Study Guide

London Quotes

  • Freedom and Confinement

    I wander thro' each charter'd street,
    Near where the charter'd Thames does flow, (1-2)

    We get a double dose of confinement here. The streets and the Thames? The poem announces its obsession with the theme early on, and implies that somebody (he doesn't say who) is trying to tame or confine nature itself—here represented by the Thames.

    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe. (3-4)

    While we don't have any specific descriptions of confinement here, the language is super-restricted. The word "mark" occurs three times. The repetition of "mark" is also similar to the repetition of "charter'd" in the first two lines.

    In every voice, in every ban,
    The mind-forg'd manacles I hear. (7-8)

    Manacles=confinement. There's no question about that. None. What. So. Ever. The phrase "mind-forg'd" makes it seem like confinement is totally a mental thing that's got nothing to do with literal chains and charters. Our own minds are able to enslave us. Spooky.

    How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
    Every blackning Church appalls; (9-10)

    The chimney sweeper makes us think of confinement in several ways. First, we have the image of some little kid climbing down a chimney—that's a pretty confined space if we ever saw one. Second, lots of these chimney sweepers back in the day didn't have a whole lot of choice about whether or not they wanted to work.

    And the hapless Soldier's sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls. (11-12)

    All soldiers are "confined" to certain rules and regulations—they've gotta do what they're told, more so than other people. The repetition of the S sound all over the place ("hapless," "Soldier's," "sight," "walls," "runs") reflects the restrictions of a soldier's life.

  • Death

    I wander thro' each charter'd street,
    Near where the charter'd Thames does flow, (1-2)

    Chartering something—controlling it through legal means, or making it more narrow—is a way of killing something. This becomes clearer in the poem as everybody the speaker meets on these "streets" seems dead.

    How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
    Every blackning Church appalls; (9-10)

    We can't think about chimney-sweepers without thinking of the color black, which, at least in a poem like this, definitely makes us think of death. Just to make sure we "get" it, the word "blackning" appears in the very next line. Death, death, death.

    And the hapless Soldier's sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls. (11-12)

    Soldiers fight wars, which makes us think of death. The image of blood running down a wall does as well. Taken together, the speaker clearly has war-related death and war-related violence on his mind. Strangely, these things are "present" in London, a place far away from any real battlefield. Wow.

    But most thro' midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlot's curse (13-14)

    In a poem this ominous, the word "midnight" is no good. It makes us think of darkness, death, and other bad things.

    Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,
    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.(15-16)

    The harlot's curse adds death to death. Marriage is already associated with death ("hearse") but being blighted with plagues only makes it more dead. Hmm, strange indeed. London isn't just dead; it's really, really dead.

  • Innocence

    In every cry of every man,
    In every Infant's cry of fear,
    In every voice, in every ban,
    The mind-forg'd manacles I hear (5-8)

    The anaphora here ("In every"… "In every"… "In every") paints a bleak picture. Everybody is enslaved by "mind-forg'd manacles," which is to say nobody is innocent anywhere. They are all enslaved to something: experience, pain, sorrow—you name it.

    How the Chimney-sweeper's cry (9)

    Chimney sweeps were children. Because of their job, they were very dirty, or "black," which is associated with everything but innocence. Yeah, sure, they're not described as covered in soot, but come on, we get the message, right?

    And the hapless Soldier's sigh
    Runs in blood down Palace walls. (11-12)

    Blood on the walls might as well read "blood on their hands." The Palace is, by no means, innocent of bloodshed in the world of "London."

    But most thro' midnight streets I hear
    How the youthful Harlot's curse (13-14)

    The word "youthful" is important here. We expect youth to be associated with innocence, but here it is clear that the youthful harlot is part of the world of dangerous, sexual experience and (as we soon learn) disease.