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?