William Blake's "London" - An interpretation

Seminar Paper 2010 15 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




1. Biography

2. The Songs

3. `London´

4. Summary

5. Stylistic Devices

6. Analysis


This paper tries to provide an insight into the analysis of 18th century author William Blake´s poem `London´. Comments from Blake experts like the following from Edward Thompson make this task appear easy. He said: “`London´ is among the most lucid and instantly available of the Songs of Experience.”[1] On the one hand I agree to this statement. The poem itself is easy to understand, not much background information about the author´s life, his visions, and his complete works is required to grasp the message. However, an analysis has to provide more than just make the message of a poem understandable. It should inter alia deal with the circumstances the author lived in, the work of which the poem is part of, and last but not least, the stylistic devices and linguistic images used in this piece of art.

In the case of `London´, this has been done by professionals many times, a fact leading us to another important point that makes the task appear easier than it actually is: The mass of biographies, comments, analyses, and criticisms that have been written about Blake and his works. The advantage is obvious: Every line of `London´ has been discussed and commented on, and all that must be done is find adequate information. At the same time this amount of literature presents many different approaches to analyse the poem; too many to introduce them in a ten-page paper. Hence, this assignment tries to show a few aspects only: After introducing the author and the `Songs of Innocence and of Experience´ very briefly, it follows a short summary of the poem and an overview of the stylistic devices. The sixth chapter is the analysis itself, focusing on the social criticism of the poem, while only dealing with the “very complex relations between reading, and hearing, and seeing”[2] superficially.

1. Biography

William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 in London as third of seven children of a hosier and bargainer. He grew up as part of London´s lower middle-class, and as such it was normal that he used to help his father in his business dealings. This is one of the reasons why he did not become a good pupil, but hardly learned how to read and write. His parents soon recognised that William had interests other than conventional school, and hence they supported his motivation to become an artist by sending him to a special drawing school. This, of course, influenced his whole life and constituted the starting point of his career as a painter. The fact that he became an engraver later made him introduce his profession into his passion, and a product of this combination seems to be his invention of relief etching, a reversal of the method of etching. Another important thing to mention is an unusualness in his life: Blake claimed to see angels, daemons, and ghosts around him. He even stated to be able to have conversations with them, and throughout his life he never changed his mind about this. This led many of his contemporaries to think that he is mentally ill. Blake´s rude attacks on Christianity, or more precise, on the Church of England contributed to this attitude. This must not be understood as him being not religious. In fact it seems that he was very religious and designed his own religion and myths, but could not get along with the views the Church held. In contrast to his contemporaries, his wife, Catherine Boucher, whom he married in 1782 obviously stuck by him. It is said that their marriage was very happy, although they had no children, and, as a result of the attitude adopted towards him and his works, lived in poverty for years. She helped him produce his paintings, and he taught her to read and write. It was together with her that Blake left London for the first and last time in his life. They moved to Felpham, a village near to Portsmouth, in 1800 and stayed their for three years, after which they returned to the capital. On 12th August 1827, four years before his wife, William Blake died in London.[3]

2. The Songs

The `Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the two Contrary Sides of the Human Soul´ are a series of poems divided in two books. Every poem goes along with an illustration. The first book, the `Songs of Innocence´ was first printed in 1789, and the second book, the `Songs of Experience´, in 1793. They were published together in the year 1794 and have built one piece since then, which contains of 45 poems, 19 in the first and 26 in the second book. Blake´s subtitle is probably the best way to describe the work: The two books show the two contrary sides of the human soul. `The Songs of Innocence´ convey a positive, light-hearted atmosphere; since the poems´ titles speak for themselves there is no need for an extensive description: `The Lamb´, `The Blossom´, `Laughing Song´, and `Infant´s Joy´ are some examples. `The Songs of Experience´ are in total contrast to the first book.[4] A dark and depressing atmosphere is predominant. The innocence of the child is lost and has made room for the grown-up´s experience.

Several poems have a counterpart in the other book, making it possible to compare them directly. Not so `London´, which is part of the `Songs of Experience´.

3. `London´

I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

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.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry

Every black'ning Church appals;

And the hapless Soldier's sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlot's curse

Blasts the new born Infant's tear,

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.[5]


[1] E.P. Thompson ,Witness against the beast: William Blake and the moral law. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 174.

[2] Gavin Edwards, Mind forg´d manacles: A Contribution to the Discussion of Blake´s London. (1979) p. 87.

[3] http://www.william-blake.de/cv.php, http://www.online-literature.com/blake/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Blake, http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/116 (25.02.10).

[4] e.g. the poems´ titles: `The Tyger´ (in contrast to `The Lamb´), The `Sick Rose´ (in contrast to `The Blossom´), etc.

[5] cf. the copy in: Gardner, Stanley. The Tyger, the lamb, and the terrible desart. (Cranbury: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.)


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ISBN (Book)
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Institution / College
University of Heidelberg – Anglistik
William Blake London Poem Anglistik Anglistics Literature 18 18th Century Thompson Beast Gavin Edwards mind forged manacles marriage hearse harlot´s curse Ackroyd Erdman



Title: William Blake's "London" - An interpretation