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.