation of the lower classes (chimney sweepers, slaves, soldiers) at the hands of the upper classes. As the city becomes more labour-intensive, misery is etched on all the faces that the speaker sees. The growing power in the hands of the rich few and the increasing corruption is proving to be detrimental for the Londoners as their freedoms are curtailed and they continue to be oppressed and confined by the rules imposed on them. The use of the term 'charter' also indicates the rules and regulations laid down by the Government to control people.
  2. Poverty and Hypocrisy: Blake also highlights the hypocrisy of the ruling class, who use religion and morality to justify their power and privilege, while ignoring the suffering of the poor. Blake describes the poverty of the people in vivid detail, showing how it affects every aspect of their lives.
  3. Decay and Death: Decay and death is spotted at every nook and corner the speaker turns to. Numerous phrases carry the connotative meaning of darkness, such as the chimney sweepers, whose faces and bodies are blackened due to their work, or the blackened churches, and also the mention of the plague, i.e. the black plague, all of which lead to the idea of death. As an exercise, spot instances that can lead to the notion of death, such as the 'blood down Palace walls' in line 12.
  4. Loss of Innocence: During Blake's time, most chimney sweepers in London were orphaned children. Additionally, the speaker mentions infants, who in their infancy already know pain and misery, and also how 'youthful' and young girls are forced to turn to prostitution to sustain themselves, further marking the loss and corruption of innocence and childhood.

'London'- Key takeaways

  • The poem is about the city of London, which the speaker characterises with misery, decay and death as it moves towards urbanisation and industrialisation.

  • The poem is rife with literary and poetic devices, among which the most important are allusion, alliteration, anaphora, metaphor, oxymoron, and symbolism.

  • The main themes of the poem 'London' are freedom and restriction, corruption, decay and death, and the loss of innocence.

  • The main symbol of the poem 'London' is the titular city as it undergoes a dramatic transformation from the city that William Blake once knew and loved.

  • The tone of the poem is critical and melancholic.

Frequently Asked Questions about London

William Blake, a Romantic Poet who lived most of his life in London.

The main theme of the poem London is the freedom and restriction of Londoners brought about by decay and death due to the industrialisation of the city.

The purpose of writing this poem is to observe and criticise the changes in London as a result of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, which lead to the misery of Londoners.

The poem London by William Blake is a critical commentary on the city of London and its changing pace due to the Industrial Revolution. The speaker of the poem walks through the streets of London, and notes the melancholy and resignation he sees in the face of Londoners.

The poem is narrated in the first person.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What poetry collection does London belong to?

In what year was the poem London published?

Who is the poet of London?

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