Ready for a history lesson, Shmoopers? Great. Settle in, because here we go. Once upon a time, in 1789, a little something called the French Revolution erupted in—you guessed it—France. While English radicals like William Blake hailed the event as a glorious new beginning, and an end to tyranny and despotism, more conservative thinkers saw the whole thing as a gross affront to everything good about European civilization. In addition to polarizing opinion, the revolution also contributed to the growth of radical political groups throughout England, a fact that worried the authorities. They were so freaked out, in fact, that they started to crack down on things like freedom of the press. This repression only increased as things got worse in France. The revolution, which had started out so promising, quickly deteriorated into a mess of bloodshed, mass executions, and power struggles. Bad times.
Blake was so affected by the events in France, and how people in England responded to them, that he decided to change the world by writing a few children's books—well, sort of children's books. In 1789 he published a collection called Songs of Innocence, a series of illustrated poems that more or less resemble simple nursery rhymes—though they're far more complicated once you dive in. Take a peek here to see what we mean.
Blake republished the book in 1794 and retitled it Songs of Innocence and Experience: Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. (You can look at all of those poems right here.) He did more than just change the title, however. He added many more poems to the bunch—all those that make up the "experience" part (i.e., the second part). Among these was "London" (check out the illustrated version here).
Okay, so why write children's poems during a time of political and cultural crisis? That's a complex question, but lucky for you, we've got answers. First, Blake, like many other poets of his age (Wordsworth especially) was fascinated by children—their undistorted, pure vision of the world was admirable, something to emulate. In a way, writing poems for them (or at least in the style of poetry aimed at them) was Blake's way of trying to influence the next generation.
It was also Blake's way of influencing his own generation. By writing simple, direct poems, Blake was able to dispense with any usual high-falutin' stuff that can sometimes hinder more "serious" art, especially poetry. At the same time, he was able to make all his political claims (the poems are saturated with the language of revolution, freedom, confinement) without necessarily tipping off the authorities. Who, after all, is gonna think twice about a few kids' poems anyway, especially if they're not so obviously about politics?
"London," is a very sneaky, and very dark, poem. There's nothing about how great the Thames looks at night, nothing about England's rich literary history. Nope. The poem is all about dirt, filth, disease ("plague"), prostitution, child labor—basically everything that Blake felt was wrong about his city. In fact, many of the poems in the Songs of Experience are bummed out in this way, whereas those in Songs of Innocence tend to be more carefree, lighthearted, and less obsessed with negativity. "London" falls squarely in the Experience camp, though, and it's quite an experience of the seedy underbelly of eighteenth-century English society.
Beverly Hills, California. Talk about an amazing place. It's so upscale it's ridiculous. But even so, you could easily make a wrong turn there and find yourself face to face with a big dumpster where one of Beverly Hills' famous restaurants throws out their garbage. And you could just as easily find a homeless guy, who looks like death, hanging out by this dumpster along with, perhaps, some rats and other nasty critters. Our point? Even the world's nicest places have their dirty parts, their dark underbelly, so to speak. It's really kind of a fact of life.
This fact of life is what William Blake's "London" explores. In the 1790s, London was a major commercial center, a burgeoning metropolis. Like any human community, it was beset with its own share of problems—a dark side, let's say, that many probably chose to ignore. The chimney-sweeper, the soldier sighing, the harlot spreading venereal disease, the institution of marriage in shambles, the beautiful Thames a "charter'd" piece of junk—these are Blake's sick, homeless people hanging around a dumpster, or the nasty rats that you think have no business in Beverly Hills. They are the sad facts of life that may not have always been as present in the consciousness of English citizens as they should have been.
So think of this poem as a smelly, gross wake-up call. "Hey," Blake seems to be shouting, "open your eyes (and noses), guys! Not everything around here is high-fives and pony rides." This poem points to larger societal problems, and it isn't just about how there are bad things going on in London, either. It's also about trying to explain the causes of those bad things. And if you want to make the world a better place (and really, who doesn't?), then you have to understand how the bad parts got that way in the first place. This poem, then, is a great motivator in helping us to think about how the less fortunate live, and how we might, even in some small way, lend a hand to solve a problem.