William Blake's "London" is part of his "Songs of Experience" collection, and it creates a gritty portrait of urban life in the capital city. The poem is only 16 lines long, yet the symbolism and imagery contained within those lines paints a vivid picture of the city as the narrator sees it -- full of death, despair and disease. These are not external forces that afflict the citizens, but are the result of man's own limited nature.
Enslavement and loss of freedom are recurring motifs in the poem. The narrator walks down a "charter'd" street next to the "charter'd" Thames. A charter puts citizens under the rule of a governing body, and the imagery here suggests that the streets and even the river are under control. The narrator then hears "mind-forg'd manacles," which are a symbol of enslavement. Because they are forged of the mind, they are symbolic of the beliefs and attitudes that bind men, such as loyalty to the past or outdated traditions.
Death and Despair
The London of Blake's poem is a dark and bleak place. The descriptions create an image of a dreary city that is marked by death. The narrator hears cries at every corner, and words like "curse," "plagues" and "hearse" conjure images of death. The soldier's sigh "runs in blood down Palace walls." The striking image suggests that the government is responsible for the soldier's despair, as it is complicit in the killing that the soldier has had to do.
Exploitation of Children
Among the many cries that the narrator hears are those of children. The narrator says that he is reminded of the manacles "in every Infants cry of fear," as well as in other cries. This image suggests that the children who are crying are enslaved. The idea is reinforced by the suggestion that the chimney sweepers are crying, since chimney sweepers were often children. The poem suggests that the church is complicit in this enslavement or exploitation of children by saying that it is "blackning," or covered in the soot of their labor. The image of blackness also suggests some kind of sin or corruption.
Several images are used in the closing lines of the poem that suggest a vicious cycle is taking place. The "Harlots curse" overshadows the newborn babies' cries and signals the end of happiness or innocence in a marriage, which is depicted in a hearse. Prostitution is spreading "plagues" -- which can be seen as either venereal diseases or moral degradation -- that are destroying marriage and leading to unhappy lives for children, thus creating more misery.