London was a bad place back in the 1790s. Just ask the speaker of this poem, who takes a walk around an area near the Thames. He can hear all kinds of cries, from adults and kids alike. He sees people who look just awful, a church that's getting blacker all the time, and a palace that appears to have blood on its walls. Eesh. While walking at midnight, he hears something really bad: a harlot (prostitute) cursing her infant for crying. All in all? Bad times, y'all.
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
- The speaker begins "London" by telling us a little story. He wanders through each "charter'd street" that happens to be "near where the charter'd Thames does flow."
- Hmm, seems a little repetitive doesn't it? True, but this is probably because the speaker really wants to emphasize this whole "charter'd" business.
- Speaking of which, that little word can mean a number of different things. In this context, it has the sense of "confined" or "mapped out" or "legally defined."
- Hmm, what do we mean by "legally defined"? Well, "charter" often refers to a document issued by a government or political official that grants certain rights or privileges, defines an entity, that sort of thing.
- In these lines "charter'd" evokes all of these different senses. The speaker is suggesting that the streets of London, and even the Thames itself (the river that flows through London), are increasingly the subject of government control.
- Alternatively, they are increasingly constricted, rigidly defined—in other words, not "open" or "free."
- Now we should tell you that, in lots and lots of Blake's poems, both in the Songs of Innocence and Experience and elsewhere, constriction, narrowness, and the government are usually not the greatest of things. Blake is always about openness, freedom, imagination.
- To summarize then: the speaker wanders through London, and notices that something is amiss.
(History note: Just in case you wanted to know, here's an idea of what the Thames may have looked like in Blake's day.)
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
- And sure enough, all those ominous hints in the word "charter'd" are made much more explicit when the speaker, as he does now, tells us what he sees.
- He is able to "mark," or observe, in every face he meets, "marks of weakness, marks of woe."
- These sad signs are on every face that he meets.
- Well that's not good, but what is the cause of these marks? Well, that's just it. He doesn't tell us, at least not in these lines.
- All we learn is that society doesn't seem to be a good place—everybody seems worn down, tired, hurt, in pain, etc.
- Now, there is one little funny thing about that word "mark" that you should be aware of. Sometimes, it means to make a mark, or a note (as in your bowling league: "Mark it zero, dude. Next frame.")
- It is possible that these "marks" aren't actually there in any real sense, but that the speaker is marking them (imprinting them) on people he sees. In other words, it's possible that these "marks" are just in the speaker's head.
- We know this sounds totally bizarre and weird, but for a writer like Blake the double meanings of words like "mark" are always at play. And besides, Blake is a writer is always interested in the question of what is actually real and what we make ourselves and pretend is real.
- Think of it kind of like a person on drugs: they may see things that they think are really there, but aren't. Under the influence of the drug their brains convince them such things are real.
- Blake himself actually saw tons of crazy stuff that he thought was real (like the ghost of his brother), so this example isn't really that ridiculous.
- In fact, lots of people in the nineteenth century thought Blake was really, really wacky. And in many ways, he really kind of was. We mean, could a totally sane, normal, run-of-the-mill person really draw this. So, it seems like a good idea to keep an eye on the issue of what is real and what is not real in this poem.
- Quick form and meter check: The poem seems to be written mostly in iambic
tetrameter. This means that each line contains four (tetra-) iambs.
- Or, most lines do. Lucky for us, one of the few exceptions to the tetrameter happens in this stanza. Line 4 contains only 7 syllables, which means we're one short. OMG, what does this all mean? Head on over to "Form and Meter" to read a possible explanation. Don't worry. We'll still be here when you get back.
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.
- In a textbook display of anaphora, the speaker tells us in the second stanza that he "hears" the "mind-forg'd manacles" in just about everything.
- The speaker can hear "mind-forg'd manacles" everywhere.
- That sounds bad, but what are they? This phrase is very famous, and is not easy to define.
- First up: "manacles." Those are shackles, irons, handcuffs, things like that—really anything that confines, or constricts.
- This goes hand in hand with all that business about "charter'd" we discussed in lines 1-4. The same goes for "ban." A ban, or prohibition, is a form of restriction.
- Meanwhile, what about "mind-forg'd"? This is definitely kind of weird, and there are a couple ways to understand it (we think).
- First, it might help to think of "mind" in a very general, historical sense, as in "the late eighteenth century mind" or something like that. In a way, "mind" refers to the larger set of historical circumstances—intellectual, political, and the like—that collectively make up "London" in the later eighteenth century. It is some combination of the Industrial Revolution and the politics that lead to "charter'd" streets, among other things, that creates the "manacles" that shackle the people the speaker sees.
