Blake's London from ‘Songs of Experience (1794)
‘London’ is a poem about the evil consequences of the Industrial Revolution. It is set in London, at night. The poet identifies with the speaker and he uses the first person pronoun ‘I’. He is there, in the city, and he perceives the scene through his senses, mainly sight and hearing.
He sees a child, a soldier and a prostitute; he hears the child crying, the soldier sighing and the young prostitute cursing her new born infant child. These people stand for the victims of industrial society; the chimney sweeper is the victim of the Church, which, at that time, ran the workhouses. It was the Parish that decided on the children’s destiny. Sometimes children were also the victims of their own families who decided to sell them to a master sweep for money.
The soldier is a victim of the political power which demands his death in war. The expression ‘runs in blood’, l.12, refers to all the violence and the bloodshed during the French revolution.
The other victim is the young woman who has been driven to prostitution by extreme poverty.
Blake criticizes the institution of marriage which is not based on love but on interest. He also hints at syphilis which affected prostitutes and was transmitted inside marriage as a result of debased sexual behaviour.
The language is simple, the poet makes use of repetition to underline some key ideas.
The repetition of the word ‘chartered’ suggests to us the corruption of a materialistic society based on profit; the repetition of other words as ‘cry, marks, I hear’ underlines the condition of suffering and disease surrounding the poet and create a sense of obsession and anxiety.
Line 8 contains a powerful metaphor. The condition of man in industrialized society is compared to ‘mind-forged manacles’. What they have in common is an idea of imprisonment, lack of freedom and constraint.
It’s the mind which ‘forges’ these manacles; it means that we are prevented from being free by religion, the family and political power. Blake thinks that society and institutions oppress man depriving him of the innocence and happiness of childhood. He also condemns industrialization which exploits children and women and contributes to man’s unhappiness and repression.
The poet’s tone is indignant, accusing and bitter.