Critical Appreciation of William Blake's London
Length: 1170 words (3.3 double-spaced pages)
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William Blake who lived in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century was a poet, a philosopher, a radical, an artist, and a great thinker; who was able to bring about "remarkable results with the simplest of means" in all of his work. He wrote his poems with deep personal emotions but if we look further and ignore the prophetic qualities we discover a further intended meanings of a strong political and social level. He was a critic of his own era but his poetry also strikes a chord in ours. He was one of several poets of the time who restored emotion and feelings into poetry, and so was one of the first "romantics." Blake lived during a period of intense social changes, the industrial revolution, the French revolution and the American revolution all happened during his lifetime. Blake was witness to the transformation of a agricultural society to an industrial society, which is where the basis for some of his poems stand.
As an example, we may look towards William Blake’s "London" from his songs of experience, here Blake comments on a city he both loves and hates, it shows his disapproval of changes which occurred in his times. Blake describes the woes that the Industrial revolution and the breaking of the common mans ties to the land results in. He uses many methods to gain the perfect description of how he saw industrial "London" but the most outstanding method is his use of imagery.
His first use of imagery is the first and second lines of the first stanza, he uses the words "charter’d streets" and "charter’d Thames." A charter is a legal document which gives legal powers to the council of a town or city which allows them to be able to create there own laws within the boundaries of that place. The imagery suggests that not only do the streets of London have to follow the rules but that the River Thames has to be regulated as well. The lawmakers have tamed and controlled a free flowing river. This use of imagery emphasises that everything in the city including natural forces are enslaved by the city. In the next line, "Marks of weakness, marks of woe," there could be a play on words, "Mark" means both "to see" or "to notice" but then again there could be another meaning; like a physical mark upon someone’s face like a sign of grief or misery.
The use of the word "mark" I think, is deliberately repeated to sound like the blows of a hammer. Blake uses this imagery to emphasise the pain which industrial London is enforcing on the poor, physically and mentally.
The use of "mind-forg’d manacles" in line 8 is used to describe why the people are so unhappy, this is because they are not free as there lives are being controlled by oppressive or restrictive ideas within their own minds and created by the minds of others. Also by using the "manacle" the word sounds heavy, just like their plight.
"Black’ning Church appalls" is a vivid and chilling image. The church could be blackened literally because of the soot from London’s chimneys, or it could be because the sun is setting and the outline of the church can be seen in the fading light. Blake’s use of "Black’ning" could be symbolic; the church which should be a source of moral warmth and light, is seen as cold and dark. There could be another meaning to the word "appalls" like a pall over a coffin so it is used to emphasise that the church ignores what it doesn’t want to see. Another shocking and surprising image is "Runs in blood." This is where the wounded soldier’s blood is running down the walls of the rulers for which he has been fighting, so it emphasises the fact that the poor were being blocked out by the government with no means to live, and many to die. "The youthful harlots curse" is a contradicting image which makes you think how could a harlot be youthful? It shows that even children were subjected to the crimes of London. The curse could be seen in two ways, it could be that she is literally swearing but it could also mean that the unhappy girl is cursing or blaming the hard, cold world she is living in.
The most powerful use of imagery in this poem to me is the oxymoron, "blights with sighs the marriage hearse," and image in which opposites collide with one another. A hearse, a vehicle for carrying the dead to the grave being used for marriage. Sighs are also more likely to be heard at funerals than marriages, but here Blake mixes the two together. At one level it could be that Blake is arguing that it is wrong for prostitution to exist in the same society as a respectable legal marriage. At another it could be that he is suggesting that men do go to prostitutes where marriage is cold and unloving, or where sexually repressed. Yet, at another level , blight can mean "diseased," and in the eighteenth century STD’s were common, and could be fatal. The hearse could be a real one. In whatever context it was written it is a particularly strong line which symbolises the death or wrong doing in industrial London.
Blake uses much imagery of darkened things to stress how bleak and gloomy life is, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
The rhythm of the poem is very slow and pounding which emphasises the darkness of London and the pace of London at the time. The punctuation in the poem increases the slowness, which enhances the effect of being trapped in a world and there being no way to escape. The rhyme scheme is constant throughout the poem which adds to the constant pounding which is also achieved through Blake’s use of iambic pentameter. His repetition of the word "every" in the second stanza seems to stress the pounding of the poem further.
Blake’s use of imagery, repetition, punctuation and rhyme all work together to produce a powerful work of art in my eyes. It shows how times really were in London and how it was impossible to break out of the "manacles" which society had set for the poor.
London and many of Blake’s other works with a similar theme, particularly those from songs of experience strike a particular nerve for those who are living in a society where the cost of living compared with income is steadily increasing, where diseases are becoming increasingly common, and where the public is becoming increasingly disillusioned about the reliability and trustworthiness of politicians. Poems like London are those which can still be applied to cities today, which seem to be rapidly desensitising itself to the "marks of weakness, marks of woe" which we are well accustomed to seeing on faces of passers by today.