William Blake uses his poem, “London”, to express how materialism corrupted the morality of the people, the Royalty and the Church. Materialism, driven by the Industrial Revolution, caused suffering to infect the city like a disease. In a letter to his friend, Butts, Blake compares himself to the Lords prophet, Ezekiel. In his own words, Blake writes “I have Orders to set my face […] against their faces, & my forehead against their foreheads”. Blake felt it was his divine duty to bring enlightenment to the common man. Through his poetry and art, Blake expresses the sickness he sees spreading throughout the city. Blake accomplishes this literary indictment through the use of imagery, ambiguous word choices, and by character selection.
To understand why William Blake believes the moral decline of the city is tied to the church and state, it is important to understand some personal details about the poet. As an apprentice, Blake became “a passionate admirer of the gothic […] and it inspired him to […] create a unique philosophy in which religion, history and politics were blended” (Tate, 05). His master, James Basire, would often send William Blake to make sketches of the monuments at Westminster Abbey. “The vast Gothic dimensions of [the church] and the haunting presence of the tombs of kings affected Blake” (“William Blake 1757-1827”) and interconnected society, church and King for the young artist.
Blake was not obsessed with materialism and financial gain. He married a humble wife and “in the 1790’s there may have been a movement to make Blake a member of the Royal Academy. […] A snobbish prejudice against the humble birth of his wife, probably scuppered his chances” (Tate 07). Blake also left his patron on the Sussex seaside because he wanted more meaningful work.
Blake lived at No. 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth when he wrote the Songs of Experience. “Lambeth was a pleasant rural area when Blake arrived, but […] it quickly began to change into a noisome, disease-infested slum” (Tate, 11). In 1760 there were 750,000 people living in London. By 1815, the Industrial Revolution, and materialism, had doubled the city’s population to 1.4 million. Charles Dickens would later describe “In half a quarter of a mile`s length of Whitechapel, at one time, there shall be six hundred newly slaughtered oxen hanging up, and seven hundred sheep but, the more the merrier proof of prosperity” (Perdue). This sarcastic article to Household Words describes a London where the streets are knee deep with mud, animal excrement and human sewage. Sewers poured into the Thames where people retrieved their drinking water. The amount of horses on the streets doubled with the population, as well as the amount of coal smoke being released and hanging over the city. Instead of being apprenticed to a worthy trade, as Blake was, children were now being exploited as cheap labor in the factories to mass produce the explosion of items that were being purchased. Due to materialism, Blake saw the city change around him, and his youthful experiences in Westminster Abbey led him to understand the interconnections of society. His duty was to enlighten his readers.
Blake knew that materialism was corrupting morality, and in his poem, “London,” he uses images that paint a very bleak picture. Blake’s most telling imagery is the illustration. Plate 84 of Blake’s extensive masterpiece, “Jerusalem”, depicts a child leading an old man from the darkness of city walls towards open space, a church, and sunrise. The accompanying text reads “I see London, blind & age-bent begging through the streets/Of Babylon, led by a child” (Tate 4). This plate speaks to redemption for the fallen city. In the poem, “London”, the man and child depicted in the picture are mirror opposite of the “Jerusalem” plate. When viewed together, it represents London’s move away from the symbols of religion, freedom and nature. The background for the “London” plate is telling as well. The same wall and door from “Jerusalem” are represented, but the characters are further to the right, so that no openness of space is shown; only walls and the closed doorway. In the etching of “London”, there is a false light, not sunlight, shining on the man and child. Right below this illustration, Blake begins his poem, “I wander thro’ each charter’d street / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow” (Greenblatt 61). The mention of the river, combined with the words “wander” and “flow,” give a sense of the old man, representing London, being lost.
Many of the words Blake brings into play can take on two meanings, or a deeper meaning. The poem suggests that not only is the “blight” of London on the surface, but there is a strong undertone that has taken root deep within. He starts this technique with the word “chartered”. In 1791, three years before Blake wrote his poem, London publisher J.S. Jordan printed Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. In the inflammatory work, Paine stated that “It is a perversion of terms to say, that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect, that of taking rights away”. Chartered has two meanings, to give and to take away, and both are seen in Blake’s poem.
