‘London’ by William Blake is a post-industrial poem which throws light on the ill-effects of industrialization. After industrialization, the rich class began exploiting the working class. Not only streets were now under government control but also nature (e.g. the Thames River).
In the poem, the poet talks about the psychological as well as physical exploitation of the poor people by the rulers, the priests, and the rich people. The poem has been divided into four stanzas having four lines each and the rhyme scheme is ABAB.
The poet says that he wanders through each chartered street near which the chartered Thames river flows. Note that the poet uses the word chartered (charter’d in old English) twice.
Chartered means something which is controlled by someone (e.g. government or a private firm) and has certain laws. In simple words, here it means something which is restricted.
The street here means the land and Thames means water. According to the poet, both the land and the water are now under control of the government. There is no freedom in accessing or using them.
Note that the poet uses wander at the beginning which indicates freedom which is quite opposite to chartered which depicts restrictions. Wander is thus a pun. It throws light on how nature is now controlled and restricted by the upper class for its own benefit.
In the third line, the poet says that he finds (mark) marks of weakness and of woe i.e. sorrow and distress in the face of every poor whom he meets in the streets.
According to the poet, in the cries of poor men, infants who weep because of fear and in the voices (which are also in the form of cries) because of ban i.e. restriction (imposed by the government), he hears mind-forged manacles (psychological handcuffs or restrictions).
Let us try to understand each phrase. Note that the poet uses cries instead of protests because the poor, the infants and all the underprivileged lack education and cannot protest again the system. They just cry like child because they don’t know how to raise their voices.
Men cry because of poverty, bad living conditions, restrictions, exploitation, etc. Infants cry because most of them are born of prostitutes (will discuss in the end). They lack parental love and proper nutrition. They fall ill and die.
In all these voiceless voices i.e. cries, the poet finds mind-forged manacles. Forged means beat into shape and manacles means handcuffs. Thus mind-forged manacles refer to psychological imprisonment and suffering which is not visible.
The poet finds these deep sufferings among the poor class by listening to their cries and watching them being restricted in streets and water.
The third stanza is very important in relation to the main idea of the poet. In this stanza, the poet brings into light how Church and the Rulers (in the Palace) exploit the people.
First, let us understand 1st two lines. During the times of Blake, the Church would use to make the orphans work in the chimneys because they were small in size and could go into the chimneys.
According to the poet, the cries of chimney sweepers (orphans and abandoned children) appalled (revolt) against the blackning Church. The revolt was in the form of cries.
The Church is described as blackening because of two reasons (I think) – first, they made the children work in chimneys and the soot made them black and dirty and the second Church did wrong by exploiting them. Hence the Church was not House of God but a dark or evil place.
In the next two lines, the poet describes the exploitation of soldiers by the rulers. According to him, the hapless (unfortunate) soldiers sighed (expressed sorrow and grief) while running in blood down the Palace Walls.
The soldier is described as hapless and not patriotic or brave which shows that the poet is talking about their problems as humans. They are commanded by the rulers, sitting in the palaces, to fight in the war. While fighting, they get wounded and blood oozes out of their bodies. They are also unable to revolt against the system.
In the final stanza, the poet talks about another important section of poor class i.e. the prostitutes. And this stanza sums up the whole cycle which was going on in London. We will discuss that after understanding it first.
The poet says that he often visits midnight streets in the night. Midnight streets here metaphorically refers to prostitution which happens in the night.
The poet hears the youthful Harlots i.e. prostitutes cursing and blaming their new-born infant children and their tears (disease or pain). After the industrial revolution, prostitution was the only option for poor women to feed their families.
And with this came sexually transmitted diseases which were inherited by their children. Because of poverty and harsh conditions, the infants were not welcomed by them and hence they were cursed by these young women.
Moreover, this prostitution blighted (here it means destroyed) with plagues (diseases of adultery) the Marriage hearse (funeral) i.e. destroyed the institution of marriage.
The last line also means that the diseases spread by prostitution spread among the men who further spread them to the whole family.
The last stanza somehow depicts how all this happens in a cycle. Industrial Revolution lead to population explosion in cities, drastic migration of people from rural areas to urban areas, wars, poverty, etc.
The soldiers died and their wives, mothers, and sisters had to involve in prostitution to feed their families, Similarly, the women belonging to poor section also had to do the same.
The children born of these prostitutes were abandoned as they (prostitutes) could not afford to feed them. These children were forced to work in chimneys by the church. After growing up the girls (from chimney sweepers) had to adopt prostitution and the cycle goes on.
This poem sums up the whole picture of society by describing the condition of London and how every bad thing is linked to the effects of the industrial revolution.