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Analysis of Blake's poem London

By emmalanoire Oct 03, 2013 1824 Words
In 1792 the French revolutionary mobs suspended the King's power. Blake was a staunch supporter of the French revolution, wearing a bonnet rouge and writing poetry to match the libertarian ideals he shared with the sans-culottes. His poem "London" is a rare example of a violent, revolutionary indictment of both the Establishment and the Industrial revolution.

This poem is an indictment and a battle cry. Not only does it present images of human suffering observed on a stroll around London, but it also suggests a certain vision of humanity as Blake defended it, for example in his Songs of Innocence a few years before (1789).

The analysis of the poem will revolve around two aspects. First we will study the sense of entrapment pervading (qui parcourt) the poem as a sign that fate cannot be escaped; then we shall focus on the three figures of human suffering depicted by the poet: the chimney sweep, the soldier and the harlot. We will try to understand why he chose those and what violent criticism he makes through them.

I. Sense of entrapment in the city of London

A. A sharp discrepancy between freedom and constraint
1. A stroll around the city
The poem opens as a stroll around the city: "I wander thro' each charter'd street" (line 1). The verb "wander" suggests freedom, an aimless walk that takes time and is enjoyable. As the poem starts with the pronoun "I" we feel that the poet is going to tell us something pleasant, something about himself and the city of London.

2. Order versus flow
Yet from that very line, we sense some stricture in that the city is a place of opposition and tension: it is a place where the streets are ordered ("charter'd"), submitted to legal administration, but also a place where the river Thames flows freely, uncontrollable.

In the stanza, the poet places himself as a mirror image of the river and its flow: the first word of the stanza is "I", while the second line ends with "flows". Both words seem to fight desperately for some freedom in the oppressive city. Poetry, Blake argues, is devoted to expressing life and its energy. By contrast, walking into and around the city means being marked out by order, constraint and emprisonment. The rhythm is very regular, enhancing that impression: lines 1 to 3 are regular iambic tetrametres, giving the stanza an air of inescapable order.

The poet looks into the faces of his fellow human beings and what he sees there is signs, "marks" of misery.

B. The mark of inescapable misery
1. A curse of God?
The word "mark" (lines 3 and 4) is reminiscent of Gn4 (Genesis chapter 4) and the "mark of Cain", the fratricide branded by God. Here, in London, in the late 18th century, has God promised to punish human beings? In Songs of Innocence, God was a benevolent presence, a guardian of human peace and work. Instead, what we find in Songs of Experience, is a world deserted by God. Is disorder such as described by Blake the sign that God has forsaken us?

2. Misery is part of the human identity
The first occurrence of "mark" being a verb, the noun in the second and third occurrences shows a passage from action to the fact that misfortune is imprinted in the people depicted (described) by the poet. It is as if the mark, the sign of misfortune were part and parcel of the person.

Moreover, the repetition of "mark" and the alliteration of the sound "w" in "weakness" and "woe" (line 4) insist on the regularity, the monotony and the unavoidable doom humans are submitted to. More generally, in the first and second stanzas, the perfectly regular iambs and the repetitions recreate the sense of suffocating surroundings, hinted at by the two adjectives "charter'd" in the previous lines:

"In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban"
(lines 5-7)
Blake uses the word "Man" to talk about what he sees, that is to say he underlines the fact that humanity as a whole is concerned. The poem has universal features. Thus, the nature of Man is to be entrapped by society and its disasters.

Tr°: The poem forces us to look at three horrendous images of utter misery - the child labourer of the late 18th century, the chimney sweep, for one; a soldier in agony drenched in blood for another; lastly a young female prostitute. The gradation reaches its climax in the last lines.

II. The revolt of a poet

A. Blake's diatribe against the major institutions
1. A cry of revolt
What is striking is that the third line opens as in mid-sentence: "How the Chimney-sweeper's cry / Every blach'ning Church appalls" (lines 9-10), as if the poet were so enraged at the sight of the children that his mastery of language were failing him.

There is a cinematic quality to the remaining two stanzas, with the use of colour: "black'ning" (line 10), "blood" (line 11), black and red being the colours of the revolution. The vividness and violence of the images creates not only unease in the reader, they also radically condemn the system that made them possible. We feel that Blake had accounts to settle with the system he loathed.