“Mark” also has different meanings. In his line, “and mark in every face I meet,” (Greenblatt 61) the poet is using the word to describe “seeing”. “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” uses the same word to convey a spot or sore on the skin which ties into the final line “And blights with plagues” (Greenblatt 61). “Marks of weakness” also ties into the overall theme of materialism. In addition, a mark is a term for a monetary unit (“Denominations”) so “marks of weakness” alludes to the weakness of man chasing money. With one word Blake gives a sense of seeing, materialism, and disease, which follows his divine duty to have the common man see the disease of materialism.
In the poem “London”, the line “In every voice: in every ban, / The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” (Greenblatt 61) takes on different meanings due to the word “ban”. To ban means to prohibit by official decree, symbolizing that the Monarchy is manacling people with the bans on “each charter’d street, / [and] the charter’d Thames” (Greenblatt 61). To ban also means a condemnation by church officials. Blake skillfully demonstrates that the people are manacled by the church’s condemnation of the chimney-sweep children with his line “How the Chimney-sweepers cry / Every blackning Church appalls” (Greenblatt 61). The church is covered in blackness, literally and figuratively, because of its condemnation of the children. These children are used to further the course of progress.
The word ban can also be related to the archaic definition which is to curse. So “In every voice: in every ban, / The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” (Greenblatt 61) can mean that with every curse the people are shackled. Blake explains that it is “the youthful Harlots curse / [that] Blasts the new-born Infants tear / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse” (Greenblatt 61). Blake is trying to get the people of London to notice they are creating there own manacles by not seeing the atrocities created by materialism for what they are. Ban can also means a summons to arms. The ban that causes everyman’s cry also causes “the hapless Soldiers sigh / [and] Runs in blood down Palace walls” (Greenblatt 61).
Forged also has a dual meaning. A forge is used to control metal and make it easier to shape. Blake uses this as a metaphor. He describes how minds are being shaped and twisted by materialism with his words “In every voice: in every ban, / The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” (Greenblatt 61). It is also worthy to note that a forge uses coal, which ties to the chimney sweep character and “black’ning church”. “Black’ning” relates to the soot that the young chimney sweep children are covered in, but the archaic meaning is to disgrace. Used to describe the church with the line “Every blackning Church appalls” (Greenblatt 61), the narrator is implying that the actions of the church, in relation to the way the children are being treated, are disgraceful.
The word “sigh” bears mentioning as well. It seems an unusual word choice for the actions of a soldier. A more fitting word choice might be a battle cry or a whoop of joy. These seem far more appropriate descriptions, so “the hapless Soldiers sigh” (Greenblatt 61) is deliberate. Sigh can mean “deep grief or mourning”, but also “to exhale audibly […] as in weariness”. This correlates with “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” (Greenblatt 61) as the French Revolution created tension on the already overtaxed British soldiers. The Monarchy continued to conscript its people in its ongoing efforts to expand the British Empire for materialistic gain.
“Blood” is the fluid which symbolizes life, and death, but it also means lineage and kinship. “The British military system of the 18th century required that commissions and officer level promotions be purchased, and accordingly, most officers had to have independent…” family money (Moran). This speaks to how materialism had even reached the ranks of the British military.
Harlot indicates a prostitute, but according to the dictionary, when “the word is first recorded in English in a work written around the beginning of the 13th century, [it] mean[s] ‘a man of no fixed occupation, vagabond, beggar’, and soon afterwards meant ‘male lecher'”. This is interesting, because Blake speaks to materialism and morality of all, not just women, with “Marks of weakness, marks of woe. / In every cry of every Man, / In every Infants cry of fear, / In every voice” (Greenblatt 61).
“Blasts” and “blights” are fascinating word choices in the lines “Blasts the new-born Infants tear / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse” (Greenblatt 61). Both words can be defined as any number of plant diseases, which ties into Blake’s underlying theme that the city is diseased and slowing destroying itself and its future. On the surface however, these words work, with blast referring to a sound. Blight takes on multiple meanings which links different aspects of the poem. Blight impairs growth and the chimney sweep children do not grow properly. Blight can also mean to wither hopes, which could cause the “crys of every Man”. Blight impedes prosperity, which is to say that the materialism that everyone is chasing is going to be the downfall of the future. This is demonstrated in the illustration where the old man representing London is being led away from nature and religion.
