Study Guide

London Death and Disease

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Death and Disease

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.

  • Line 9: Chimney sweeping was a dirty and dangerous business that, without question, symbolizes death here.
  • Line 10: The church is described as metaphorically black. Black is rarely a good color in most literature. The word's presence in the context of chimney sweeping is a play on the dirt and soot that covered children who worked in that industry, but also suggests that the church is associated with death, not life.
  • Lines 11-12: The soldier sighs, and that sigh metaphorically turns to blood. Put another way, the palace is covered in blood—has blood on its hands—because it is responsible for this soldier and his sigh (and the things he may or may not have done in battle). No real blood runs down the walls, so this is a metaphor for governmental responsibility for death.
  • Line 15: The word "blasts" doesn't sound too good—nope, sure doesn't. Here it is a metaphor for how the infant's tears are interrupted—stained and sullied by a gross curse. The word "blast" also, however, makes us think the infant's innocence is being metaphorically destroyed or killed.
  • Line 16: "Blights with plagues"—there's a deathly phrase if we ever saw one. The harlot's curse possesses a strong, killing power. It ruins or destroys the institution of marriage by blighting it with plagues literally and metaphorically. It is responsible for real disease (of the venereal kind) but also for metaphorically sullying or ruining marriage with promiscuity and prostitution. Marriage is definitely dead; it's not a union or symbol of life, but a hearse.

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