by William Blake
Sound and Hearing
Cries, cries, voices, cries again—sound is everywhere in this poem. For the speaker of this poem, there is no greater sign that things have gone terribly wrong in London than in the multitude of cries he hears. London sounds downright awful—kids cry, grown men cry, chimney-sweepers cry, harlots utter curses, and on and on and on. Everybody is crying because life is sad, full of pain, you name it. Okay, so what should the city sound like then? Well, the speaker doesn't give us any good answers, but all these people shouldn't be crying, that's for darn sure.
- Lines 5-7: The repetition of "every" in these lines indicates how widespread pain and sadness are in London. The anaphora, another form of repetition, conveys a similar idea.
- Line 8: "Mind-forg'd manacles"? This is definitely a metaphor, but for what? Well, the speaker says he can "hear" them (just think of shackles clanking together), so it must have something to do with all those cries he's just discussed. Manacles can be read as either a metaphor for all the different ways the political and intellectual climate of London in the 1790s "enslaves" people (this is why they cry so much) or, less ominously, for the ways in which people have managed to enslave themselves. Huh? Without getting too technical, Blake had this whole idea about how our ways of viewing the world can sometimes be our own worst enemy.
- Lines 9-10: The cries of London's chimney sweepers "appall" every "blackning Church." The chimney sweepers symbolize the exploitation of children in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Their cries either make the church look shameful (for permitting such an evil thing) or make it feel bad for them. Clearly, the speaker is ambivalent about the church's role in all these cries.
- Line 11-12: As if we weren't already convinced that all these sounds were the sign of something bad, the speaker makes it very explicit. The soldier's "sigh" (that's a sound) runs in blood down palace walls. Okay, it obviously doesn't, so this is a metaphor for something. The sigh, the exhalation of breath, is a symbol or expression of the soldier's frustration. That "breath" then runs down the walls of the palace. The sigh is a way of metaphorically accusing the palace (a symbol of the government) of forcing the helpless soldier to have blood on its hands. It, after all, sends soldiers to war. See our discussion of these lines in the "Detailed Summary" for more.
- Lines 13-16: In the poem's last stanza, the speaker hears the harlot's curse, which has all sorts of consequences. Newborn infants, instead of hearing the dulcet sounds of the Thames, hear a woman cursing. And of course, the curse, a symbol of the harlot's sadness, anger, and irritation with her life, further blackens the institution of marriage, which is already metaphorically dead ("hearse") in the speaker's view anyway.