In Blake's time London had a population of about seven hundred thousand inhabitants which was a very high figure for the time.
It was a thriving commercial city but with extensive slum areas.
The poem illustrates Blake's view of London.
from Songs of Experience, 1794
I wander thro’ each charter'd1 street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe2.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban3,
The mind-forg'd manacles4 I hear.
How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls5,
And the hapless6 Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace7 walls.
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's8 curse
Blasts9 the new born Infant's tear.
And blights10 with plagues the Marriage hearse.11
1. charter'd, a charter was a document issued by King or Parliament giving commercial privileges to private bodies. Here it means subject to commercial exploitation.
2. woe, sorrow.
3. ban, order forbidding something by law.
4. manacles, iron rings for fastening the hands or feet of a
5. appalls, shocks.
6. hapless, (poetic) unlucky.
7. Palace, stands for King and Parliament.
8. Harlot, prostitute.
9. Blasts, destroys.
10. blights, contaminates.
11. hearse, vehicle for carrying the body at a funeral.
1. Read the poem through. What impression do you get from the description of London?
2. In stanzas 1 and 2 the poem makes considerable use of repetition in word, syntax and sound.
a) Look for repeated items and note them under the headings below:
— repeated words
— repeated phrases
— repeated sounds (harsh/soft; long/short; etc.)
b) See whether the repeated words make up a group with the other words of the two stanzas and try to find a general label for them.
For example, sorrow can be an appropriate label for words such as "marks of weakness/ woe, cry/cry of fear, ban, manacles". Their association with sorrow is further reinforced by the use of long vowel sounds (e. g; "street, flow, meet, woe") and harsh consonant sounds (e.g. "cry, marks") which add to the meditative, mournful quality of the poem.
c) What is gained by this constant repetition?
3. Line 8, central to the poem and to its meaning, contains a metaphor “mind-forg 'd manacles'' which explains what makes London an awful city for Blake.
a) Try to identity the literal (concrete) and figurative (abstract) levels of meaning in the metaphor.
b) Now find examples of "mind-forged manacles" in the poem: e.g.,
4. Look at the last line. Is Blake implying that marriage is a "mind-forg'd" manacle?