- So that's one way to see this, but what about some of those "other" ways to understand these lines?
- We told you in our summary of lines 1-4 that Blake likes to blur the line between imagination and reality. Well, the whole "mind-forg'd" business again reminds us that one particular speaker is viewing everything. It's entirely possible that these "manacles" he supposedly sees are the product of his own "mind." In this sense, the manacles aren't real but, potentially, "forg'd" by his own mind. Hmm, intriguing.
- Alternatively, it is even possible that these manacles aren't "real" or tangible in the same way as handcuffs, but are rather more like mental shackles. In other words, the speaker may be claiming that the evils he sees aren't tangible, like "marks of weakness" or "marks of woe," but rather intangible in the way that a mindset or way of thinking is.
- Putting this another way, you could say that the thing that really imprisons or manacles the people the speaker meets is not something obvious like poverty or disease, but the way they think, the way they approach life.
- From this perspective, the solution is simply a matter of changing the way one looks at things, turning one's "mind" into a source of freedom rather than confinement.
- Phew. That's a whole lot packed into just a few words isn't it?
- But hey, in our "Nutshell" and "Why Should I Care?" sections we promised to prove to you that these little kiddy poems of Blake's were really, really complex. Following our lead now?
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every blackning Church appalls;
- Things start to get just a wee bit trickier in the poem's third stanza. Don't worry, we said "wee bit," and we meant "wee bit."
- The key here is that you have to pretend the word "hear" is still floating around somewhere. In other words, the speaker also "hears" how the chimney-sweeper's cry "appals" "every blackning Church."
- Yes, "appalls" is the verb that goes with "chimney-sweeper's cry." It's weird that it occurs at the end of the line, but that's okay. This is poetry.
- A chimney sweeper, or a chimney sweep, is, or was, exactly that: somebody that cleans chimneys. Back in Blake's day, this wonderful, disgusting, dirty, dangerous job was usually reserved for children, as you can read about here.
- Did we say kids? Yes, kids, usually really young ones. These little kids went down the chimneys to clean them because they were small enough to fit, and hence ideal for the task. You see, there weren't really any child labor laws, more like none whatsoever. While eventually kids received protection from this sanctioned abuse (there's really no other way to describe it), it lasted long enough. Chimney sweeping was a really dangerous job. Most of the kids that were lucky enough to do the work were orphans (often under the protection of the church), and they usually didn't bathe very often and were thus dirty for days on end.
- Besides being really icky, soot, as you may have guessed, is also very carcinogenic. Lots of kids got lots of cancer from spending so much time working in it.
- Also, the risk of going down a chimney to clean it, Santa Claus style, and then getting stuck was totally real, if not common, or always likely. So, just add this to the whole cancer thing.
- Anyway, as we mentioned, this job usually fell to orphans in the care of the church and other religious institutions, which explains why the speaker mentions a "blackning Church."
- Speaking of that church, let's make sure we're on the same page with that word "blackning." That word just means "blackening," but it's not clear if the church is becoming blacker (i.e., in a state of blackening) or blackening other things (like little kids).
- Come to think of it, they're both kind of the same thing. The church, which was partly responsible for this whole chimney sweeping business, was responsible for "blackening" those little kids.
- It made them both literally blacker (they were covered in soot) but also metaphorically blacker, in the sense of less innocent and closer to death (death is often associated in poetry and elsewhere with the color black).
- Because the church is involved in this deplorable practice, it, as an institution, is becoming blacker—less good, pure, and devoted to the betterment of humanity.
- All of this brings us back to that strange word "appalls." We'll admit, it's a funny word to use here—and not funny as in hilarious, but funny as in strange. It seems to have the sense of "shames" or "casts aspersion on," or something like that. The chimney sweepers cry, the church is partly responsible for it, therefore that cry shames the church.
- Note: it is possible that the church is appalled by the cries, in the sense of shocked, but this seems less likely, given the church's historical ties to the practice.
- And we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't tell you that Blake was really, really against child labor. Side note: is anybody actually pro child labor (aside from The Simpsons' Mr. Burns, that is)?
- Anyway, chimney sweeping was one of Blake's go-to points of attack when it came to the whole child labor business, but also, as we see here, when it came to attacking his own historical moment. This chimney sweeping stuff irritated him so much that he wrote two poems about it, one each in the Songs of Innocence and the Songs of Experience. You can read about those poems right here and here.
- As for just what exactly these lines mean, well, get your metaphor caps on because the speaker is leaving the literal behind.
