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.