The speaker is obsessed with hearing in "London." Three of the poem's four stanzas, for example, say something about sound or hearing. Cries, curses, voices, "mind-forg'd manacles," and sighs all make up the sound-scape of London. The speaker doesn't just list things, however; he does his best to make sure we get a sense of what these things sound like, a sense of what London sounds like.
The most powerful way in which the speaker achieves this is by making us feel claustrophobic, figuratively speaking. "London" is a poem all about constriction ("charter'd), confinement, repression, slavery—those sorts of things. The streets seem narrow and controlled, ditto the Thames, and everybody is enslaved by "mind-forg'd manacles."
Well, guess what? The poem's language is narrow and confined too. Did you notice all the repetition? Words are repeated like crazy ("charter'd," "infant," "cry," "marks," "hear") as are letters too (note all the S sounds in lines 9-12, or the "ear" sound in lines 13-16, or the R sounds in lines 5-8). Alliteration is a frequent visitor ("Chimney […] Church"), and there's some textbook anaphora going on in lines 5-8 ("in every"). The bottom line: repetition is everywhere, especially in the sounds of this poem, which makes us feel as though the poem is somehow restricted or limited, sonically speaking, just like London.
At other times, the speaker will flirt with onomatopoeia to try to give us a better sense of the shock he experiences while walking around London. Take lines 13-15 as an example: "But most thro' midnight streets I hear / How the youthful Harlot's curse / Blasts the new-born Infant's tear." Notice how the word "blast" comes busting in right at the beginning of line 15. The word "blast" itself almost kind of sounds like a blast, and its placement at the very beginning of the line creates the effect of a word "blasting" on our senses. Can you find other examples of this kind of effect?
It's just called "London." That's simple enough, isn't it? It's amazing that one word makes us think of so many things: the Thames, Westminster Abbey, the Crown Jewels, Big Ben, Charles Dickens, bad food, rain, etc. It's reasonable to assume that, when he wrote this poem, Blake was definitely planning on his readers thinking of all, or at least some, of those things.
So the very word "London" conjures up so many things, none of which, come to think of it, are actually described in this poem. That magical word "London" is kind of like a fishing lure. It attracts our attention, dazzles us with its sheen, and then—Wham! We're snagged by something unexpected. It seems like a cruel little trick, but Blake is no different in this regard than so many other artists.
In general, the word "London" leads us to believe that this poem is a little travelogue of sorts, a description of a place. And that is essentially what it is, but it is a very narrow, or "charter'd," in the poem's words, view. We see London, sure, but it's the city's dirty underbelly, the dark parts that nobody talks about at parties. If the poem had been titled "The Gross, Filthy, Bad Things About London," would you want to read it? Meh, maybe not so much.
London: around 1794—that's the short answer to the question of where this poem takes place. Word.
Well, if that's the short answer, what's the long(er) answer? Well, the longer answer is: the slums of London in 1794. Now the speaker of this poem doesn't have any specific area of London in mind, just any generic, dirty place where you might conceivably hear harlots cursing and babies crying audibly, a place where "plagues," in the loose sense of disease, might be more widespread, a place where grown men cry and almost everybody is "marked" by "marks of weakness, marks of woe." Simply put, this poem deals with the parts of London where lower class citizens, prostitutes, former soldiers who are now broken, and the like might congregate.
Okay, that's cool, but why not just call the poem "The Slums of London"? That's a good question—hang on a sec while we get William Blake on the line. Okay, he's just informed us that the poem is just called "London" because, while only some areas of London are characterized by these sorts of things, all of London will be plagued by them if things don't change. If the government doesn't stop starting wars and getting blood on its hands, and if the church doesn't stop getting blacker and blacker, the city will crumble into a big mess of poverty, disease, and all sorts of other, metaphorical "manacles." (Thanks for the 411 there, Blakey.)
Another way to look at this little issue is like so: The speaker describes a small slice of London; obviously, there were nice, clean parts of the city in 1794. By acting as though all of London could be summed up in 16 lines that describe some pretty horrific stuff, the speaker makes the point that a city like London can't simply be divided into good and bad, clean and dirty, rich and poor. The fact of the matter is, the bad parts of London are part of the same geographical space as the good parts, and the good parts are in some ways responsible for creating the bad (the blood on the palace walls, for example, links this royal residence with war, death, and all sorts of other bad things). London, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link.