- Obviously, a chimney-sweeper's "cry" can't really do anything physical to a church, so we'll have to come up with some other kind of explanation.
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.
- If you're expecting to have to carry that word "hear" again you can relax. Here, the speaker simply states a fact, as a sort of addendum to his little bit about the chimney sweeping stuff.
- Now he tells us that there's a "hapless" (i.e., unfortunate) soldier, whose "sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls." Well, cool.
- We didn't know sighs could actually run down walls in the form of blood.
- You didn't know that because it doesn't really happen. This is all part of a gnarly metaphor.
- The basic idea is that the Palace, which is here a symbol for government, royalty, etc., has blood on its hands, so to speak.
- Okay, but what are we to do with these bizarre lines? Think of it like this. First, the soldier sighs about something (his recent wartime experiences, his government's military policy, etc.).
- This sigh, an exhalation of breath, is the expression of whatever is bothering or upsetting the soldier. And we know that, because he's "hapless," he's helpless to do anything about what's bothering him—except, you know, sigh in blood.
- The sigh runs in blood because, well, it has to do with the palace—i.e. the government that dictates policy in the first place.
- It's like the soldier exhales, an ineffectual, "hapless" gesture that shows how powerless he is to change his situation. Instead, all he can do is defend the all-powerful Palace, or (worse) enforce its orders with violence (after all, soldiers tend to be trained to do that sort of thing).
- And so, the expression of both his discontent and powerlessness (the sigh) turns to blood and runs down the palace walls. The Palace is marked by the bloodshed that the solider would be forced to carry out. This image, then, is another reminder of the "manacles" the speaker mentions in line 8. He says that these restrictions are everywhere, but now in this stanza he's giving us two examples to prove his point: the suffering chimney sweep and the solider—who as a tool of the "Palace" (or government), is powerless to prevent himself from causing the suffering ("blood") of others.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new-born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
- The poem's final stanza has arrived. After that whole business about "mind-forg'd manacles," these are the most famous lines in the poem.
- The speaker hears lots of things, but "most" of all he hears a youthful harlot at midnight—not just any old harlot (prostitute), but one who is young (sigh) and cursing a "new-born Infant's tear."
- Okay, so there's a foul-mouthed prostitute and a "new-born Infant." Is it her child? Maybe, but we don't know for sure.
- But it doesn't really matter. The point the speaker is making is that babies are born into a world where young women have become prostitutes (harlots), and their tears (babies cry a lot) get cursed at instead of soothed. ("Blasts" here means something like "attacked" or "assaulted," but in a very metaphorical way. It's like saying, "I went out in the street and my ears were blasted by that guy next door's loud lawnmower.")
- In addition to this whole business about children being born into a corrupt, dirty world—cursing, harlots, blasting—there's something else going on. This same harlot-curse, which "blasts" the baby's tear, also "blights with plagues the Marriage hearse."
- Again, like that stuff earlier with the blood and the sighs, this is some really gnarly metaphorical stuff.
- The words "blight" and "plague" are similar. They both refer to disease—a plague is, well, a plague, whereas the noun "blight" describes a kind of barrenness or infertility usually brought on by drought or disease.
- But "blight" here is a verb, so we'll take it to mean something like "tarnishes," even "mars" or "destroys."
- Basically, then, the harlot's curse, which is probably a symbol for her terrible life experiences (much like the soldier's sigh is for his), totally ruins the "marriage Hearse." The curse—the fact that there even is a youthful harlot in existence—completely destroys the institution of marriage. It "plagues" it, so to speak.
- This is why the speaker uses the semi-oxymoronic phrase "marriage Hearse." We associate marriage with children, life, union.
- A hearse, obviously, symbolizes death. Marriage is a "hearse" because, well, unmarried harlots are running around, babies seem to have no mothers (who is the mother of this baby again?), and there are no fathers to be found.
- Marriage has been plagued, we might say, both figuratively and perhaps even literally. How? Well, "plague" may possibly be a reference to venereal disease, which definitely existed in Blake's day. The marriage hearse may be blighted, potentially, by the transmission of whatever diseases the harlot's profession has given her.
- The harlot, in other words, engages in prostitution, which gives her some kind of sexual "plague," which she brings to her marriage (as well as the marriages of her clients).
- But hey, marriage is already a "hearse" anyway (an institution of death)—at least according to this speaker—so this just adds insult to injury.
- So, in the speaker's "London," life is not a bowl of cuddly babies and happily-ever-afters. Instead, it's disease, suffering, and misery. Bad times.