2. A deafening silence
If we may use the oxymoronic expression "deafening silence", it is because the Church and the Palace described by the poet remain totally silent in the face of such suffering. Not one reaction comes from religious or political leaders, in fact accomplices to the system.

In the 18th century the verb "appall" meant "indict", that is to say "judge harshly". Blake says that because Chimney sweeps exist, the Church as an institution becomes an accomplice of the Industry and its collateral damage). The white walls become tainted metaphorically by the soot from the chimneys. The recurring sound -ch- in "Chimney-sweeper" and "Church" reinforces the injustice of the situation as well as the responsibility of religious leaders.

3. Water turned into blood
As far as the Army and Government are concerned, they are to blame with the odious murdering of innocent but conveniently speechless human beings. Once again, a substance smears and taints walls; here it is blood, the sign of life, shed with the slightest sound, a "sigh" (line 11). Once again, the image is nearly cinematic.

The Thames flowed in stanza one, here the blood runs down the walls. The flow of life has turned to a river of blood. No redemption such as that offered by Christ is now possible.The city is the place of death, corruption and agony. The child has fallen victim to the Industry), the young or older man to the interests of those in power. Needless to say, the sounds -s- in "the hapless Soldier's sigh" and -bl/pl- in "black'ning", "hapless" and "blood" underline the sense of horror, making the poem stutter with indignation, shout and scream with revolt to force us readers into listening.

B. Figures of human suffering
1. The sounds of tragedy
The climax of the poem is reached in the final stanza, where the young prostitute does not cry but curses with astounding vigour. Even if we did not wish to see or hear what Blake is describing, there is no escaping those sounds: "I hear" (line 13), "curse" (14), "Blasts" (15). The poet uses the expression "I hear" for the second time (first occurrence on line 8): he is saying that, try as you may, you can do nothing but hear the misery. The sound of it is everywhere.

2. The infection of life
The "charter'd street" of the beginning has changed into "midnight streets" (line 13), from the singular place to the plurality of hapless situations, from the order of day to the chaos of night. The final stanza takes place at midnight, when things are not so visible any longer, when tragedy and death happen. A young mother, the "Harlot" (the word has Biblical flavours, for example Eve was first a Harlot, before being redeemed by God), contaminates her own baby with the plague (= the pox, a venereal disease). She ought to give life but what she does is to perpetuate the infection, giving it a future.

The promise of life contained in the "Marriage" mentioned on the last line is also directly contradicted by the addition of the word "hearse". The poem closes with the violent and indignant desecration of a major institution, marriage. Mary Wollstonecraft, a contemporary feminist writer, had written that marriage was legalized prostitution, in Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792. Blake would read such radical analyses. The bourgeois society, hypocritical but self-righteous, is indicted here: men from the bourgeoisie went to prostitutes while going to Church and leading a prudish public life. Blake refuses such hypocrisy.

3. Universal figures
Blake does not talk of the particular fate of the three figures he describes. In fact, we do not know anything about them, they represent their kind and not themselves in any way. We never see their faces, their figures are featureless. In that sense, the use of capital letters for certain words and not for others is telling.

The poet's purpose is to denounce, to make us realize and react about such atrocities. Poetry is never far from everyday life: it is a way to encapsulate a reality and share it with others. Blake wishes us to keep our eyes open on human life and never to accept suffering.

c/c What Blake describes in his poem is a world on its head: there is no humanity left if such a society as the one he lives in is allowed to exist. He is not opposed to order, but he basically claims that this is no healthy order. Respecting the human being should be the order of things. We feel, behind the harsh criticism, Blake is defending an ideal vision of humanity, where all individuals are respected, free and at peace with one another. His vision is no Christian vision, still the ideal of tolerance, freedom and joy is shared by him.

The occasion of the French revolution gave Blake full scope (le champ libre) to attack what he considered the roots of inequality and misery in his own time. The intensely photographic or cinematic images, the revolt of the poet and the vividness of the language all contribute to the creation of a poem which gives life to scenes of despair and horror. In 1792 Blake was writing the poems collected under the title Songs of Experience, the dark pendant to the Songs of Innocence. "London" is indeed a sad poem, but also a surge (élan) of life in the midst of the misery of the time.

William Blake shows that poetry is a powerful art: it confronts you to truth, it stirs you from your deafness, your blindness to human agony, it has a social and political authority. The poet is dedicated to telling the truth and to help you see it, think about it and change it.

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