On top of all this, it is important to know a thing or two about the historical circumstances of the 1790s. If you've read our "In a Nutshell" section, you know that things were really heating up back then, politically speaking. Revolution was in the air, largely as a result of all the upheaval happening across the water in France. Besides cracking down on the expression of revolutionary sentiments, the British government declared war on France in 1793, and would remain continuously at war with their long-time enemy for the next twenty years or so.
Besides all the political business, there was the social and cultural business. Socially conscious fellows like Blake not only had to worry about their repressive, war-mongering government, but also about things like child labor and a church that, from time to time, condoned barbaric practices like chimney sweeping (check out our "Detailed Summary" of lines 9-10 for more on this). Toss into the mix poverty, prostitution, and disease and you start to get an idea of why somebody like Blake would write a poem like "London." The combination of war abroad and all kinds of reprehensible stuff at home, made for a rather tumultuous historical climate.
While lots of Blake's speakers are kids, this one is most likely an adult male (and we're just assuming that since Blake was also a dude), a dude that is really unhappy with the state of things London. Okay, actually, he' s not just unhappy, he's downright fed up—bitter, angry, sad. He's getting tired of walking around London and hearing people cry, tired of hearing harlots curse, tired of seeing exploited children working as chimney sweeps, tired of everything that's bad about London.
More than just a dude who's sick of all the poverty and exploitation he sees around him, however, this speaker has some killer rhetorical skills and a corrosive, incisive ability to paint a picture that would move even the most unmovable of people. That whole stanza about the chimney sweeper's cry appalling every "blackning" church, for example, uses the color associated with chimneys (black) to make a claim about the church's moral "blackness." The soldier's sigh, a symbol of frustration or sadness or irritation, is the equivalent of blood running down the walls of the palace (the party responsible for wars, bloodshed, and the like).
Okay, lest you think our speaker is just some slightly bitter, unhappy guy who's a gifted rhetorician, let's throw into the mix, "somewhat of an idealist," in a good way. The whole reason the speaker is so upset with everything is because he has some idea of how things should be. Clearly, marriage shouldn't be a "hearse," children shouldn't be forced to work as chimney sweeps, soldiers shouldn't be sighing, harlots shouldn't be ruining the lives of little children, etc.
Even though the speaker doesn't tell us a lot about this ideal world, William Blake sure did, elsewhere that is. In some ways, this speaker is a mouthpiece for William Blake. Yeah, yeah—we know the speaker of a poem is not necessarily the equivalent of the author himself, but sometimes this distinction can be blurred a little bit. All of Blake's writings—other poems, letters, etc.—advance similar claims as "London." Blake made no secret of the fact that he hated child labor, war, and poverty, that he felt something was wrong with the church, and that he felt people were literally and figuratively enslaved. In sum, the speaker of this poem is a lot like William Blake sometimes, disturbed by what he sees, inspired to speak up and call attention to it.
We know most of Blake's early poems (those in Songs of Innocence and Experience) are supposed to resemble children's poems, but, darn, sometimes they can be just a little bit tricky. "London" is a good example of this. While for the most part the poem is pretty straightforward, there are some weird little metaphors (what, exactly, are "mind-forg'd manacles" anyway?), and some parts that are just downright confusing. We'll go ahead and say that that stanza about the soldier sighing etc. is pretty tricky. Heck, just check out what we have to say about it in either the "Detailed Summary" or "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" to get a sense for how un-childlike some of Blake's supposedly childlike stuff can be.
Blake talks about slavery and imprisonment, both literal and figurative, everywhere. And by all over, we mean all over. In his short works, in his long works, in his unpublished works, in his… well, everything. And what's Blake's most frequent way of talking about this theme? He uses words like "manacles" and "chains." A lot. If you've glanced at "London," you know that it contains that famous phrase "mind-forg'd manacles."
"London," of course, isn't the only one. Many other poems in Songs of Experience use similar words. In "Earth's Answer" there's "chain'd in night" (14) and "Break this heavy chain" (21). In "The Tyger" you've got "What the hammer! What the chain" (13). And in "Little Boy Lost" there's "And bound him in an iron chain" (20). Clearly, then, chains, which are just "manacles," are everywhere in the Songs of Experience. Blake was big on pointing out restrictions, then trying to break folks free with his art.
