“London” by Blake

by Gregoletto Anna (5H sci)

Today, in the West, we live in a part of the world, where even if economic and social inequality exists, we might think that the concept of extreme poverty is very distant from our society and that starvation and consumption belong to different realities. However, it hasn’t always been like this. Evidence of this is provided by some English authors of the 18th-19th century, the time of the first industrial revolution, who condemned the obvious exploitation of the working-class people. One of them is William Blake (1757-1827).

The poem “London” (1794) written by Blake is rather outstanding from other romantic poems. In fact, whilst other poets focused on the beauty of the city, for instance, Wordsworth, William Blake dealt with the social problems caused by the industrial revolution, with a particular attention dedicated to its victims. Specifically, the themes that dominate the entire poem, from the first to the very last line, is the theme of confinement.

Firstly, in the first stanza the word “chartered” is significantly repeated to underline the fact that even the streets and the river of London are exploited by the new industrial society. Moreover, in the second stanza, we can see an incredibly striking metaphor: “the mind-forged manacles”. With this line, the author wanted to make us understand the psychological condition of the poor people of his time: they could not even think of liberty or of a condition in which they were not slaves, they simply believed that their lives were meant to be that way.

In the third stanza, we encounter two other victims of the society of the 18th century: the chimney-sweepers and the soldiers. The former were mostly children, orphans forced to work in dreadful conditions, which very often resulted in their premature deaths; the latter were, instead, young men sent to die by the institutions that were supposed to protect them.

The last stanza is, in my opinion, the bleakest of the poem. We can clearly imagine the streets filled with young girls, forced to prostitution, and the cry of their children, born from violence and abuse. And in the last line, Blake tells us about the death of the institution of marriage, caused mainly by two reasons: the first is, obviously, that, at that time, people were forced to marry for convenience, not for love, which leads to the second reason, being the high numbers of husbands who went with prostitutes, since often those young girls were infected with STDs, they passed those illnesses to their partners, who would have very likely passed them to their unloved wives.

No trace of liberty is mentioned in this poem. The scene depicted by Blake offers no chance of escape, representing the doom of society at its darkest time. The greed of richer people, always seeking more profit, is held accountable for the suffering of the working class. Three of the most important and fundamental institutions of the modern society (political power, the Church and marriage) are painted for what they really are: exploiters.

To conclude, William Blake offers in this poem, a very realistic and accurate description of the society of his time. Incredibly forward thinking is the choice to give voice to the voiceless, that is the majority of the population, exploited to death and abused both physically and psychologically.