Happy National Poetry Month! My nod to the event is this explication of “London” by William Blake. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the world’s biggest literary celebration. Many events are planned throughout the entire month of April that involve schools, poets, and various publishing organizations. Poetry, as with all forms of art, plays a necessary role in the world. You might not bury your nose in poetry collections, but poetry is all around us in song lyrics, headlines, and the rhythm of the sentences we read. Poetry is the beauty of language at its best.
Ever the literary soul that I am, I wanted to share this close reading Blake’s poem. Oh no, you might be thinking. This is akin to the teeth-pulling readings teachers made me do in school. Well, yes and no. What I most love about great poetry is that it does lend itself to multiple close readings. I hope you’ll enjoy in this month’s poetic festivities in some capacity. You can visit the National Poetry Month web page to learn more about this month-long event.
London by William Blake
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
Imagery and Diction in William Blake’s London
William Blake’s lyrical poem “London” bleakly communicates the city’s atmosphere during Blake’s days. The speaker journeys through the poem’s four stanzas, seeing and hearing, but never directly commenting about all the misery. The city’s plight is simply too much to take in; the speaker observes from the background, an adult perspective that no longer sees the innocence in the world, but feels the destruction of innocence all around. Blake’s visual and auditory imagery in conjunction with careful word choice bring London vividly to life.
In the first stanza, the speaker “wander[s]through each chartered street.” “Wander” connotes aimless movement spurred by hopelessness and lack of purpose. This is odd when used in conjunction with “chartered” which denotes a very strict and orderly structure. Furthermore, London’s inhabitants are not merely without strength or sad. As the speaker moves about he “marks” looks of “weakness” and “woe” which paints a visual image for the reader of uselessness, hopelessness, and inconsolable sadness. Using “mark” as both verb and noun emphasizes the definite state experienced by the speaker. Anything that is marked stands out.
Auditory images bombard the speaker in stanza two. “Every” stresses all the following images and adds a heaviness that the similar word “each” can not, and long E is a predominate sound throughout the poem, stressing the unpleasant tone, since it is not ultimately pleasing to the ear. “In every ban” the speaker hears “Mind-forged manacles.” Ban has many denotations, all of which seem appropriate within this poem. Church authorities make condemnations, official orders forbid, and public disapproval prevents something. London’s citizens have few choices. They are under mind control and they all “cry” which suggests urgent dissatisfaction and frustration.
Both visual and auditory images fill stanza three. A “Chimney-sweeper’s cry/ Every black’ning Church appalls.” This hints at the plight of the poor chimney sweeps and the church’s hypocrisy, a “black’ning” Church that pales when the sweeper’s cry is heard. “Black’ning” used in reference to the Church suggests that the Church is not all good and condescendingly ignores the sweeps. Furthermore, “The hapless Soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls.” This particular image can’t be pictured literally, but the reader senses the unlucky circumstances faced by the soldiers and how their “sigh” does not affect the very walls that their blood covers. The unlucky soldiers fight for those in power.
The final stanza contains more death and darkness, further emphasizing the city’s tone. “Midnight streets” are spooky and dark and time for most people to be asleep, but “the youthful Harlot’s curse” blinds the baby “and blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.” The final line is full of dire trouble. “Blight” implies monumentous destruction in the marriage as does “plagues” which commonly refers to massive death that wipes out and cannot be stopped. Coupling the word “Marriage” with “hearse” is very disconcerting. One does not expect matrimony to be plagued by death, but in this poem, marriage is far from happy. No one in this poem is happy. Life’s harsh realities get in the way.
Throughout the poem Blake’s imagery and diction portray the city’s darkness and desperation. This London is not an enlightened place: it is draining away its inhabitants’ hopes. All is hopeless compared to larger influences which squash individual matters. The speaker’s lack of commentary is powerful. Blake does not interject opinion; his poem is an observation of truth, and truth needs no opinion.
Blake, William. “London.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s. 1999. 762.
What poems do you hold near and dear to your heart? What role does poetry play in your life?
Guest Post: Please join me over at Duke Stewart Writes for a guest post titled Why People Travel: Not to Miss Out.
Portrait Credit: William Blake by Thomas Phillips. PD-1923: published before 1923 and public domain in the US.
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2016.
Many thanks for this lovely post and literary criticism. I love Blake’s poetry, some of his poems are a true representation of realities around him. ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ comes to my mind after reading this poem…it is indeed dark and desperate.