For the most part, "London" is written in iambic tetrameter. This little meter is very similar to iambic pentameter, except that, instead of five iambs there are only four iambs (tetra means four, so tetrameter means four of the same meter). Now, an iamb is a beat that consists of an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable. It sounds like daDUM (if you say "allow" out loud, you'll hear an iamb). For example:
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. (2)
Voila, perfecto, neato-frito. Ladies and gentlemen, iambic tetrameter.
Sadly, not every single line in this poem is so perfect. Take a glance at line 11:
And the hapless Soldier's sigh.
You'll notice that the first beat (or foot) contains two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, while the last two beats are your regular, run-of-the-mill iambs. Come to think of, there are a number of other lines that contain only seven syllables (like this one), including lines 4, 9-12, and 14-15. Many of them also contain anapests (two unstressed syllables, followed by a stressed syllable).
Okay, so what are we to make of this metrical variation, of which our friend William Blake was quite fond? Well, we have a few different answers for you. The shift from 8 beats to 7 is quite noticeable. In fact, it's interesting that the first time this occurs is in line 4, precisely when Blake is talking about "marks of weakness" and "marks of woe." At that exact moment, the meter itself becomes weak—7 is less than 8, right? The same is true of the poem's third stanza, in which every line contains only 7 syllables. That stanza might be read as a further description of those same "marks."
Our astonishment at this little metrical hiccup mimics the speaker's own astonishment at all the weakness and woe around him. Alternatively, you could say that the line itself is plagued by a weakness—it has one less syllable than it should. It is sick, incomplete, imperfect—just like all the people the speaker meets.
Here's another little factoid. There are exactly 7 lines that contain 7 syllables. Well cheers for that one William Blake. In a poem of 16 lines, this is almost half of the poem. This division between types of lines reflects the divisions and fractures that the speaker sees everywhere in London.
It also reminds us of one of Blake's other major themes: the ways in which social life is constricted, confined, repressed, etc. etc. Think of words like "charter'd," "manacles," and "ban," for example. In other words, just about half of the lines in this poem are marked, to use one of Blake's own words, as restricted or compressed or confined. 7 is less than 8, which makes those lines with fewer syllables seem, well, a little restricted.
If it sounds like we're repeating ourselves, that's because we've been infected by the repetitive spirit of this poem. Notice how many words appear two or more times ("charter'd," "marks," "Infant," "cry," "street"). Notice also how the poem rhymes—this too is a form of repetition. In each stanza, every other line rhymes (which gives us a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GDGD). The repetition of sound suggests that what the speaker sees around him is cyclical or repetitive—that the evils of London will continue to persist. This is nowhere more evident than in the fact that the lone E rhyming sound of lines 6, 8, 14, and 16 ("fear," "hear," "hear," "tear") occurs in both the second and fourth stanzas.
So, in more ways than one, this poem's form and meter either advance or reflect the ideas it's trying to get across. Well that's pretty neat now isn't it?
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.
We'll just call this D&D, and no, we don't mean Dungeons and Dragons. The London described in this poem is full of dirt, disease, and death. Notice, for example, the references to blood, the color black ("blackning Church," chimney sweeper), the "plagues" of the last stanza, the words "blights" and "hearse"—do we need to go on? London is not the vibrant commercial and cultural center we often think it is here. Nope, it is a very "dead," unhappy place. Children die, women die, cherished institutions like marriage die or are sick, and so on.
If you've read our "In a Nutshell" section, you know Blake wrote a lot about children. Children are everywhere in his poetry as characters, and many of the poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience resemble children's poems. "London" is no different. There are several infants mentioned, as well as a chimney sweeper (back then, that deplorable job was reserved for children). Strangely, the children in this poem aren't really doing childish things. Okay, they cry, but their cries are cries of fear, or tear that are corrupted by a harlot's curse. Instead of playing, the children work. The basic idea is that the world is upside down, and that is obvious in the fact that children aren't really children.
There's no place for sex in a poem that's about poverty, death, chimney sweeping, blood, figurative and literal slavery, etc. Okay, yes, there's a very explicit reference to prostitution in the last stanza ("harlot"), but that harlot doesn't really do anything but curse. (And even then, Blake's too polite to tell us just what she said.) PG, friends.