William Blake (1757-1827) was born in Westminster and by the age of 14 he worked as an apprentice to an engraver called James Basire. His poem "London" was written during the times of the French Revolution and showed his views of 18th century London, a place where he lived nearly all his life. Blake was considered an eccentric and a madman in his lifetime and it was only after his death that his works gained recognition. He had lived most of life in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields in 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.
The poem has a total of sixteen lines which are split into 4 paragraphs with a rhyming AbAb pattern throughout the poem. In the first paragraph it is with sarcasm that Blake describes the sights he sees as he walks through the streets of London. The repetitive use of the word "charter'd" stresses Blake's anger at the political times and his feeling towards the ruling classes with their controlling laws and oppressive ways. He taunts in the poem to say that it is not only every street they want to control but even the River Thames which should normally be free for all but in this case it too is "charter'd".
The poem focuses on the social and political background of London and highlights differences in the wealth of the ruling classes and the poverty facing the common man. Free speech is curtailed to avoid Londoners following the example of their French counterparts. The people of London are described as being weak and full of woe as the marks on their faces reveal. There is a repetition on the word "marks" which again stresses the despair and tiredness that they seem to be going through because of their oppressed way of life.
Being a mystical person himself, Blake uses the expression "marks of woe" in an almost religious sense. He is being the onlooker in this poem and as he walks past he can see the weakness and misery marked on the faces of the passers due to their helplessness at not being able to bring about any changes in their destiny.
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.
Though the feelings of every man and child are suppressed, it is as if the fear and their cries are audible to him as he walks by. Again his mystical side can be seen because throughout his lifetime he was said to have spiritual visions. Through their silence, he can still hear all that they want to say but cannot, because of fear of authority.
There is lack of free expression and he uses the word "ban" which is quite clear in its meaning and reveals how people were unable to voice their criticisms on how the country was being ruled. No one dared to speak out for fear of being imprisoned. The words "fear", "cry", "ban", and "mind-forg'd manacles" describe a people who are suffering and frightened and their feelings are imprisoned in their own minds. There is repetition of words like "every" on the first three verses to stress these feelings of being imprisoned and trapped.
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appals;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
In the third paragraph he talks about the chimney sweeper's and the hapless soldier and his finger of blame points to places of authority like the Church and the Palace. The word "appals", "sigh" and "runs in blood" show authority being immune to its common people who are in distress but there seems to be no comfort coming their way. The chimney sweep represents the destitute children while the soldier represents the anguish of those who had to serve in the army under difficult conditions. Their blood is being spilt down the palace walls while the cries of the suffering children are blacking the Church which should bring light to its people. The combination of the helpless on one side and the unhearing authority on the other is both stark and accusatory in its tone.
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
In the final verse Blake's takes on an even more foreboding tone as he talks about the young girl who is out in the darkness of the night walking the streets. Young women had to resort to prostitution because of poverty and he can hear her curses for what she has to be put through. Her grief affects the new born child and he uses powerful words like "blasts" which is a contrast to the gentleness one would use for a new born child.
It is as if he can foresee the difficulties the child will have to suffer just like his mother is doing. In contrast a rich woman getting married in a carriage will be blighted by this curse and her carriage might turn out to be a hearse. Blake is pointing a finger at the rich men who might use the services of a prostitute and then get married and pass on disease to their wives. He uses the word "plagues" to signify the goings on of the rich and how their actions affect the lives of all the innocent people involved.
This poem, no matter how brutal and harsh in its message, has relevance even in modern times where there is poverty due to large income discrepancies between the rich and poor.