An African Jamaican Explication of London by William Blake
Cities are notorious for insinuating dark and dreary emotions from internal corruption and oppression. London by William Blake paints a dark portrait of London as a city in desolation. Even though he may be writing about the environment at present, the depressing imagery of the poem can be applied to not only London but just about any corrupt city in the world. Not only is this poem a depiction of his time in London but a premonition of what’s to come. Repetition and juxtaposition are the most powerful devices that Blake uses as through this he is able to paint that haunting and sorrowful picture of gloom in every stanza. This in turn adds to the poem’s universality towards human suffering.
Repetition is at its strongest when he is repeating not necessarily words but dark emotions:
In every cry of every man
In every Infant’s cry of fear
In every voice, in every ban
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear: (5-8)
Here Blake is emphasizing the intricate reasons for every expression of grief. I think the repetition of ending sounds in words at the end of each line such as “Man” and” ban,” “fear” and “hear” represents the crying calls to be heard or for social consciousness.. “The mind-forged manacles I hear,” is him simply stressing the oppression that stems from political, economic and religious corruption. This line we see its universal application, it’s as if Blake is urging one to break free from the shackles of slavery, obviously in this case it would mean mental slavery. The speaker hearing these “mind-forged manacles” ears are tuned to the clanking of the chains tied to each person’s foot as they walk under the captivity that elicit their cries.
The description of these appalling conditions allows flexibility in interpretation. When he states “how the Chimney sweeper’s cry,” one can even imply that this sound of a cry is enough to seep into one’s soul; so this is more than hearing. “Every blackening church appalls” is stating that the conditions that the people are under while cleaning chimneys tells us that the church is allowing people to work under these appalling conditions by not being proactive about it at the time Blake is writing the poem. Here he is highlighting religious corruption or hypocrisy. There is a premonition of death because the chimney smoke can get into your lungs, thereby shortening your lifespan through respiratory diseases. This could mean that the smoke from the chimney is “blackening” the skins of the fair-skinned child workers. We see the juxtaposition here, “blackening” could symbolize the moral decay of the church. It could also mean that the skin of fair-skinned workers are “blackening;” they are now toiling like the enslaved Africans, including children, in the British colonies. Except now the conditions are a result of the Industrial Revolution. I think the word “blackening” in this poem leaves room for that sort of racial interpretation.
The last stanza serves as a reminder as to what it’s like walking the streets of a gloomy London all day. Then what that boils down to as the day nears its end. The dark tone seems to have been building up from bad to worse. When a reader subconsciously ties blackening from previous stanza with “midnight” from last stanza, there is another juxtaposition. Day fades into midnight as if to say day is “blackening.” What makes this very effective is what he describes after the scene is set –prostitution. This “blasts the new-born Infant’s tear,” could mean new born babies are born blind because of a parent’s venereal disease (Baym et al). It may mean that the prostitution doesn’t make the person fit to be a parent and so when the child is growing up he or she shed “tears” as a retaliation to their parent’s unfit parenting. Some might not know who the father of the child is given that history of prostitution. The missing parent causes an infant to cry as they suffer more without two parents. The line “Plagues the Marriage hearse” tells the apparent undermining of the sanctity of marriage. Married people engaging in prostitution as a way to make ends meet shows the deep rooted social issues Blake is letting his readers become aware of.
The strength of this poem lies it’s effective use of repetition of the word cry, and allowing the word “blackening” to be interpreted through different lenses. Its application goes far beyond just London, it is universal and represents that common human experience of suffering. Perhaps the repetition is Blake’s way of telling readers that the conditions described, repeats itself in the present day by day but that this will become the very history that will repeat itself in years to come. The speaker’s repetition of dreary emotions is a catalyst for change. Granted the cries doesn’t fall on deaf “unempathetic” ears, social awareness leads to social change. This may be what the speaker was trying to imply by ending the poem on such a gloomy note that these conditions, if we don’t nip it in the bud, will become a catastrophe.
Blake, William. “London.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 132-33. Print.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. “London.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 132-33. Print.