Oppression and Spiritual Deterioration in William Blake’s Poem LondonLondon
I wander thro’ each charter’d street, 1
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow, 2
And mark in every face I meet, 3
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. 4
In every cry of every Man, 5
In every Infant’s cry of fear, 6
In every voice, in every ban, 7
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear: 8
How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry 9
Every blackning Church appalls, 10
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh, 11
Runs the blood down Palace walls. 12
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear 13
How the youthful Harlot’s curse 14
Blasts the new-born Infant’s tear, 15
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse. 16
“London” by William Blake is a short poem packed with meaning. The poem has two related themes. The first explores the spiritual decay and slavery of the people of London. The second examines the oppression of certain disadvantaged groups and the implied apathy of the oppressors. Blake crafts a skillful poem with masterful use of layered word meaning, irony, repetition, and visual and audible images.
Layered meanings become apparent in the first two lines where Blake writes of the “charter’d street” and the “charter’d Thames.” Based on the various definitions of charter and chartered, Blake could be speaking ironically of the “privileged” streets where the harlots and chimney sweepers live. Blake may also be using chartered to encompass all of men. Chartered can describe a branch established by a sovereign, and, in this sense, London on the “charter’d Thames” may be one branch of man, representing all men under a spiritual curse. Finally, charter denotes contracts between men for business pu…
…e of an oppressed and an oppressor. Possibly, the youthful harlot is a prostitute because she has no other work or has no family. Indirectly, husbands and the men of London in general are accused for their lack of responsibility. The men either pass venereal disease to the harlot or carry it home with them, apparently unconcerned about the results of their actions. The actions of these men have led to what Blake calls the loudest and most prevalent cry of the poem–the sound of the fall of the family.
In conclusion, Blake points out the spiritual deterioration of his time in “London.” He sees what is plainly visible but goes unnoticed by other men. He becomes the wanderer, the poet-prophet, the voice of experience crying for all to take note and mend their ways.
Abrams, M. H. , gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 5th edition