The final word in the poem, “hearse”, also takes on multiple meanings. It is a means with which to transport a body to the graveyard, but it is also “a framelike structure over a coffin or tomb on which to hang epitaphs”. This gives the poem a feeling of inevitable end that has not yet come. Another definition of hearse is “a harrow-shaped structure for holding candles over a coffin” (Dictionary). This is a meaning within a meaning as harrow means to “inflict great distress or torment on”. Blake shows the distress “in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe. / In every cry of every Man, / In every Infants cry of fear, / In every voice: in every ban” (Greenblatt 61).
In addition to William Blake’s imagery and word play, the characters he chose in the poem also carry great meaning towards his overall message of materialism infecting the morality of the people, the Royalty and the Church. Blake did not choose “a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker.” There is a reason he chose a chimney sweeper, a Harlot, and a soldier to represent the masses. “How the Chimney-sweepers cry” (Greenblatt 61) speaks to the plight of the child chimney sweeps. Many parishes, parents and workhouses would sell orphans to master sweeps as indentured servants. The chimney sweeps were kept thin, rarely washed, and would be abusively encouraged to climb up flues as narrow as nine inches across. “It was a common practice for the master sweep or his assistant to actually light a small fire in the fireplace or hold lighted straw under their feet or even poke and prod the children with pins to force them up to the top. It has been said, that that is where the saying ‘light a fire under you’ comes from” (the Role of Children). Using the chimney sweep ties into the “mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe” (Greenblatt 61) if using the term “mark” to mean wound. Many of these children were scarred from burns and had spinal, kneecap, and ankle deformities. The word “cry” also plays into this profession, as the chimney sweeps cried out “sweep” to secure jobs, but many also suffered from eye infections and inflammation. In 1775 Sir Percivall Pott, who was a surgeon at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, published a small book “describing the etiology of cancer of the scrotum in chimney sweeps”. This is relevant as it ties to the disease of the city “And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse” (Greenblatt 61). These young men became deformed in the genital region and then died without the benefit of marriage and children.
The boom of industry, population, and materialism increased production and coal burning in London, requiring more of these children to be used. These children were sacrificed, even by “ban” of the “blackning church”.
Next, Blake uses a soldier to represent society which was a bold choice that ties into the “chartered” philosophy. Just as the crown felt it had the sovereign power to confer privileges of property to a person, the country also felt it had the power to take away individual freedoms. Press gangs were formed to enlist men and recruits were also found by a type of draft that was established in the Militia Act of 1757. If a man’s “blood” kin was wealthy, then his name could be removed from that ballot. “Another source of ‘volunteers’ were the Courts. Most crimes in the 18th Century were punishable by the gallows. As an alternative, some judges would commute the prisoner’s sentence to enlisting in the Army” (Moran). This connects to poverty. The soldier also ties into “plaque”. More soldiers died from disease due to the close quarters and harsh living conditions than died in battle. Also, a soldier is “hapless”, as the only way out of the army, once signed, was death. Blake did not personally pursue money, but he understood its value and the unfairness of the system. “And the hapless Soldiers sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls” (Greenblatt 61) explains how the poor are unfortunate and are dying for the wealthy ruling class.
Finally, Blake uses a Harlot to define the disease of materialism and how it is impacting his city. A prostitute, one who puts financial gain above spiritual values, is the very definition of materialistic. Blake goes on to say that “How the youthful Harlots curse / Blasts the new-born Infants tear / And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse” (Greenblatt 61). Blake is explaining how the essence of materialism is affecting values, lives, and future generations.
Due to Blake’s religious beliefs, a harlot has more implications than just a prostitute. In Isaiah I: 21-23 the Bible states “See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her– but now murderers! Your silver has become dross […]. Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless.” Blake is comparing London to the Harlot city that God spoke of. London was a faithful city, before the rulers chased after the gifts of the chartered streets and river. London has also forsaken its infants, as shown in the lines “In every Infants cry of fear,” and “Blasts the new-born Infants tear” (Greenblatt 61).
Only a short sixteen lines, William Blake’s poem, “London”, skillfully articulates how materialism has corrupted the people and institutions of the capital city and infected society like a disease. William Blake’s master skill as an engraver combined with his unique usage of words creates a snapshot of the immorality of London in the 1790’s.
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology English Literature. 9th volume 2. New York, London: WW Norton & company, 2013. 61. Print.
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