Zoapod 8: Blake’s Poems – London

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 8. Continuing the irregular series looking at William Blake’s poetry, this podcast will focus on one of his most popular lyrics, “London”, from Songs of Experience.

2. Published in 1794, “London” has become one of Blake’s best-known and most widely-anthologised poems. The simplicity of the ballad form, an extremely popular type of poetic format, is used by Blake to deliver an intensely powerful critique of his contemporary society, one in which sophisticated condemnation of political, religious and sexual mores is presented with remarkable brevity and compression. My own reading of Blake’s Song, is very conventional in terms of following critics such as E. P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1993) and Edward Larrissy (William Blake, 1988), seeing the poem as one of social critique. Harold Bloom’s comment in David Erdman’s edition of Blake’s Complete Poetry & Prose, which sees the poem as operating as a response to the tradition of biblical prophecy, seems rather obscure to me – something rather typical of Bloom’s criticism.

3. 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

4. A heavily corrected copy of this poem exists in Blake’s Notebook, offering considerable insight into the gestation that “London” underwent. Probably the most famous line from the poem, its reference to the “mind-forg’d manacles”, was originally written by Blake as “german forged links”. The original scans more regularly as iambic verse than his more famous amendment (with “forged” being pronounced on the second syllable), and drew attention, as Thompson observed, to the billeting of Hessian troops in London in the early 1790s in response to fear at social unrest in the capital, as well as the German origins of the Hanoverian dynasty and George III. The modification to “mind-forg’d manacles” forces the reader to slow down slightly with the spondee “mind-forg’d”, and the abstraction of oppression away from a particular incident and situation has led various critics to see in Blake’s phrase a powerful and effective illumination of the effects of ideology.

5. Another change that the poem underwent from Notebook to publication was the modification of “dirty Thames” in the second line to “charter’d”, repeating the word from the first line. Paine, writing in the first part of The Rights of Man (1792), denounced charters as a post-Norman trick to bribe the populace into submission: “William the Conqueror and his descendants parcelled out the country in this manner, and bribed some parts of it by what they call charters to hold the other parts of it the better subjected to their will. This is the reason why so many of those charters abound in Cornwall; the people were averse to the Government established at the Conquest, and the towns were garrisoned and bribed to enslave the country. All the old charters are the badges of this conquest, and it is from this source that the capriciousness of election arises.” The use of the word charter in “London” is literal in the first line, but metaphorical in the second, placing even the free movement of the natural world under the restriction of government.

6. After a period of enthusiasm in Paris following the fall of the Bastille, tensions increased throughout the 1790s, especially following the execution of Louis XVI and the Terror of 1793. Fear of revolution in Britain led the government of William Pitt to a loyalist reaction, first felt in Scotland as a series of sensational trials for seditious libel which took place in 1793, the results of which were draconian sentences against Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer. In 1794, as members of the London Corresponding Society called for an English Convention, Pitt suspended Habeus Corpus and ordered the arrest of its leading members, as well as those of the Society for Constitutional Information. Thomas Paine had already fled the country at the end of 1793, and although the three men finally brought to trial were acquitted, there could be no doubt that Britain was a dangerous place for anyone with radical sympathies.

7. These are the events alluded to in the third stanza of “London”, in which soldiers’ blood stains the walls of palaces (almost certainly a direct reference to the events of August 1792 when a mob stormed the Tuileries and massacred the Swiss Guard defending the royal family). Amid this political storm, the hypocrisy and degradation of the poor is also dealt with by invoking the conditions of children chimney sweepers, the subject of two other poems in Blake’s Songs, as well as child prostitution in the final stanza. Stanley Gardner (The Tyger, The Lamb and the Terrible Desart, 1998) observes that in Lambeth a group of “noblemen and gentlemen” had converted the old Hercules Inn into the Female Orphan Asylum “to save girls between the age of nine and twelve from ‘the guilt of prostitution’.” The lives of these so-called “chicken prostitutes” was brutal and fatal, with many not surviving into their twenties as they suffered from violence and those sexual diseases such as syphilis that blasted substantial sections of the metropolitan population.

8. Within four, short quatrains, Blake delivers one of the most savage visions of the city ever written, and for this reason alone it is unsurprising that the poem has become so well-known. To read it is to experience the shock of an explosion among the familiar platitudes and hypocrisies of church, priest and king. Yet there may be something even more subtle going on here. Larrissy is correct to point out that it is a misconception – even if a common one – to assume that the voice of the narrator is that of Blake’s. The speaker in “London” marks those all around him: the word “mark” here functions in different ways – as a unit of currency (an old term used to refer to 8 ounces of gold or silver), as a blemish or sign, and as the verb “to mark”, as in to identify or characterise something or someone. The narrator, then, sees these marks and he sees them everywhere: “And mark in every face I meet \ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

9. These spots and stains of weakness and woe are inscribed on these faces by the weight of capitalism and power that emphasise the poverty of those who live in London, but Larrissy draws attention to the fact that it is also the speaker who is marking these faces – observing and characterising them as weak, woeful. That this voice of experience is potent should not blind us to the fact that it is also a single vision: there is no alternative, no innocence, in “London”, and in a scene of such potential violence and depravity it is not hard to see why. And yet, as with Terry Eagleton’s criticisms of Theodore Adorno’s concept of ideology, this is to give the powerful too much power, to assume rather defeatedly that there is no alternative. Sometimes such single, purposeful vision is necessary, to clarify and explain the social conditions in which we find ourselves, but for the possibility of something better, the voice of experience must also be matched by that of innocence, the belief that things can be changed.

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