Balroop, “The Chimney Sweeper” definitely sets the same tone as “London.” His poetry was one of my favorite discoveries ages ago when I took a British Lit class.
Thanks for this Jeri – a very accessible poem and it really does portray the despair of the times. And of course perfect to have your commentary with it too.I’ve been meaning to say just how great your site is looking. really strong and clean.
Kathy, poetry explication is one of my favorite tasks. I also love to break down song lyrics in the same manner, especially Bob Dylan songs. The site as always is a work in progress. Thanks for noting how it’s coming along 🙂
Jeri, I had the most wonderful teacher for English Literature in grade 12 who happened to have done her thesis on William Blake. She certainly got me turned on to this revolutionary poet. I say revolutionary because he turned my thinking upside-down and inside-out, all in an exceptional way and all at my tender age of 17 years old.
In Ms. Eldredge’s class I did a special visual project comparing some of Blake’s poetry to the engravings of William Hogarth, visual satirist supreme, who lived in London roughly one generation prior to Blake. If you’ve not seen any of Hogarth’s work, do an image search on google. Quite “arresting.”
In terms of influencing other writers and thinkers in multiple disciplines, Blake is perhaps unsurpassed. He’s way up there, at any rate–a revolutionary and visionary genius!
Thanks for this post, and your visuals are great. 🙂
Ramona, I definitely agree on Blake’s genius. I’ve been meaning to read a full biography of him, but have yet to do so but there are some promising titles I’ve added to my TBR list. And thank you for introducing me to Howarth’s work as I was not familiar with him.
I visited Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abby, where there is a bronze bust of Blake to pay him tribute. (His remains were interred elsewhere.) Have you ever been to Poets’ Corner? It’s quite a remarkable place for lovers of English literature.
Ramona, I’ve not had a chance to visit England, but such a visit is definitely on my list of sites to see.
Great analysis of Blake’s seemingly contradictory images. When I first went to London they were still burning coal and the city and people did have a dreary feel which Blake’s captured so well. So many women died in childbirth during Victorian times, marriage was often associated with death.
Jan, it’s hard to forget how many women used to die in childbirth. Even when I think about how many more improvements can be made for equality and women’s care, it’s still the best time in history to be living in as a woman.
Hi Jeri. I admit to not being a big fan of poetry. Particularly the old, traditional stuff. I have seen some modern-day poetry that I can relate to, as it’s written more like the spoken word.
Doreen, you might like checking out spoken word poetry videos then. I love all forms of poetry and will write free verse from time to time, but admittedly like the challenge of more strict forms. A lot will depend on my mood.
**In (((every))) cry of every Man**
EACH, even the sound, does not work! Love that you mentioned that.
OOOOOOOOO, Blake! I felt the black suet smudging my cheeks as I read this.
Loved this soooooooooo much, Jeri.
Thank you! xxx
Kim, glad I could bring a bit of poetry to you with this post 😉
Great post, Jeri. Sorry to say, I really don’t have any poetry favorites. I think because I was not given the opportunity to be exposed to poetry in high school. So sad, right? Is there any poetry that you would recommend for a beginner?
Sabrina, Emily Dickinson might be a good starting point. She’s very witty and the poems quite short and sweet. I also love Sylvia Plath, though she’s a bit darker. You might consider going to the Favorite Poem Project website to check out the variety of videos they’ve posted of everyday people reading their favorite poems.
As always, your commentary brings clarity to an art form I never have truly taken to. But you made this ever clearer, and therefore more palatable for me:)
Jacquie, why thank you. I explicate, therefore I am 😉
An excellent analysis, dear Jeri…
Blake´s poem reminded me of Poe´s short story “The Man of the Crowd” …
No wonder why! … this excerpt might speak out loud to you:
`Blake’s political radicalism intensified during the years leading up to the French Revolution. He disapproved of Enlightenment rationalism, of institutionalized religion, and of the tradition of marriage in its conventional legal and social form´ Source: http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/blake/context.html
In my opinion, the second stanza is a poetic achievement… I like the way the poet highlights the impersonal cohesive effect of the city, particularly in the first two verses. Homologation equals alienation.
As to the last stanza, one could say that those `new-born Infants´ (probably born into poverty, children of prostitutes mothers) would also be condemned to the same ill-fated Future… Hence, the pernicious cycle recommences.
Thanks for sharing…. I truly liked this post… All my best wishes. Aquileana ?
Aqui, glad to have tickled your poetic fancy today. Blake was quite a progressive person. I think he’d fit in no matter the age he lived in. His mind is amazing.
