William Blake lived and worked in the city of London, and his writing often reflects the social and political environment of his time, according to Poetry Foundation. Blake likes to explore different sides of a given subject, as readers can see in the dichotomy of his collections “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience," published in 1789 and 1794, respectively. His poem “London” expresses a very grim side to the city.
'Songs of Experience'
The poem “London” appears as part of the “Songs of Experience” collection, a companion to the series “Songs of Innocence.” Many of the poems in the “Experience” set show a different side to a poem from “Songs of Innocence,” but “London” does not have a contrasting poem. This poem does, however, reflect the mood and tone of the “Songs of Experience” poems, which express a sense of misery or expose the dark side of characters and settings found in “Songs of Innocence.”
A Dreary City
The overall theme of “London” is that the city is a dark and miserable place. Words like “hapless,” “weakness,” “woe” and “manacles” contribute to that sense of gloom. Even descriptions like “Every blackning Church” and “thro’ midnight streets” quite clearly depict a darkness. According to teacher Andrew Moore in an article for Universal Teacher.org, Blake’s view of the city was uncommon during his time period, as such bleak descriptions of London did not appear again until the work of Charles Dickens or James Thompson’s poem “The City of Dreadful Night.”
Rich Versus Poor
The poem opens with an obvious depiction of the haves versus the have nots. During the time of the writing, powerful individuals were granted charters to control the streets. Blake writes, “I wander thro’ each charter’d street, Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.” It’s absurd to think that people could control a product of nature, such as the river Thames. The stanza ends with the lines, “And mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe,” which ties back to the overall theme of darkness. In the remaining stanzas, Blake gives examples of the poor individuals full of “weakness” and “woe” -- the chimney sweep, the “hapless” soldier and the young prostitute.
Cycle of Misery
The images and examples Blake provides in this poem show a kind of unending misery for the people of London. The “mind-forg’d manacles” are shackles, but not in a literal sense -- they are created in people’s minds and represent loss of freedom. The third stanza is full of stark imagery the speaker uses to imply social issues. While a church is expected to help the poor, it is “blackning,” both literally and metaphorically, and the hyperbole of blood running down the walls depicts how the unhappiness of a soldier, more specifically those who fought in the French Revolution, could lead to more violence, according to Moore. The theme of unhappiness continues in the final stanza with the prostitute’s curse, crying infants and the comparison of a wedding carriage to a hearse.