Jeri, maybe if I you had been around to explain poetry to me I would have been more interested in it because you give it a whole new meaning. For instance, I would never have translated “The hapless Soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down Palace walls.” into – The unlucky soldiers fight for those in power – but those in power are not directly affected.
As it is, I do like poetry but only the happy kind that provide comfort and the ‘good feeling’, more like inspirational quotes.
Lenie, I always loved teaching poetry. The key is to help less experienced readers to come to their own justifiable interpretation. In the case of this explication, I know others will see what I have not in the lines. And that’s the true beauty and allure of poetry, or in analyzing any type of literature for that matter.
Have to admit that despite having studied litterature at university, I have never managed to get interested in poetry. I, for instance, know that Alfred, Lord Tennyson is one of the most amazing poets ever. Have studied him, and presumably also analysed his poetry, but have despite that never taken an interest in poetry. William Blake I don’t remember from English litterature but I take your word for that he is an amazing poet. You, unlike me, is able to judge that.
Catarina, poetry isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but my cup is overflowing with Blake. Not so much with Tennyson. He’s a bit stuffy for my taste in some ways. Blake has more of an edge.
I found this poem rather dark and deep.
I have a love for poems as they allow one to express themselves in few words. Poems cannot be wrong as they are simply your thoughts on paper.
Phoenicia, brevity is such a great thing in all kinds of writings, but especially so in poetry.
I don’t think I’ve read Blake since college and not sure I understood him then. Your explanation is wonderful and truly helped me understand the darkness of the poem and the context.
Does Blake have any happy poems you can do next? 🙂
Rosemary, you might like the tone of Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” a bit more.
I must confess I’m not a fan of poetry, but really enjoyed your article and even Blake’s poem that you share. Maybe there’s hope for me yet!
Marquita, there’s always hope where poetry is involved!
Very informative and thanks for introducing me to this poem. I haven’t read it before. I’ve always liked William Wordsworth’s poem, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. The visuals of the landscape captivates me.
Denise, I’m glad I could introduce a new poem to you. I’ve read a handful of Blake’s works, but would love to read more in the near future. The more I find out about him, the more I am intrigued by his artistic output.
Such a nice poem, thanks for sharing it. Honestly I have not heard about Blake before, but I am happy you introduced him to me. Better late than never.
Kristina, Blake is definitely a major player when it comes to art history and poetry. I hope you are intrigued enough to check out more of his work.
It seems almost a contradiction that the melodic flow of Blake’s words evoke nothing but bleakness. A fitting way to note National Poetry Month. It is only in poetry that a couple dozen or so words can inspire hundreds of words of interpretation.
Ken, poetic language is so dense and worth savoring 🙂
I agree with Kathy, it does portray the despair of the times. Your commentary only adds to the images expressed in the poem. Poetry has always been a favorite form of communication.
Susan, I know you do love poetry. Just think of all the illustrations you could do for poems like this 😉
Jeri, this is a admirable and daunting poem at the same time. I could feel the sadness and pain in the poem. Was this poem written in 1923? How he layered all the words together was graceful. Thanks for sharing and this is the first time I have heard of this man. =)
Crystal, William Blake lived from 1757–1827. You might like some of his other poetry plus he was also a painter.
Jeri — I read a lot of poetry as an English major in college. I also confess that I’m not a great lover of poetry but I did enjoy this poem by William Blake (a poet I studied in college). I enjoy the romantics like Keats, Lord Byron, and Shelley. Of course, there is always Shakespeare, too. I don’t think many people know that the novel is a fairly new literary form, developed to its fullest in the 20th century. Before that poetry was king.
Jeannette, it’s strange to think of the novel being a “new” form, but it definitely is. Early novels were such a hoot as the form found its footing. I barely stayed awake through an Early American Literature class 😉
Oh, wow, that’s so bleak and yet beautiful. It conjures up a powerful, dreary portrait of what London must have been like in the time of Blake and Dickens. But it’s so lyrical and articulately presented that somehow, it’s not depressing, but just intriguing, in a somewhat macabre way. No one writes like that any more.
Krystyna, I think you’ve hit Blake’s essence by noting how it’s intriguing in a macabre way. His painting evoke that sense as well.
I’ve not read this poem before. The imagery is powerful and the despair tangible. I appreciated your analysis of the poem. I don’t read a lot of poetry but do appreciate it. I react emotionally but don’t have the knowledge to parse it to understand better why it evokes an emotional response. I love exploring London and its history and I could really visualize the London depicted n Blake’s poem.